Remembering Angus Bowmer

Each season thousands of tourists from around the world experience theatrical classics on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Angus Bowmer Stage. What some don't realize, however, is who the man behind the name was, and what he has meant to Ashland.

Angus Bowmer was born in Bellingham, Washington, on Sept. 25, 1904, to Charles and Florence "Flora" Bowmer. He graduated from the Washington State Normal School (now Western Washington University) in 1923 before attending the University of Washington in Seattle. While a student there he acted in at least two of the school's William Shakespeare productions ("Love's Labor's Lost" and "Cymbeline") which were both under the direction of Ben Iden Payne. Payne's ideas for neo-Elizabethan staging of Shakespearean works would be a great influence on Bowmer later in his life.

In 1931, in the middle of the Great Depression, Bowmer was hired as an English teacher in Ashland at Southern Oregon Normal School, which later became Southern Oregon University. Bowmer, then 27, intended to teach speech and drama, but found that SONS did not have a speech or dramatic department. But this didn't stop him. In 1932 he presented his first Shakespeare play, "As You Like It," with his cast dressed in modern costumes. Both faculty and students acted in the production.

Then, beginning early in the spring of 1934, Bowmer began to work toward producing Shakespeare plays on an Elizabethan stage. He started by building a four-unit stage in the school auditorium. Bob Stedman, a student of Bowmer's, was a key leader in the construction of the stage. The venture quickly grew larger as people from Ashland, Medford and Phoenix joined the students in both the building of the theater and the acting. On May 10 and 11, the theater produced "The Merchant of Venice" which Bowmer directed and also acted in as the part of Shylock.

With hopes to continue to expand the project, Bowmer looked into reviving the Ashland 4th of July Celebration and staging a Shakespearean Festival there. He was able to convince a committee of Ashland leaders and business men to approve the project, and was given $400 (the equivalent of $5,600 today) and a 10-man crew to build his stage. He chose to show "The Merchant of Venice" again and also added "Twelfth Night". The committee worried, however, that the plays would lose money and therefore, they arranged for several boxing matches to show as well so that they could make up for any financial loss. Bowmer agreed to this and after the event turned out to be the boxing matches that lost money; and the plays that made enough income to cover them.

This was the beginning of what would come to be known as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has continued since that day, despite a short break for the few years (beginning in 1942) when Bowmer served in the U.S. Military as a Warrant Officer. Bowmer also married Gertrude Butler prior to serving in the army. As a man remembered for his love of Shakespeare and being the kind of person that always reached out to others, OSF continues to try and stay true to Bowmer and follow in his example. the time that Bowmer died in 1979, the festival had produced Shakespeare's entire cannon twice, and since then, OSF has grown in ways that Bowmer might never have dreamed.

"He was, of course, a man of vision," said Paul Nicholson, OSF's Executive Director. "But I don't think even he could have possibly imagined what the festival would be today."

Today the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is one of the premiere theaters in the United States and is under contract with the Actors Equity Association. They present more than 750 shows on three stages from February to October each year, and ticket sales each season reach more than 360,000 viewers. A non-profit organization, OSF is supported by corporate and individual donors, with patrons and donors gifts to the Bowmer Society alone totaling more than $1,600,000 each year. These funds go directly towards workshops, lectures, teacher training, lodging and transportation, as well as more than 50,000 discounted student tickets annually. They also support OSF programs at more than 100 schools and reaching 80,000 people each year. OSF is also supported by more than 600 volunteer workers.

Bowmer has also truly imprinted himself in history over the years. In the year 2000, 21 years after his death, Bowmer was announced Alumni of the Century at Western Washington University. Bowmer was also elected Presedential Appointee to the National Council of the Arts in 1974, given the University of Oregon's Distinguished Service Award in 1961, and the recipient of the First Annual Governor's Award for Significant Contributions to the Advancement of Arts in Oregon in 1977.

No matter how far OSF may go, the company will never, ever forget the man that started it all.

"I think his spirit still lives in the festival," said Paul Nicholson, OSF executive director.

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