If all the world’s a stage, what’s the trick to making a family theater experience more comedy than tragedy? Planning! The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in Ashland, Oregon, has long been a hot spot for theater buffs, but is also an increasingly popular destination for engaging kids in theater, thanks to recently expanded programming for families.
The Tony Award-winning company’s 78th season, which starts in February and runs through November, includes 11 plays that range from Shakespeare to musicals to world premieres. OSF stages its production in three theaters, including the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, one of the oldest in the nation. The overall, unique OSF experience attracts visitors from around the world, including an estimated 70,000 students attended last year.
Chief among the attraction for families is a program called Family Days, launched in 2008. One performance for selected plays in an OSF season is targeted as a Family Day event: benefits include steeply discounted tickets – only $20 for adults and children ages 6-17 years – and a free “prologue,” a pre-show talk by OSF’s education staff that reveals interesting tidbits about the play, the sets, costumes and more. (See bottom of article for Family Day schedule.)
“I typically went (to OSF) by myself, but when Family Days started, it became an outing that we did together,” says Ashland mom Janet Larmore, who now attends with her husband and two children.
“They’re incredible, prime seats that would normally cost at least $75 each,” she says.
Whether you’re looking for a fun weekend trip for your family or hope to inspire a lifelong passion, insiders share their tips for making Ashland and the festival a memorable experience.
Playtime: What to see
OSF’s 2014 season includes a Family Day performance for five of the 2013 productions – the most ever. Of course, kids are welcome at all plays even if it isn’t a Family Day event. To help navigate, OSF offers children’s suitability guidelines for each play.
“We believe it’s for parents to decide what is or isn’t okay for their kids to see,” says Bob Hackett, marketing manager, OSF. “Our education staff writes guidelines so no one is surprised.”
For this season, Hackett recommends A Midsummer Night’s Dream (June 6–October 13) for a magical Ashland experience for families. In addition to being a crowd-pleasing Shakespearean comedy (recommended for all ages), it’s staged on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, the festival’s largest venue.
Another Shakespearean offering, Cymbeline (June 4–October 11) will charm most ages thanks to fairy-tale elements including an evil stepmother, forbidden love, mistaken identities and even ghosts. “It’ll be exciting and delightful, but parents should also be prepared for a little stylized gore,” says Hackett.
For older students, August Wilson’s Two Trains Running (February 16–July 7), which details African-American life
in the 1960s, will be a season highlight. “The company has a well-deserved reputation of doing August Wilson plays really well,” says Hackett.
For questions, call the box office, 1.800.219.8161. “They don’t just sell tickets. They answer family questions all the time,” says Hackett.
Price is right: Buying Tickets
If you’re interested in attending a Family Day performance, purchase the tickets as soon as you can; go online to buy.
At $20 a seat, they are the most affordable tickets available and typically sell out.
If a Family Day doesn’t fit your schedule, remember that youth tickets, for ages 6 to 17 years, are discounted 30 percent all season. Here are other tips for planning an OSF visit.
- Go off-season: For OSF members (membership prices vary, but start as low as $60 annually) prices are lower during the off-seasons, February 15–June 2 and October 8–November 3.
- Select your seats carefully. “I think seat location matters to a certain extent, particularly for younger kids,” says Hackett. Try to buy closer to the stage for the larger venues, but Larmore also recommends that parents factor in their children’s comfort levels. “Especially in the small theaters, sitting right in the front can be intimidating for really shy kids…. The actors are looking you right in the eye and sometimes even talking to you. For other kids, they thrive on it.”
- Book early . . . or be spontaneous. For trips scheduled in advance, book no later than a month before. If you have flexibility, it’s sometimes possible to snag rush tickets to previously sold-out shows or take advantage of last-minute deals.
Extra theater-going tips
Once you get to Ashland, smart planning is the key to a rewarding experience
Make it special. “Know what your kid loves,” says Tracy Harding, mom to two teenagers. “Maybe dressing up makes them feel special or bring a special snack for intermission. One of the Harding traditions is a post-show visit to the local ice cream shop.
Study up. Understanding what you’re going to see also helps grease the skids. Beyond Family Day pre-play prologues, OSF offers Backstage Tours (times vary, $13 per adult, $9 for youth 6-17 years). A company member provides a behind-the-scenes tour of the stages and other areas. For additional, free family fun in the summer, Green Shows are held on a small, outdoor theater in the festival square (June 4-October 13). Shows are short (35-40 minutes) and offered nightly, Tuesday through Sunday, and can include anything from live music to ballet.
Listen to Shakespeare. It also helps to prepare kids for the Shakespearean language, which can be challenging to understand. “There is usually about a 10-minute transition period for the ear to adjust and settle into the language,” says Hackett. “Once that happens, it becomes clear what’s happening.”
While OSF is Ashland’s biggest draw, the region has an impressive array of other fun family activities. Here are a just a few of its best-kept secrets, according to Gigi LaRossa, concierge at Ashland Springs Hotel, and other locals.
Crater Lake National Park is only a 90-minute drive from Ashland, and boasts activities for every season, including fishing and hiking during the summer and complimentary snowshoeing with a guided park ranger during the winter months.
Only six miles from downtown Ashland, Emigrant Lake offers paddle boarding and a giant water slide.
In town, recommended outdoor activities include the local skateboard park and Lithia Park, located in the heart of downtown, which has a little reservoir at the top of the park and a picnic-friendly beach.
Younger children will love an outing to the ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum, which covers chemistry, engineering, anatomy and more are hits thanks to the interactive features. Afterwards, visit the local Valero Gas Station, which displays and sells a large collection of soda pop.
For teens, The Music Coop is a teenage hotspot thanks to their huge vinyl and indie rock collections. Cripple Creek Music Company has a niche following, courtesy of their ukelele collection. Aeidon, which sells high-end skateboard and snowboard gear, is another favorite of teens.
LaRossa points out that working with your hotel concierge can often yield deals and unique opportunities. She has organized special tours of local businesses and helps families map out their stays. Ashland Springs Hotel even works with families so they can enjoy the hotel’s package deals that don’t always list children.
If you go ...
Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Box Office: 800-219-8161
- Twelve plays are offered for the 2013 season. Age suitability guidelines are available online for all plays.
- Tickets: Times and ticket prices vary. Youth tickets (6–17 years) are discounted 30% the entire season.
- Family Days: $20 tickets, one adult per youth (6–17 years), and at least one adult per four kids.
2014 Family Day Schedule
The Tempest, Sunday, May 11 1:30 p.m.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Friday, Sept. 12, 8 p.m.
A Wrinkle in Time, Saturday, Sept. 27 1:30 p.m.
About the author: Deanna Duff is a Seattle-based freelance writer who contributes to a wide variety of regional and national publications. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Press Association, which has awarded her writing. A Northwest native, she grew up working on her family's organic farm and selling at the Pike Place Market. She enjoys featuring and celebrating all aspects of family life.