As I visited with Shirley and Bill Patton in their exquisite Ashland hills home, I got to know two people who have shared a creative life together in theater. Their efforts led to the formation and success of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Shirley is now starring in “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” at the Camelot Theatre in Talent.
SP: Bill was the first person I met when I got off the bus.
BP: She came up to Ashland to audition in the summer of 1958 when I was general manager.
SP: Then he became the executive director. Bill’s position evolved over the years and as the festival grew. As theaters were added with more and more staff, his job description kept changing dramatically.
EH: So you were in on the ground floor of something absolutely fabulous.
SP: At the end of my first season here, as soon as we struck the last show, they tore down the theater because the fire marshal had condemned it. And so that fall of our courtship, Bill was selling tickets for the ’59 season, doing the brochures and newsletters, and all the budgeting and accounting, and raising money for a new theater. With a matching grant from Alfred Carpenter and his wife, Helen, somehow the money was raised and they were able to complete the Elizabethan stage house which we now have in time for the ’59 season.
We had been performing “Antony and Cleopatra” in the new theater for about a week when the big fire came. It was all up on this hillside and during a performance with trees exploding on the horizon, and a red glow in the sky, and the roar.
BP: It looked like we were going to lose the theater because the fire was coming down into the park. The helicopters were landing on the hill above us. They asked us to please hold the audience, not to let them go; they didn’t want to have that traffic. And so the play went on and everyone stayed.
SP: We were married that December, about six months after we met. I guess it was a good thing. We’ve been together 50 years. We’ve had a very unusual life for theater people because usually you have to be nomads. We have had the privilege of putting deep roots in a community, to have seen the changes of the town and be able to be connected civically with community activities.
EH: What is it that makes some of us so passionate about theater?
BP: If you’re not passionate about it, you shouldn’t be in it.
SP: One aspect of it I think is the chance to inhabit other worlds. I’m so curious about people and why they do what they do. And so to be able to embody someone from a different world, a different life experience, I find so revealing and exciting, or going to theater and visiting other experiences in a way that touches your heart and your mind, and maybe shifts your soul a bit. It may take you on an emotional roller coaster ride and give you a chance to think about other ways of being, but there is this security about it because it is theater.
Theater is great for character development, being responsible and collaborative. It’s such a joy to work with other people on a project. You become this family that is very tight. That is another one of its great charms, because common goals feed us.
“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 email@example.com.