Bucolic Ashland, Ore., is a Shakespeare-steeped literary retreat

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By CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS

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Salt needs pepper. Romeo needs Juliet. And your epic nature trip to Crater Lake might need a cultural detour.

Enter Ashland, Ore., which sits in the bucolic Bear Creek Valley about 90 miles southwest of Crater Lake and 16 miles north of the California border.

It was born in the 19th century as a mill town on the banks of Ashland Creek. But things took a turn in the early 1890s.

That's when the community hooked up with the burgeoning Chautauqua movement, which brought summer performances and lectures to towns across the country as a sort of national self-improvement campaign. Then in 1935 came another summer innovation: a three-day Shakespeare festival.

By the 1950s, its adaptations of the Bard's plays were being broadcast nationally on NBC radio. By 1960, the production schedule had grown to include works by other playwrights.

By 1977 the festival grounds had grown to include three venues. These days, about 125,000 theater lovers, from San Francisco and beyond, visit each year.

Now the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is one of the country's most successful regional theaters. Along with Southern Oregon University (about 5,400 undergrads), it largely defines the town. Shows are offered February through November.

Adjacent to festival grounds is Lithia Park, a 93-acre haven of tamed greenery that follows Ashland Creek. I meandered through after listening to street musician Cody Meyocks, 26, pick out a few folk songs on his banjo.
"I just wound up here when I got stuck hitchhiking some years ago," he told me. "You couldn't ask for a more gorgeous spot."

I happened to be here on a Monday night, so the closest I got to a live theater experience was a glimpse of crew members fussing with a hydraulic stage lift in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre. But the town's musicians were eager to keep everyone entertained.

Besides Meyocks and his banjo, there was an open-mike night at Oberon's Tavern and a jazz quartet at Martino's, where I had a nice risotto primavera before retiring to a pleasant room at the historic Ashland Springs Hotel.

For a town of about 21,000, Ashland has a striking number of upscale restaurants, bars, galleries and shops, including several independent bookshops. English majors should brace for the lit-geek thrill that comes from seeing so many businesses with Shakespearean names. Oberon's Tavern. Puck's Doughnuts. The Best Western Bard's Inn.

I should note that city leaders are struggling to cope with young transients, sometimes known as travelers, who panhandle downtown. But that's the case in many college towns. And though locals are debating the trees and pavers chosen for the recent renovation of Downtown Plaza, downtown looked dandy to me.

Every newcomer, by the way, should approach Downtown Plaza's spring-fed drinking fountain with care. It's there to show off the city's mineral-rich water, which is said to be healthful and calming (as you might expect from a drink with trace elements of lithium).

As for the flavor — well, before I took my taste, I watched one tourist sip, spit and recoil.

"Phuh! That's gnarly, man!"

Read the original report in the Los Angeles Times >