The show must go on

Adocumentary short film by Ashland moviemakers Mark and Cici Brown tells the touching story of a community pulling together last summer when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival faced the worst crisis of its then-76-year history: a cracked main beam in the Bowmer Theatre.

The 14-minute film, called "The Spirit Behind Bowmer in the Park," paced with lilting music and uplifting soundbites, tells how the community and OSF reacted after the main beam in the 600-seat theater suffered a 73-foot crack. Shows were hastily restaged in other venues. Within two weeks, with the help of engineers, city planners and festival staff, a temporary tent theater was erected in Lithia Park.

The film, edited by the Browns' daughter Chelsea Witnauer, will be included in the Ashland Independent Film Festival, set for April 12-16.

The Browns shot their footage and interviews during the heat of the battle, and emotion and commitment ring in the soundbites.

"The Bowmer is the heart of this space and that beam is the heart of the Bowmer," actor Robynn Rodriguez says in the film. "The thing was, we had to get it done. ... Beam breaks, get in your street clothes, we're going over to the Armory, do the play. We just did it and let the chips fall where they may."

Executive Director Paul Nicholson, who has been at the festival for 32 years, said, "It was the biggest crisis in festival history and the way the company pulled together was truly extraordinary. ... The spirit behind this whole adventure or crisis is that we all realize very much how we need to keep the faith with the audience. We were incredibly lucky (no one was hurt). After the first thing went wrong, everything went right."

Mark Brown, a longtime Medford TV journalist in the 20th century, notes that during the filming, engineers said that if the beam had given way, the entire theater would have fallen with it. A crack was heard during a Friday evening performance, then a resounding crack and split the next day in rehearsal, he says. The beam was repaired and made stronger by 140 drilled holes filled with epoxy.

In resurrecting shows in new venues, says Associate Artistic Director Christopher Acebo, "There were a lot of miracles. That meeting in the park with staff, Parks and Recreation and city officials — we stood around in a circle and had a conversation about how to make this (tent theater) possible. It was an extraordinary moment. Everyone realized how important the festival is to the community, to audiences and to the company, and everyone stepped up and found the solution to make Bowmer in the Park happen."

The "spirit" was the thing and that's why the word is in the film's title, says Cici Brown.

"What a humbling reminder that all we have is each other ... and if we can't have all the 'stuff,' it can still happen. ... The essential thing about the work is people and relationships," Rodriguez says in the film. "One wants to be a better actor, but this situation was all about being a better human being."

The film contains many still photos by OSF photographer Jenny Graham, who had access to most spots where news media were not allowed. The Browns did the film gratis, with the cooperation of festival staff.

"To have the Bowmer Theater incapacitated ... was like hearing of a dear friend's diagnosis," longtime festival actor Shirley Patton says on the DVD's cover. "This film captures the spirit of triumph ... and return to full activity. ... It is a positive story for people from the town, industry and the entire festival company working together so the shows could go on."

During AIFF, the film will be shown as part of the Local Shorts at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, April 15, at the Historic Ashland Armory.

The movie and another documentary by the Browns, "Two in a Million: A Lasting Legacy," will be shown at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 5, at Havurah Shir Hadash, 185 N. Mountain Ave., Ashland. The second film honors the lives of Ashland musicians Robin Lawson and Dave Marston, both of whom were struck down by a rare brain disease. DVDs of the Bowmer film will be on sale at the Tudor Guild shop at OSF.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at

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