Ten Years of the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival

April 26, 2018
Hillary Hempstead
two actors dressed in Shakespearean attire
Macbeth, 2016 season Photo credit: John Seyfried

The 2018 season marks the 10th year of operation for the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival, which has been operating under the direction of Paul Moser, professor of theater, since its inception. This year, productions of Little Women, Romeo and Juliet, and Picnic will run in rotating repertory beginning on June 22 and going through August 4.

All performances are free to the public and are appropriate for the entire family, including school-aged children. Evening performances take place at 7 p.m., while matinees begin at 2 p.m. on most Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. All shows are performed in Hall Auditorium at 67 North Main Street in Oberlin.

Learn about the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival in this Q&A with Paul Moser.

Q: The Oberlin Summer Theater Festival (OSTF) operates under the auspices of Oberlin College and is a college sponsored program independent of the Theater department. How did OSTF get its start?
Moser: “When I was looking for a teaching job almost 30 years ago, one of the things I wanted was a place that I could start a summer theater program. I initiated the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival as my professional research project, just like professors in the sciences may do lab research. The Oberlin Summer Theater Festival is related to the theater department, and most of the people who are working on it are part of the department, but it’s not technically a theater department thing; it’s my professional project.

During the first summer theater season we developed some new plays, and that was interesting, but we didn’t get much of an audience. Then we tried doing free Shakespeare in the summer, originally with the Mad Factory, but when I was tapped as chair of the theater and dance department I found that I couldn’t be chair of a department that had a lot of production demands and also run a theater. So I let it go for a time. But when Marvin Krislov came in as president of the college, I found he had a keen interest in theater. So I approached him with starting the summer theater program again but expanding from one Shakespeare play per summer to a three show repertory. And the first year, because of budget constraints, we started with two shows in rep, then we eventually went to three. And we’ve gone from the first summer as a four week rep run, and now we’re up to three shows in seven weeks. And President Krislov was very helpful and was good at being our cheerleader.”

Q: This is the 10th season of OSTF and you have been the director throughout the history of the program. What has the road been like?
Moser: “It’s been very gratifying. There are two things about the project that are kind of unique. One is that we have kind of a hybrid company—some equity actors, some non-equity—and also some college students and alumni that we bring back. The second thing that’s unique about the summer theater is that it’s free, and that was very key to the concept. Regional theaters around the country are losing audiences around 1 percent a year; the audience is declining. It’s not as bad as it is for symphonies and opera houses; those are actually plummeting faster. But part of the reason for the decline in attendance to regional theaters is that they haven’t trained younger audiences to come to the theater. As audiences have shrunk, they’ve raised ticket prices to counteract the effect, which has made theater very exclusive. For OSTF, I wanted to experiment with the free model, and every year that’s worked out better and better. The audience has grown, and I’ve found a formula that works.”

Q: Last summer was a banner year for OSTF. It drew more than 12,500 audience members, with attendees coming from 30 different Ohio counties and even some from out-of-state. To what do you attribute this success?
Moser: “I’d like to think a lot of it has to do with the good work we’re doing. You can have all the publicity in the world, but if you’re not doing good shows, you can’t force people to come to the theater, even if it is free—so a lot of it is that. I also think we’ve made a concerted effort to make it accessible, obviously being free has a big impact. A large percent of our audience says it’s the only theater they go to during the year; they’re not running off spending money at other theaters. And geographically it’s very diverse. There are a lot of people from Lorain and Elyria, and we see an awful lot from more rural towns like Norwalk, Medina, and farming communities. We try to pick things that will appeal to a wide variety of people and not to alienate people, so they feel it’s all right to bring their kids. And if there’s something that’s not all right for kids, we put that in the promotional material.”

Q: Thinking about the past ten seasons, are there things you’d consider particularly notable?
Moser: “What’s been memorable is having alumni and people from our department work together, year after year. I think this way we can look at what we created. Especially when we’re at the back of the house and the theater is packed. We didn’t start out that way, so that’s pretty memorable.”

Q: What can attendees can look forward to this season?
Moser: “Our major focus is lining up the actors each year, and I think we’ve done a particularly good job at that this year. Oberlin alum Joey Rizzolo is coming back to direct Romeo and Juliet. Actually, when he was a student, he helped with the free Shakespeare. He earned an MFA, now he runs an acting company in New York, and he has even come back to play Hamlet in a previous OSTF production.

Little Women, of course, is based on a novel, and it’s very difficult to adapt a novel to a play. And because it’s in public domain, there are many adaptations of it—believe me, I’ve read many of them. We finally found an adaptation that was originally done at the Minneapolis Children’s Theater, which is a very large theater, and was also done at the Stratford Festival. It’s really good, and it stands alone as a play.

And Picnic is good. This will be the third William Inge play we’ve done. We did Bus Stop six years ago, and Picnic is considered the best thing he’s done—it won a Pulitzer in 1953, so I’m very excited. What’s nice about Inge is that he’s a Midwestern voice, so I think it resonates a great deal with our audience.”

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