Friday evening wasn't just opening night for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" marked the inaugural opening for Bill Rauch's first season as OSF's new artistic director.

"Things are just crazy right now," he said hours before the curtain opened. "I'm just filled with adrenalin and am so excited to share all four of these plays.

In addition to Friday's performance at Angus Bowmer Theatre, "Fences" and "The Clay Cart" (directed by Rauch) open on Saturday. On Sunday, "Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter" opens at the New Theatre.

"Our goal is to offer a wide variety," said Rauch. "And I'm proud of how different these four productions and plays are from each other."

OSF, celebrating its 73rd year, is one of oldest and largest professional non-profit theatres in the nation. Each year it presents an eight-and-a-half-month season of 11 plays in three theatres and presents more than 780 performances annually with attendance of approximately 400,000.

Rauch said this weekend is a culmination of work that began more than a year ago.

"The four plays were selected a year ago," he said. "Then we decide who would direct and who would do the design. Casting of the actors went from May until October, then the shops start to build the scenes and create the costumes and rehearsals began in January. There are so many kinds of overlapping creative decisions that go into these productions.

Rauch said opening night is all about adrenalin and expectation.

"Anything can go wrong," he said. "But that's the beauty of live theater. If something does go wrong, then it simply becomes part of the performance. I love the interactions that occur between the audience and the actors."

Backstage

Michael J. Hume, a 17-year-veteran with OSF, performs tonight in "The Clay Cart."

He said the morning of a play's opening, actors get the "big butterflies in the stomach. There's a certain amount of healthy fear."

Hume said backstage on opening night is a crazy, bustling atmosphere and that actors have a million different rituals they do before a performance.

"Everyone arrives early, some people come in with opening night gifts for everybody, boyfriends bring the actresses roses, there are platters of food""it's a really festive time with a little anxiety mixed in," he said.

And when the curtain finally opens, Hume said sometimes he feels like a deer caught in the headlights.

"But opening night has a certain excitement and buzz to it," he said. "The audience brings it and the actors feel it. I think that's what makes opening nights so special."

The buzz

Bob and Wendy Phillips moved to Medford in 2002 just to be closer to the festival.

"We'd been coming every year for a decade before we moved here," said Wendy.

Bob said it's the quality of the performances that keep them coming back year after year.

"And we're English, so we should know quality," he said, adding that he grew up 20 miles from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford. "And the Oregon Shakespeare theatres are better."

The Phillips love the freshness of opening night, but go to a couple performances of each play so they can see how the play has evolved.

"And you always notice a difference," said Bob.

Chuck Bradford and his wife, who live outside of Sacramento, have been coming to OSF every year since 1977.

"We always shoot for the opening weekend and the closing weekend," said Bradford, adding that they often bring about 10 to 12 people from the Bay Area during each visit.

Bradford said it's not just the fabulous performances they watch at the Shakespeare festival; but also the town of Ashland itself.

"It's an event when we come," he said. "We love the great restaurants here, the charm of the town and I think my wife dropped about $1000 between 2:15 and 3:15 this afternoon."

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