Officials hope the 75th season will be as sweet as last year's, which saw the highest attendance and revenues in the festival's history.

What's in a number?

Plenty, according to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where advance ticket sales are down 2 percent over the same time last year, but ahead of budget, the executive director said.

Officials hope the 75th season will be as sweet as last year's, which saw the highest attendance and revenues in the festival's history.

"We have high hopes and we've got a terrific season," said Paul Nicholson, OSF executive director. "But who knows? It depends on how the audience is going to respond."

The festival begins preview performances Friday and officially opens a week later. About half of the 400,000 tickets for the season have been sold or reserved, Nicholson said.

"Given that we haven't even started the season yet, we're very pleased with the way ticket sales are going," he said.

The festival budgeted for a 6 percent drop in ticket sales this year, Nicholson said.

"Last year was a record season, so it would be a very imprudent organization that would say, 'We're going to base our budget on the same level of attendance,' particularly given the unsettled level of the economy," he said.

This season's budget is $26.8 million, about $700,000 higher than last year's budget, he said. The festival has increased its budget for some of the larger productions and for musicians, which will be featured in "She Loves Me," "Ruined" and "Pride and Prejudice."

OSF also budgeted more for actors' salaries this season, because it is employing additional members of the Actors' Equity Association, a union for typically more experienced actors, he said.

The festival has included money in its budget this year to give salary increases to its company members, but will only dole out the raises if revenues are high enough, Nicholson said.

"At the moment we're halfway toward our ticket-sale goal and if that continues, we'll be able to do it, but if sales drop off, then we won't be able to," he said.

OSF raised ticket prices by an average of 6 percent this year. The festival raises ticket prices annually, Nicholson said.

Standard tickets now range in price from $20 to $58.50 during the low season, Feb. 19 through May 30 and Oct. 5-31, and from $20 to $78 during the high season, May 31 through Oct. 4.

"Hamlet," "Pride and Prejudice" and "She Loves Me" are the most popular plays so far, according to ticket sales, Nicholson said.

Tickets to the other plays are also selling reasonably well so far, he said.

"None of them are showing up right now as, 'Oh my God, what's happened?'" he said. "It's more or less all aligned with what we had hoped at this point."

The festival draws tens of thousands of tourists to Ashland during the summer months, boosting business at downtown shops and restaurants.

Last season, 410,034 attended the festival, bringing in $17.01 million in revenues to OSF.

OSF depends on donations, grants and earnings from its endowment to help fund the plays.

Donations were down 2 percent in 2009, yielding about $6.6 million, Nicholson said.

The festival's endowment, invested in the stock market, has plunged approximately $8 million to $26 million, but is slowly climbing back up as the economy recovers from the recession, he said.

"We've dropped about one-third of the value," he said. "It's come back to some degree, but not back to where it was."

This week, OSF company members are busy preparing for the season opening, Nicholson said.

"This being our 75th year, we're focused more than ever on bringing in the best quality work to our three stages," he said.

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.