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In a small Oregon town, the play's the thing

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In addition, there are regular extra-curricular activities tied to the productions: lectures, backstage tours, concerts, free talks by actors and production staff, and a nightly outdoor "green show" featuring music and dance.

"We've got an audience that doesn't come for one play but that sees five or six plays," says OSF artistic director Libby Appel, referring to a yearly audience approaching 400,000. "So we want them to have as full and complete and varied an experience as possible."

Sometimes a particular theme emerges between or among plays. This year, the festival has produced Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" and Suzan-Lori Parks's 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winner "Topdog/Underdog." Both plays - written 50 years apart by African-American women - "confront issues of family and dreams," says Ms. Appel.

In recent years, OSF has made a special effort to increase the racial and ethnic diversity here, in play selection as well as in casting. For some longtime playgoers more used to Elizabethan Shakespeare in traditional period costume, this has taken some getting used to.

But, says Appel, "my deepest and truest belief is that it always enriches the play. There isn't a country that's more diverse than we are. We're an American theater, and we need to reflect an American culture."

In fact, Oregon Shakespeare Festival's name has become a misnomer: Most playgoers, as well as directors and actors, are from out-of-state; while it's rooted in Shakespeare, most of its plays are not by the Bard; and it's not a short-run festival but a full-blown repertory organization (one of the largest in North America) whose productions run all but the winter months.

In recent years, the OSF has grown rapidly in prestige and recognition, gaining high praise from Time magazine and The New York Times.

It not only presents 11 classical and modern plays on three stages from February through October, but it's also commissioning new works (there will be two next year) and sending productions to London as well as to major US metropolitan theaters.

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