Richard Hay’s vision on display at Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Richard Hay
Richard Hay

Richard Hay, legendary scenic designer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, has been with OSF since its inception. Besides designing sets for more than 200 plays at OSF, Hay designed the interiors of the three theaters: the Angus Bowmer Theatre, the Thomas Theatre and the Allen Elizabethan Theatre. We visited over lunch at the Standing Stone Brewery.

EH: How did your association with OSF begin?

RH: I was a student at Stanford, majoring in civil engineering and architecture at the time. But I spent all my spare time over in the Drama Department, and consequently got to know people there. I got to be very good friends with Bill Patton (who later became OSF’s executive director). This was in the early ’50s; he was doing lighting for the festival in the summer time. It was just a summer operation then.
He persuaded me to come up for the summer of 1950, to be his assistant in lighting. I did, and as a consequence, I got to know Angus Bowmer (the founder of OSF and its first artistic director). A couple of years later, he invited me back to Ashland to be a designer and technical director for the shows. That started my long career at the festival.
Later on I got a MFA degree in Theatre Arts at Stanford University, and got a Fulbright grant to go to England to study theater, specifically production of Shakespeare. When I came back, Angus asked me to design the replacement for the Elizabethan stage house, which was falling apart. I designed the current one, which opened in 1959. Back then, the balcony and seating arrangement, that we see now, did not exist. There was just the Chautauqua wall. Since then, I have often been with the festival; sometimes I’ve done freelance work elsewhere.

EH: Is the Allen Elizabethan Theatre designed after a specific theater in English history?

RH: No. At the time it was built, in 1959, there had not been as much research into what Shakespeare’s theater might actually be like. There was a lot of speculation. Nowadays we know a lot more about it. What we see there is based upon the traditions that had grown in the festival and in the use of its previous stages. I made a better building and a better stage. There was probably never a theater in Shakespeare’s time that looked like what we have.
EH: What is your design process?
RH: Essentially, I read the play, and of course think about it. I outline it for myself in terms of special needs as the action progresses through the play, what kind of space the actors are going to need and what that space needs to be so that they can perform in it, and how to make it expressive. So I end up with lots of charts. I do that before the first meeting with the director.
Until you meet with the director you don’t know what it’s going to look like or what his or her approach is going to be. The director wants to communicate with this production an attitude toward it and the qualities of the play. You find that out in your first design meeting with the director. These design meetings are with the major people on the creative team: the director, the lighting designer, the costume designer, the set designer, the composer, the dramaturg. The director explains the vision of the play. You sit down for a couple of days and talk about it, and try to make the initial steps to finding a way to realize it.

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