Playing upon the Stage
In April 2002, two months after opening with Macbeth, which used arena seating, the OSF added a second performance, Robert Schenkkan's Handler, with avenue-style seating. One play showed at a matinee, the other in the evening. "Within two hours of the close of one performance we'd have the other show up and ready to go," OSF executive director Paul Nicholson recalls. The alternating pattern was repeated 20 times a month for the rest of the season.
Collaborating for Show
How did dramatists in a small town come to build such a special theater? "Because we work in repertory," explains Nicholson, "we're very accustomed to having to move stuff quickly. That is probably what gave us the confidence to take that idea further."
A contributing factor was that OSF's four principal decision makers (Nicholson, set designer Richard Hay, technical director Tom Knapp, and artistic director Libby Appel) have a combined 130 years of experience in professional theater. "We knew what we needed and were determined to get it," Nicholson continues.
Indeed, the design came from an intensely collaborative experience. "We admitted that they knew more than we did about theater," says architect Thomas Hacker, "and we wanted to join them and work together to design the building." As a result, Hacker is listed as the architect and was responsible for all the back-of-house and public spaces, but Hay is given credit for designing the theater space itself.
Hacker has designed a string of award-winning libraries in Portland but never a theater. However, when he was an architecture student, he worked in the theater department on set design. This experience gave him a personal connection to OSF's mission and helped his small firm beat out larger Seattle and San Francisco firms for the job.
Hacker's first challenge was to figure out not only how such a flexible, ever-changing theater space could be configured, but how to do it in a confined space. The easiest solution would have been to create large storage areas adjacent to the theater for storing sets and seating modules.
But the New Theatre had to be built on a relatively small footprint, so the movement of seats and equipment is vertical. Aware that a tall building would be out of scale with its context, Hacker designed a six-story building, in effect, with the lower three floors underground.
Blending Modern with Historic
The New Theatre's footprint is small because it's part of OSF's longstanding complex (including two older theaters and an administration building) surrounded by historic downtown Ashland. How then to insert a contemporary building comfortably?
Hacker was hired in part for his reputation for designing refined modernist buildings, which incorporate wood and other natural materials. He follows in the tradition of mid-20th-century Oregon architects Pietro Belluschi and John Yeon, while also looking to Japanese architecture for stylistic inspiration.
The New Theatre had to integrate visually with not only the other OSF buildings, but with the traditional brick facades of downtown. Thus, the base of the New Theatre, its largest massing, is made of brick and the upper floors of metal and glass with touches of stucco and wood.
The metal and glass give the theater a sophisticated contemporary palette, while the stucco and wood are a nod to the adjacent shingle-style neoclassical administration building. The outermost surface of the new theater is a series of wood screens that both shade the technical control booths and serve as a garden trellis to its neighbor, adding warmth while retaining aesthetic refinement.
"We wanted to have it so that when you were looking at the building from the outside you felt that sense that there was something veiled, something slightly mysterious," Hacker says. "You didn't know quite what it was but you could see people behind it. And that was all part of establishing the mood and expectation and mystery of the experience."
Approaching the Show
That sense of mystery is part of a larger strategy of leading visitors to the New Theatre on a journey that begins well before the actors take the stage. Hacker says: "We wanted to make the building so that there was this sequence of events that brought you from the community into the building, and then into the theater itself... a set of degrees of change."
The experience starts in a plaza that sets the theater back from the street. One enters the building at a lower lobby, ascends to an upper lobby, then proceeds down a hallway, where the light becomes progressively dimmer, finally arriving in the theater itself.
"By the time you get to the room," Hacker explains enthusiastically, "there's this expectation of something special that's going to happen. The building was really designed to be part of that theater experience."
Nicholson attests that, from the actors to the ushers, the people of OSF are "...universal in thinking it's a terrific space." And the small community of Ashland has apparently accepted this unapologetically modernist building into its historic downtown.
The building could probably not have been so successful without the unerring spirit of collaboration. As Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, "I hold the world but as the world...A stage where every man must play a part."
Brian Libby is a Portland, Oregon-based freelance writer who has also published in Metropolis and Architectural Record.
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