Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2005 Chris Chalk Photographer: Jenny Graham

Star Chamber

Thomas Curtis can't tell you the name of the person who'll run up the flag at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Elizabethan Stage this summer. That's because the traditional task before each outdoor play falls to the newest person on the crew, and Curtis, the OSF's stage operations manager, doesn't know who that will be come June.

"It's miserable up there in the summer," he explains.

The practice in its present form dates back to 1959, when the OSF's outdoor theater was built, says OSF Media Relations Manager Amy Richard.

The flag consists of an interpretation of Shakespeare's coat of arms plus some ash leaves and berries against a green background. It was designed by OSF Resident Scenic Designer Richard Hay.

John Shaksper, the father of William, of Stratford-Upon-Avon, was granted the right to a coat of arms by the College of Arms in London in 1596.

It was described as "Gould, on a Bend, Sables, a Speare of the first Steeled Argent. And for his creast or cognizaunce a falcon, his winges dispplayed Argent standing on a wreath of his coullers."

The image is of a bird atop a shield. The ash is for Ashland, Richard says. The green is for Oregon.

The flag also connects the OSF, loosely, to Elizabethan times. In those days the rear of the English stage was covered by a curtain that hid doors leading to a small, backstage structure called the "tiring house," a forerunner of the dressing room.

Above that was a small, roofed structure called the "hut," which was used for storage space. A small tower with a flag pole rose from the hut.

Flags would be raised at theaters to signal a play that afternoon. Advance advertising was out of the question due to the sharp eyes of powerful, anti-theater Puritans and a censoring government.

"Each play-house advanceth his flagge in the aire, whither quickly at the waving thereof are summoned whole troops of men, women, and children," said a 1612 tract called "The Curtain-Drawer of the World," by one W. Parks.

OSF reaches a peak of about 30 stagehands in the summer. Curtis hires and fires stage ops workers each year, since the job is so demanding that not all those hired in any season will work out.

"It's not like there's a pool of experienced stagehands here," Curtis says.

The job requires rigorous fitness testing, strength, speed and teamwork at a high level, he says. It also means fitting in well with the festival's diversity-conscious ethos — meaning, for example, no jokes that smack of racism or sexism. Flag-raising may be a dirty job, but it's probably one of the easier chores in the job description.

"There are a lot easier ways to make $500 a week," Curtis says.

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