After an acting career spanning 30 years at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, playing such roles as Ophelia in “Hamlet,” Hermia in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Bianca in “Othello,” Shirley Patton finds her acting talents delightfully in demand by Ashland’s alternative theaters. She is currently starring in “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” at Camelot Theatre in Talent. I visited with Shirley in her idyllic Ashland hillside home.
EH: How did you get to Ashland to begin with? How did this wonderful life come about?
SP: I was a student at Stanford. I kept hearing how wonderful it was to spend summers in Ashland, because you got to work with the greatest playwright ever in this four-play repertory. By a great fluke, at the last moment, I went on as Viola in “Twelfth Night” at Stanford. Angus Bowmer came down to see it and remembered me fondly from that.
After I graduated, I applied to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I guess they were looking favorably on my application, but the last part of it got lost in the mail, so I didn’t hear anything from them. I wrote Angus a letter saying how one of my goals was to someday work in his company, and if he would be so kind as to tell me my areas of weakness, I would work on them until someday maybe I would be worthy.
He called and explained to me how they hadn’t received the final part of my application, but they had an arduous three-day process of auditioning everybody in the company. And if I wanted to audition “» Well that was the only entrée I needed. I’ve been here ever since. It was delicious, but it might never have happened. Something that puts a spotlight on you for a short period of time can make all the difference.
Because the theater kept growing and bringing in people from different places, it was a wonderful place for an artist to continue to grow and learn. I consider myself really very fortunate. But there was a year where there weren’t many roles for mature women, and there was a change of artistic directorship, and the new director decided to let a bunch of us go.
That opened up a whole new era for me. Without auditioning, without putting myself out in that scary way, directors came to me and asked me to do really wonderful projects. Peter Alzado gave me some wonderful work. We opened Oregon Stage Works with “Waiting for Godot.” For women to be able to play those roles was wonderful.
Then Livia Genise asked if I’d do Madame Hortense in”Zorba”. That meant taking singing lessons again. It’s such a wonderful, rich role. I just pinch myself that I’ve had these opportunities. It’s been a fun exploration for me once I got over the anxiety.
EH: The anxiety?
SP: Yes, the sheer terror. I’ve had stage fright all of my life. Each time there’s a project I wonder, “Am I going to be able to live through this?” There’s that anxious feeling. There’s always this insidious little voice in there that says, “Maybe your brain is not going to be Velcro this time. You’re not going to be able to remember.” The only good thing about doing it so many years is that I do know that I’ll come out the other end. It’s always a challenge.
“Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” plays at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 13 at Camelot Theatre, 101 Talent Ave., Talent. For tickets and information, call 535-5250.
Evalyn Hansen is a resident of Ashland. She has a bachelor's degree in dramatic arts from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master's degree from San Francisco State University. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre, and is a founding member of San Francisco's Magic Theatre. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.