First-time theatergoers on Thursday and Friday got a glimpse of the world of Shakespeare &

for free.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival offered free tickets to anyone who could prove they had never attended an OSF play before, as part of the "Free Night of Theater" in conjunction with the nationwide service organization, Theater Communications Group.

"This is my first time, and I've lived here almost four years," said Daniel Mendoza, a junior at Southern Oregon University who was attending Gem of the Ocean on Thursday afternoon for a class project. "I was never that interested until I started watching plays at SOU."

Mendoza brought along his friend, Juan Gonzalez, also a junior at SOU.

"I didn't even know about it until a few minutes ago," Gonzalez said.

The two students said they never had much time or money to attend plays. Mendoza said he was never interested until he started watching plays at school.

"I will probably come back," he said. "It's world-renowned, so you'd think it's good enough to come back multiple times."

OSF gave away 546 tickets to six shows for the two-day event, said OSF Marketing Manager Bob Hackett. Four hundred people claimed tickets last year, the first year OSF participated, he said.

Several attendees said they had been to an OSF play before, but managed to snag free tickets.

Joann Alldredge of Medford saw a play about eight years ago, she said, and still managed to get free tickets for herself and her friend, Judy Austobo from Jacksonville.

"I've been to several Shakespeare plays," Austbo said, "but not for a long time."

After seeing a play for free, she said she would "possibly" come back.

Ticket sales databases go back about seven years, Hackett said, but he stressed it was important to focus on the "spirit of the event."

"The point is to remove any hurdles that people might have coming to the theater," he said. "Once they get through the door, we know they're going to have a great experience. We know that a third of the people come back and become ticket buyers. They make it a part of their life."

Regular attendees who paid full price for their tickets didn't seem to mind that some of their fellow audience members got in for free.

"I think it's an excellent idea," said Jan Schrag, who drives up from Mt. Shasta about four times a year to see shows. "We've never gotten free tickets."

Those without tickets were hoping some would become available in what appears to be a sold-out event.

"We had reservations for a place to stay, but we didn't make theater reservations because we thought this late in the season there wouldn't be any problems," said Skip Lloyd of Carmel, Calif as his wife, Mary Anne Lloyd sought available tickets at the box office.

She came back empty handed. The two would have to return around 6 p.m. and hope for more tickets to be released, but she remained hopeful.

"Even if you come on the spur of the moment, there are possibilities," she said.

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or .