Gig&Tell: Oregon Shakespeare Festival

  • A-MA-ZING! You're crazy if you don't love this place.    
    03/23/2012  4:10am

    I was part of OSF's acting company during the 2011 season. That was by far the best contract I've ever had. If you ever get a chance to work at OSF, TAKE IT! Contracts there range in length: 11 months (long), 9 months (medium), and 6 months (short). I'm Equity and was on a 6 month contract; to date it was the best artistic experience of my life.

    OSF is in the charming town of Ashland. A third of the residents are chillaxed yuppies, another third are hippies, and the other third are affluent retirees from California. It's a small town (around 22,000 people) and, aside from the Festival, it offers two small movie theaters, several really good restaurants, refreshing scenery, lots of walking trails (which I loved taking advantage of), beautiful parks and an abundance of nice wineries within an hour's drive.

    The Festival is wonderful, and you'll be hard pressed to find another place like it. Just walking around the grounds, you can tell that you are in a place where excellent theater is created. It is also clear that the Festival has a huge budget, and more importantly, that every actor, designer, technician, musician and crew member puts a lot of pride into the work. During my first costume fitting for Pirates of Penzance, I was overwhelmed by the detail that OSF puts into costumes. They took precise measurements of my head so that my pirate hat could be made specifically for me (I'm not lying); they also traced my feet in case they needed to make boots for me (they found my boots online, so no one-of-a-kind boots for me last summer). That first costume fitting was 45 minutes for one costume! I was not the only person to have such detailed fittings; everyone in the cast had 45-60 minute fittings during the first three rounds.

    The close attention to specificity extends into rehearsals as well. The directors that work at OSF are nationally acclaimed, so they take great effort to iron out every detail with the cast in rehearsals. Sometimes this can get tedious because a few of the leads ask tons of detailed questions, or even argue (constructively) with the director. Even when that happens, something useful comes out of it, and the show is stronger for it. OSF likes to take artistic risks with their shows; that means the classics are done with an interesting twist, and scripts for world premiere shows are sometimes written/developed during the rehearsal process. This is an exciting and rewarding way to work because your own artistic boundaries are being challenged in a good way. Because the directors lead you through a detailed and demanding rehearsal process, and because you are working with so many talented and dedicated actors, it is a guarantee that you will stretch and grow as an actor during your time there.

    The shows are well attended, so you don't need to worry about performing to an audience of only fifty people. The intelligent and loyal audience base and high production values at OSF make you want to give 150% in each performance. The performance schedule is repertory, so each show you are contracted in will perform at least twice a week. Both of my shows last season were on the outdoor stage (which only performs at night), so at most I performed 4 nights a week. That was an easy schedule for an actor at the Festival. If your shows are in the indoor theaters, or a combo of indoor and outdoor, you will perform 6-8 times a week.

    Housing is good. The Festival owns/has access to several apartment buildings for its actors. No matter what your union status is, you will have your own apartment. Equity actors usually get the bigger apartments. If you are Nonequity and have representation, your agent/manager may negotiate one of the bigger apartments for you. My apartment was called a studio, but it was actually a small one bedroom (probably around 500 sq feet; it would cost $1100/month in Astoria). It was airy with plenty of space, recently renovated and I never felt cramped. The kitchen was equipped with all the necessities (dishes, cookware, toaster, microwave, blender). Each room was completely furnished; my apartment was one of the four units in my building to have brand new furniture. Nonequity actors are housed in one of three places. One large house contained 5 small apartments; another house contained 4 medium apts and 1 small apt; and a series of 3 small apts were above some of the downtown stores (these 3 apts were very spartan, but livable). If your apartment is missing something, just ask company management if they have what you need in storage (odds are that they do). OSF's housing is spread around town, but no matter where you live you're within a 5-15 minute walk to the Festival grounds.

    OSF does not provide a company car, so make friends with someone who has a car. You don't really need a car to get the necessities done, as groceries and laundry are within a 10 minute walk from the Festival and housing. Last season the Festival started a weekly shuttle for grocery runs and trips to the mall/Target (two towns over). One of my friends and I were usually the only people to use that service, so it ended up feeling like a personal shuttle just for us. Ashland is a nice town, but you'll want to take at least two trips away during your contract, so set money aside to take a 2 day trip to the Oregon coast, Portland or San Francisco (all are about a 5 hr drive or 1 hr flight away). You'll be very glad you did! There are opportunities for white rafting and zip-lining an hour away, so you can also do that during the week on a day off.

    OSF takes great care of its actors on and off stage. When weather was cold or rainy during an outdoor show, company management was nice enough to stock the green room with things to avoid getting sick (tea, lemons, honey, oranges, Emergen-C, Ricolas, etc). When it got hot they provided Gatorrade, and the wardrobe crew provided cold gel packs to place in our costumes. There is a safety monitor (for real) at the Festival, so if you pull a muscle or get a minor sprain, within a day they will get you a fitted brace (free of charge to you) to wear during rehearsals and performances.

    Each week a free masterclass is given by one of the voice & text directors, so you have regular opportunities to improve your skills in a nonperformance setting. Twice last season (once in early spring and once in the summer) stage combat certification was offered; a $40 fee covered the cost of the week long class and test. Last season there was a Feldenkrais practitioner on campus, so company members could get a free 45 minute session with him each week. Even when I was tired I took advantage of all of those things because any one of those sessions could easily cost at least $75 a pop in NYC. There is also a small exercise room on the Festival grounds. It has the bare basics and is only open weekdays from noon-3pm, but it's sufficient if you can make the hours work with your schedule and don't want to pay for a gym membership in town. You won't find another theater in the country that offers this many free benefits, so use them! As if all that wasn't enough, last season OSF had a partnership with one of the local spas, so company members got 6 free sauna/steam sessions during their contracts. All you had to do was make an appointment, tell the spa staff that you were with OSF, and then you were off to 90 minutes of relaxation in a beautiful sauna and steam room.

    OSF has a program called Midnight Projects. It's a fantastic chance to do something outside of the shows you are contracted in. If you have developed an original piece of theater, or have an existing script that you are passionate about performing, OSF will provide the rehearsal and performance space AND technical support for you to mount the show. Last season company members mounted readings of at least four plays, an original musical sketch show, and an original avant garde play as Midnight Projects. It was so great to see fellow company members do something beyond their usual work in the main productions.

    One of the downsides to working at OSF is that you are working in a remote place for a long time (ie: you're missing a lot of auditions in NYC). OSF has a program called Shares to offset that. Equity actors pay $200 and Nonequity actors pay $150 for the opportunity to audition for artistic directors, casting directors and agents that visit the Festival during the summer. I participated in that program, and I'm glad I did. Over the the summer I made contacts with 2 artistic directors from NY, 1 AD from Utah Shakespeare, 2 AD's from the Midwest, a casting director from NY, and several artistic directors from the West coast. Although I missed a lot of auditions in the City, it felt good to know that some important people from NY saw my work in Oregon and that I was able to start a relationship with them. The Shares program was also a good way to practice interview skills; within my first three Shares sessions I learned how to be myself, be charming, and how to discuss my resume and aspirations succinctly. Now that I'm back in NYC I feel more comfortable talking to people behind the table during my auditions.

    Although the town of Ashland is charming, it can feel a little unsafe at night. The streets are very dark and deserted there, so they're kind of creepy when you're walking home from rehearsal or your show at midnight. This is not a poor reflection on OSF; it's just a reality of its location. Being from NYC, I'm not afraid of walking home late at night because the streets are lit and there are usually other people around. But Ashland is deserted after 11pm, and there were many nights that I walked home looking over my shoulder. The obvious remedy to this is to walk home with a buddy, remain aware of your surroundings and exercise common sense.

    If you get the chance to audition for OSF, please do so and take it seriously. It's well worth hiring a good coach or having a few prep sessions with a friend that you trust. There aren't auditions in NYC every year, but submit your headshot and resume to their casting department (info is on the website) and cross your fingers. I know that they had appointments here last August and October; they posted a request for pics and resumes on the AEA website. If they are interested, they may ask you to submit a video audition. Most of their season is filled by current and former company members; the few remaining spots go to "newbies". And yes, they do hire Nonequity! Last season there were two Noneq actors brought in from LA and Chicago (as interns), and two Noneq actresses were brought in from NYC. One of those actresses is playing Juliet this season. I originally auditioned for OSF in 2008 when I was Nonequity. By 2010 I had my card, so I attended the EPA here in the City. A month later I was invited to the agent appointments; the casting director remembered me from my 2008 audition. Three months later they asked me to send another audition via video, and two months after that I got the offer. Even if you audition and don't get an offer that first time, stay persistent and keep auditioning well for them; if and when the time is right, they will offer you a contract!

    Yes, working at OSF has always been a dream of mine. I have a question. I have never auditioned for OSF before and their annual EPA's are coming up. I'm not equity but am EMC. Is there any chance that I will even get seen, do you think? Thanks!

    04/17/2012  8:27pm

    Thank you so much for posting this, I found it really helpful. I applied to OSF hoping to put myself out there in the professional acting world and wasn't expecting anything to come of it (I am non-equity with only community theatre under my belt). But, I got an audition! It's on Monday and I am so excited. Do you have any tips for my first real, professional audition? I'm hoping to gain some quality experience by auditioning for OSF but don't want to make a complete fool of myself in the process. Any feedback would help. Thank you!

    05/16/2013  2:21pm