The Play's the Thing in Ashland, OR
Tiny Ashland, Oregon may be home to the nation's largest regional theater, but its prices are strictly off-Broadway
An isolated hamlet in rural Oregon as a major U.S. theater capital? Sounds unlikely, but it's true: For 65 years, Ashland (population 19,500, just over the California border and about 80 miles inland as the crow flies) has played host to the Tony Award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the nation's largest and arguably most respected regional theater, drawing 150,000 visitors to its 762 annual performances of 11 productions between February and October. In fact, only four of those productions are Shakespeare-written, the rest being American theater classics ranging from comedies like The Man Who Came to Dinner to dramas by the likes of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Henrik Ibsen, and Anton Chekhov, along with new plays such as Margaret Edson's 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning Wit. Still, the festival's calling card remains its Shakespearean extravaganzas, staged outdoors in a reasonably authentic (but thoroughly modern) Elizabethan theater starting in June.
Want more than just theater? Ashland's also an easy day trip from the absolutely glorious 250-square-mile Crater Lake National Park (a $10/car entrance fee gets you access to its hiking and skiing facilities) as well as the Oregon Caves National Monument with its remarkable array of flora and fauna. (For a more extensive list of visitor resources, check the Southern Oregon Vacation Guide at www.sova.org.)
All this thespianizing, along with Ashland's other charms, has transformed a rural town slated for oblivion into a vibrant, thriving center for the arts, a retirement haven, and a surprisingly lively travel destination. And while the area's cultural bounty has sometimes resulted in prices that run a bit higher than your average small town in the Pacific Northwest, it remains magnificently affordable for those who use a bit of foresight. (Note: All telephone numbers should be preceded by the 541 area code unless otherwise stated.)
Ashland may be in the boondocks, but its ticket demand is the envy of Broadway. Popular plays often sell out early for the entire season; most summer performances become sellouts quickly. If you want good seats, get your order in immediately: The box office starts to process ticket requests in the order received, starting in mid-January. Last season, most full-price tickets went for $29 to $42, with a few box seats at $52. (Next year's prices aren't out yet, but they'll be close to last year's.) However, "value season" discounts take 25 percent off performances prior to June 4 and after October 3. A few off-season matinees were even priced at 50 percent off, and children ages 6-17 get 25-50 percent reductions, depending on the time of year. In addition, last-minute visitors should be aware that the box office frequently releases a few daily rush seats on the day of performance, and you usually find a thriving "aftermarket" in front of the box office. You can get tickets by mail (15 South Pioneer St., Ashland, Oregon 97520) or phone (482-4331). The visitor section of the festival's brochure - much of which is duplicated on www.orshakes.org - provides a wealth of information on ticket prices, rooms, and activities.
Ashland is a hotbed of bed-and-breakfasts (more than 60 at last count). However, they rarely dip below $90 a day for a double. Hotels remain, on the whole, a more cost-effective way to stay; in the height of the summer season, rooms start at around $60 - not exactly cheap, but not quite exorbitant. For $65 per night, the Columbia Hotel (800/718-2530, www.columbiahotel.com) is a solid, funky choice on the second story of a block of storefronts near the theaters. The location's great, but most rooms aren't air-conditioned. Two others among the in-town options are Knight's Inn for $58-68 nightly (800/547-4566, www.brodeur-inns.com) and Timbers Motel for $68 a night (482-4242, www.visionww.com/timbers). Both are typical 1950s/1960s-style motels with outside corridors; they're comfortable and well-maintained, though without a scintilla of charm. More recently built properties include the somewhat out-of-the-way Ashland Regency Inn & RV Park (800/482-4701), costing $70/night for a double, and the $68/night Super 8 Motel (800/800-8000, www.super8.com); both are equally efficient, if charmless. The choice of real economy travelers-especially young ones-is the $16/night Ashland Hostel (482-9217), a converted residence.
For the best bargains, however, you need to head up the highway a short distance to Talent (4 miles), Phoenix (7 miles), or Medford (12 miles). In these three towns, the following are all clean, basic, serviceable 1950s-vintage lodgings, with little to distinguish one from the next other than proximity to Ashland: Goodnight Inn (Talent), $45-$58, 535-7234; Bavarian Inn (Phoenix), $42, 535-1678; Phoenix Motel (Phoenix), $49-$55, 535-1555; Crater Inn (Medford), $44-46, 776-9194; Knight's Inn (Medford), $45, 773-3676; Red Carpet Inn (Medford), $47, 772-6133; Royal Crest Motel (Medford), $40-45, 772-6144; Tiki Lodge (Medford), $37, 773-4579.
In addition, most nationwide economy chains have one or more locations in Medford, with summer rates starting in the mid-$50-per-night range. For more motel information, check the Medford Chamber of Commerce Web site at www.visitmedford.org.