Kate Taylor continues her excellent reporting on the business of professional theatre in the NY Sun with an up-close look at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, particularly from the actor's perspective:
Ashland, Ore., the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is a small town with a population of around 20,000. The theaters are full, and the audiences — the majority of whom are from California, Oregon, and Washington — enthusiastic. But Ashland is definitely off the radar of New York casting agents. Working here isn't like doing a stint at the Williamstown or Berkshire Theatre Festivals, where well-known New York actors regularly do shows in the summer.
What Ashland offers, however, is significant: a warm, supportive community, a chance to play an unusual variety of roles, and, not least, a degree of job security almost unknown in the theater world. The festival runs between February and October. Depending on which shows he's in, an actor will get a six-, eight-, or ten-month contract. The starting Equity salary is $750 per week, and actors who have been in the company a long time make much more.
It's not easy to get in: Hundreds of actors audition each year for only a handful of Equity positions. But once you're accepted, you're basically part of a family, and, as long as things go well, you're asked back for each subsequent season. Several actors have been in the company for more than 15 seasons, and a few for more than 20.
Whatever hope there is for stability in professional theatre employment comes from nonprofit companies like this, which, in turn, depend on a healthy regional theatre climate across all 50 states.
Ashland is also notable in how successful it is. Some of this is grants. A lot of it, frankly, is very wealthy donors. And both the cause and effect of all this has been reportedly a very safe, conservative aesthetic. (They're our Stratford festival, our "Slings and Arrows.") But as Taylor's article shows, keeping good professional actors steadily employed is an important goal in any serious theatre culture.