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Places, Please

For decades, Richard Hay has conjured designs in which the Oregon Shakespeare Festival can shine.

Photo: David Cooper

Hay on the set of this year's Rabbit Hole.

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By Misha Berson

Many theater artists are freelance “gypsies,” accustomed to hitting the road often to work at playhouses around the country.

And then there is Richard L. Hay, who has spent most of an illustrious, five-decade career as a theatrical designer in a rather remote community with a resident population of only 20,000 souls.

The town? Ashland, Oregon. Tucked into the scenic Rogue River Valley, a few miles down Interstate 5 from its more working-class neighbor Medford, Ashland has a solo mountain on the horizon and a sparkling creek running through town. It also is the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, among the oldest and largest classical theater outfits in North America.

Dick Hay, ’52, MA ’55, started with the festival when it was a low-budget summer operation run largely by volunteers. In his long tenure as senior set designer, he has helped it evolve into the Tony-honored, year-round theater complex that last year catered to some 120,000 patrons, selling them $14 million in tickets at 11 shows.

“The way the theaters look, the graphics, the displays in our lobbies—all of that is Richard,” says Oregon Shakespeare artistic director Libby Appel. “He’s basically designed all of that. And we are so fortunate that he has left his mark everywhere.”

A lanky native of Wichita, Kansas, who looks younger than his 77 years, Hay lately speaks of slowing down and retiring soon, “because it’s got to happen eventually.” Yet you would not know that from Oregon Shakespeare’s current season. At the official 2007 opening weekend in February, Hay had just completed designing the detailed suburban living room of a couple grieving their deceased child—for the contemporary David Lindsay-Abaire play, Rabbit Hole. He was at work sketching the chateau of a wealthy French family—the dupes of a bogus holy man in Molière’s Tartuffe. And he was conjuring the several locales where Kate and Petruchio will court and spar—for a summer mounting of The Taming of the Shrew.

Hay lives in a ranch house perched high on an Ashland hilltop, and the place is pleasantly cluttered with shelves and mounds of books, and with masks, carvings, cloth hangings—souvenirs of his primary hobby, foreign travel. He designs in a small studio just off Ashland’s picturesque Main Street and supervises the construction of sets in the company’s 18,000-square-foot scenery, paint and properties shops. Those sets get installed at the three Oregon Shakespeare performance spaces—venues Hay has had a role in designing. The indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre seats 600 around a thrust stage. The massive, open-air Elizabethan Stage/Allen Pavilion has a tall, permanent Tudor-style backdrop that Hays designed from the plans for The Fortune Theater, a London playhouse in Shakespeare’s day. The festival’s most recent addition, the New Theatre, is an intimate space that seats 270 to 360 in various configurations.

Hay first came to the festival in 1950, when he accepted the invitation of Stanford classmate William Patton to visit Ashland. The festival, where Hay volunteered to work as a lighting design assistant, had been founded in 1935 on a two-play budget of about $400 by Angus Bowmer, ’55, an English instructor at the local college, now Southern Oregon University.

Participating in the festival changed Hay’s life. Before then, he “didn’t see theater as a real profession at all.” A senior at Stanford, he switched from engineering (“it just wasn’t creative enough for me”) to architecture. Soon he lost the vision of a traditional career in architecture as well. The summer in Ashland had “just hooked me on the place. It was pretty rustic, like summer camp, back then. And the nature of the outdoor shows really appealed to me.”

Hay became a graduate student in Stanford’s drama department, receiving his master’s degree and then studying as a Fulbright scholar at England’s University of Bristol. Then he spent several years teaching stage design at his alma mater and creating memorable sets for Stanford theater companies’ productions.

In summers, Hay returned to Ashland and participated in the gradual maturation of the Shakespeare festival, as it grew and professionalized under the aggressive management of its second artistic leader, Jerry Turner, and Bill Patton, ’51, who was the festival’s executive director from 1953 to 1995.

One of Hay’s major contributions was his design for the Bowmer Theatre, a modern playhouse with a stage wide and versatile enough to set any design team’s imaginations spinning. By the time the Bowmer opened in 1970, allowing the festival to expand from the summer months into the spring and fall, Hay also had designed sets for regional theaters around the West Coast and done a stint in New York City, working with the New York Shakespeare Festival. With the opening of the new venue, Hay could work full time in Ashland and have the career that in 1989 would win him the Oregon Governor’s Award for the Arts.

The hallmark of Hay’s work in Ashland—on more than 200 productions—has been his stylistic eclecticism and high production standards, coupled with an immense practical understanding of both architecture and theater. “Our sets have to look good,” Hay explains, “but because we do so many shows in repertory, they also have to move easily—be lightweight, portable and impermanent.”

Some stage designers consider themselves visual artists as well as scenic artists, and make full-color sketches of their settings before realizing them. Hay thinks more in terms of spatial solutions and blueprints. “I can’t imagine sitting down with a pad of paper and drawing something from scratch,” he says.

There is no typical “Richard Hay set.” Instead, he is noted for his dexterity in collaborating with many different directors, who come to him with a wide range of theatrical visions.

His scenic design can be highly realistic down to the last detail—in addition to the well-stocked kitchen and comfy sofas in Rabbit Hole, there are stamped letters on a table waiting to be mailed. Or a Hay set can be marvelously, luxuriously whimsical, like the plush fantasia of a high-class French brothel he created with vibrant fabrics and furnishings for a 1993 staging of the farce A Flea in Her Ear. And he can summon up locales that are stark and abstract in the service of an experimental interpretation of a classic.

It’s telling that in Shakespeare’s 37-play canon, Hay’s favorite to design is the lesser-known work Pericles. “It’s just fun, and it offers a lot of challenges. It’s not a very deep, serious work. It’s more of a fairy tale, and you can be fantastical without hurting it.”

Each design project begins with a thorough reading of the script and conferences with the director. “Some directors have very little visual imagination,” he notes, “and just want to focus on the text and the actors. Others have a lot of ideas about what things should look like.” Hay makes preliminary sketches and confers again. From detailed drawings of the set, Hay makes a model of the set, with a ratio of 1/4 inch to 1 foot. The festival’s costume and lighting designers take cues from Hay’s designs. Visuals for the show are built layer upon layer.

Some of Hay’s favorite designs have been for the festival’s tiny, now-closed Black Swan—a no-frills, “black box” theater with minimal technical capacity. (Since the New Theatre opened in 2002, the Black Swan has been used only for in-house activities.) “I swear, more imaginative designs came out of that space with its immoveable column, than have come out of a wide-open space.”

Finding design “solutions” to theatrical challenges is one of the things that keeps Hay excited about his work. His comment about retirement notwithstanding, he’ll be busy in 2008-09. That season—the first led by incoming artistic director Bill Rauch (after Appel retires later this year)—will have three Hay-designed shows: the new play Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, and the Thornton Wilder classic whose title could represent Hay’s love of Ashland, Our Town.


MISHA BERSON is the principal theater critic for the Seattle Times and a frequent contributor to American Theater.

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