The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2009 season is dedicated to Principal Scenic and Theater Designer Richard Hay on the 50th anniversary of the Elizabethan Stage, which he designed. All three of OSF’s theaters were built to Hay’s specifications, and he’s designed scenery for more than 220 stage productions in his career. - Jamie Lusch

Hay has 50-plus years behind OSF scenes

In summer 1950, Richard Hay got a phone call from Bill Patton, his roommate at Stanford University. Patton said he was stringing lights at a little theater called the Oregon Shakespearean Festival up in Ashland, and he could use some help.

Hay came and worked and stuck it out when another pal quit. The downside was the pay, which was nothing. To earn cash, Hay and Patton sold fireworks at the corner of Medford's Barnett Road and Highway 99, then a two-lane street.

So it was that the first Richard Hay design in Oregon was a fireworks stand.

"It was wonderful," Patton recalls. "It looked like a stage set."

This year the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, for many years one of the most successful theaters in the nation, is dedicating its season to Hay on the 50th anniversary of his having designed its Elizabethan Stage.

But Hay's stamp is on much more than the Elizabethan. He was the principal design influence in the creation of all three of OSF's theaters, and he has designed scenery for more than 220 stage productions.

His designs also have been seen at the Kennedy Center, the Guthrie Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the Old Globe Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum, Portland Center Stage and elsewhere.

He even has a dessert named after him — the Oregon Cabaret Theatre's Dick Hay Pie.

"I persevered," Hay says. "I did not plan ahead."

Even the OSF's grounds would be different without Hay.

"Bill deferred to Dick in how the courtyards and other nontheatrical spaces should look," says Bill Patton's wife, Shirley, for many years an actor at the festival.

After changing his college major to theater, earning a master's degree and having an early go at teaching, Hay has spent his time essentially in one spot. And the OSF has grown since Angus Bowmer founded it in 1935 to present two plays (and some boxing) at a cost of $400 into one of the nation's largest theaters, selling about 400,000 tickets each year in an 11-play repertory season of nearly nine months.

This season Hay is the scenic designer for Carlo Goldoni's "The Servant of Two Masters," a 250-year-old romp directed by Tracy Young in the OSF's New Theatre, and Octavio Solis's adaptation of Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra's "Don Quixote" on the Elizabethan Stage, directed by Laird Williamson.

"Every year it's something new and surprising," OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch says of Hay. "He's extremely versatile, a major American artist."

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THE OSF FIRST built an Elizabethan stage sketched by Angus Bowmer on the site of the old Chautauqua grounds on a hill overlooking Ashland's Lithia Park in the 1930s. A successor was built in 1947 and lasted about decade. When Hay and Patton showed up in the '50s, four shows a year were being presented.

"Richard helped convince Angus some of the things he was doing were not correct," Bill Patton says. "One was hanging curtains between pillars on stage and using realistic sets to represent the forest of Arden. No disrespect to Angus, but we were all learning."

The new Elizabethan Theatre was built to Hay's design in 1959 based on contemporary ideas of Philip Henslowe's Jacobean-era Fortune Theatre in London (the Elizabethan got a $7 million renovation in 1992).

The 600-seat Bowmer was finished in 1970. The concept was for a sort of indoor Elizabethan stage with a thrust (a protrusion into the audience), a limited backstage and amphitheater seating.

Patton says architects wanted a steep angle and steps for the Bowmer's vomitories, which enable actors to mount the stage from cuts in the seating, despite Hay's objections.

"Architects don't understand the needs of the theater," Patton says.

The steps were later covered with ramps.

Since the Bowmer has no proscenium arch, it can't fly in very large scenery. Hay says no arch was ever considered.

"It was built on a restricted budget," he says.

It has a large playing space but little room to store scenery, which is a big deal for a repertory company that sometimes strikes one set and puts up another between afternoon and evening shows.

"One of the joys of not working in rotating rep would be designing things that don't have to be taken down in 20 minutes," Hay says.

The Bowmer's central virtue is that the audience and the performers are in the same "room."

"And that's what was striven for," Hay says, "as opposed to the proscenium arch and the magic frame."

The $11 million New Theatre, another Hay brainchild, opened in 2002 with great technical capabilities and an exterior that some compared to a 1950s post office (the festival countered that the focus was on the stage, not the building). A modern black-box-within-a-box designed around its stage, it seats about 300 depending on how it's configured.

Its greatest limitation is that its fly tower, which would have flown in full-size sets from above, got shortened during the city's permit process after some residents complained, and the festival essentially decided not to fight.

"I have to modestly confess to liking it," Hay says of the space, adding that he sometimes wishes the stage area were smaller.

He admits to missing the old Black Swan Theatre, a converted Chevrolet dealer's service shop from the 1920s pressed into service as a theater in 1977 (Hay brainstormed that conversion, too). The 138-seat space had a big pillar in the middle of the room and no backstage. The latter feature sometimes sent actors in costume scurrying up Ashland's Main Street between scenes.

"It was problematic," Hay says. "But it really was intimate. Even the pillar upstage, everybody's headache, that limitation forced us into design solutions that were better than if we weren't coping with it."

The Swan was ultimately abandoned because it didn't have enough seats to supply for the demand for tickets.

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HAY SAYS his process varies with the director. There are visual directors, and the kind who don't know what they want until they see it, Hay says. He places frequent OSF guest director Laird Williamson at the visual end of the spectrum, former OSF Associate Artistic Director Tim Bond at the nonvisual end and former Artistic Director Libby Appel in the middle.

Hay belongs to what must be a very exclusive club: Those who have designed all the plays in the Shakespeare canon.

He says his favorite Shakespeare play to create for is the relatively lightweight, seldom produced "Pericles, Prince of Tyre," which allows for an element of the fantastical.

"It's a lot of fun, and I haven't done it so often I'm tired of it," he says.

His least favorite is "Cymbeline" for its combination of staging issues and a story that "doesn't grab people very well."

Fortunately, the festival doesn't do it too often (five times in 75 years).

"But it's probably looming on the horizon soon," Hay says, sounding as if he's only half-kidding. "Like a thunderstorm."

Hay considers himself an eclectic designer who doesn't strive for a particular, identifiable style. For most of his career he was the festival's only full-time designer. That meant adopting his designs to a whole variety of directorial approaches and being catholic in his choices.

"Our three spaces are so different," Rauch says. "It's one of our strengths. So it's extremely important that he can design for that."

Highly detailed contemporary interiors — Hay has done many — are his least favorite designs. He says if anybody identifies him with them it may be because Appel thought he did them well and so assigned him many. He prefers the more abstract end of the spectrum.

He says if there is a common denominator to his designs, it's that he's always tried to make the actor the most important thing on the stage.

"I try to make the relationship between actor and audience as intimate as possible."

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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