Shirley Patton, 81, celebrated 60 years of service with the Tudor Guild on Monday. Patton is in her 75th year of acting, although no longer with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF).
She’ll star in Camelot Theatre’s “The Gin Game” in May.
As the Tudor Guild recognized various decades of service at its Monday meeting, Patton was saved for last as the longest-standing member. She received a more detailed introduction and a bouquet of flowers. Laughing as she took the microphone at the podium, she said, “I’m an ancient artifact.”
In a more serious tone, she added, “In later years you all have done so much more than what I did. You all deserve this,” she said, brandishing her flowers. “The organization has become so much more in the last 60 years.”
She recounted when the Tudor Guild was nothing more than a small booth in the back of the Elizabethan Theatre with handmade goods to sell.
Patton said she landed in Ashland in 1958 after years of dreaming of joining the OSF company. She was a theater major at Stanford University when she learned of Angus Bowmer, OSF founder, and his theater company in Ashland. He was working on a doctorate at the time, and many Stanford theater students followed him to Oregon to work with him. It was sort of “the dream,” she said. At least, it was one of her many dreams, ranked up there alongside New York.
She said she was asked to play the role of Viola in “Twelfth Night” the morning of the opening night due to the original actress being hospitalized the night before.
“I wasn’t even the understudy,” Patton said. This juicy detail created a buzz that helped her pursue her dreams.
She later learned that Bowmer and his wife, Gertrude, were watching that night.
Patton said after college she moved back home to Portland to become a teacher to supplement her acting. It was during this time that she reached out to Bowmer, asking why she hadn’t heard back about her application she’d recently submitted.
Bowmer’s response was that Patton hadn’t sent in the full application, but he vividly remembered her performance as Viola.
“There was a buzz, because I was playing the part. I don’t think he would have remembered otherwise,” Patton said.
He said he had a full company and had already given out all the scholarships but welcomed her to come at her own expense.
“He said to me, ‘You know, Shirley, Shakespeare didn’t write many roles for women,’” Patton said.
She then recalled the story of how she met her husband, Bill Patton, only minutes after she got off the bus.
She said as she walked up the hill behind the Ashland library looking for the building she was to stay in, two men chugged along beside her in an old truck with a mattress in the bed.
“The man driving the truck looked rather concerned I was carrying those suitcases, but he was clearly torn between that and whatever task he had at hand,” Patton said.
As she approached the house she would share with other young actresses in the company, she said the two men also got out and lifted the mattress.
“It’s been fumigated,” the younger man reassured her, Patton recounted.
That man was Bill Patton, the general manager of the company at the time, and the mattress was for her, ordered up by her new roommates. She said at a company-wide social event later that evening, she met him again.
“We started talking and we didn’t stop for 52 years,” Patton said. They were married six months later, around the same time the theater was torn down because the fire department had condemned it, she said.
“During our whole courtship, there was this theater he had to raise the money to rebuild,” Patton said. “We didn’t know if it would happen. Some of the paint was still wet on opening night.”
Bill Patton passed away eight years ago.
Her life has revolved around the theater and always will, she said.
“My three children were all born in winter so I could perform in the summer,” Patton said.
She was a member of the OSF acting company for 30 seasons and played more than 50 roles.
Since leaving OSF, she’s performed with numerous local theater companies and on many local stages, such as the Camelot Theatre, Southern Oregon University and the Craterian Theater in Medford.
Proceeds from the first Wednesday performance of “The Gin Game” at Camelot will go to the Tudor Guild.
The Guild supports OSF financially through its gift shop, “and morally like a friend,” Patton said.
Patton took on many roles, aside from theatrical ones, during her time with the guild. She helped find housing and household items for actors and child care for employees, volunteers and even audience members.
“I remember volunteering for book fairs and wheeling around my youngest, who was preschool age at the time, in a wagon full of books,” Patton said.
She told stories of strong friendships formed through the Tudor Guild when it was only 30 to 50 members strong. She recounted how they’d travel to Crater Lake or the coast in a big bus and then stop to make a fire at a campground before returning to Ashland.
“You couldn’t do that now, the company has grown so much,” Patton said.
She said she nearly resigned from the guild because it was so strict about who it let in, but then she was asked to be on the committee to change the bylaws. Nowadays, anyone can join, Patton said.
As of 2017, the Tudor Guild had contributed $6 million, and that year members volunteered more than 15,000 hours, Patton read from the handbook.
“The Tudor Guild has aged very well,” Patton said. “The members have always had a love of theater, but now they’re able to give so much more.”