CHINOOK, Wash. — Shakespeare’s return to Chinook last week was a gem-like example of can-do Pacific Northwest spirit. In the words of one speaker, it was an “extraordinary moment in the history of Chinook.”

The sparkling cream-colored interior of the restored Chinook Gymnasium was comfortably filled with 250 guests, performers and purveyors of Elizabethan-era food and drink. Toddlers to 90-year-olds happily mingled, imbibed and caught up on gossip, with children thrilling themselves by peeking at the grownups below through the balcony railings.

Witnessing the dedication of the Angus Bowmer Stage was the gathering’s official purpose, but the evening was really about the enjoyment of spoken English – on stage and to each other – in addition to savoring music and refreshments.

Angus Bowmer, founder of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in Ashland, taught school at Rosburg, Wash., for a year in the late 1920s and for two years after that in Chinook.

Bowmer understood the importance of making theater relevant and useful to his hometown patrons. His theatrical descendants, who attended the stage dedication, still exemplify this philosophy.

Paul Nicholson, OSF’s emeritus executive director, spoke of how the people of Chinook were enriched by Bowmer’s time with them, and how the town shaped Bowmer’s creative choices later in life.

“Angus’ days in Chinook were essential to the founding of the festival,” Nicholson said. Lessons that were ingrained in Bowmer’s approach to small-town theater in Chinook – making it “fun, accessible and alive” – continue “permeating everything the festival does,” he said.

At the start of his career, he produced one of his first plays to raise funds for the Pacific County championship basketball team, which he coached at Chinook Grade School.

Nicholson recounted some of Bowmer’s local experiences, including staging the trial scene from “The Merchant of Venice.” One particularly rambunctious boy tried out for the lead role of Shylock. “That little production changed his life,” giving the student a much-improved sense of self-management and teamwork.

Bowmer left his Chinook teaching job in 1930 to seek his master’s degree at the University of Washington. He went on to found and lead OSF for 35 years. But he took with him from Chinook a firm grasp of “how plays could change people’s lives and how they can bring them together,” Nicholson said.

“He would be tickled pink to know that there is now a stage named after him in the very place where his love of Shakespeare was cradled,” he concluded. (The audience shared a laugh with Nicholson about initially misspeaking by saying “pickled tink.”)

The main event of the evening was presentation on the Bowmer Stage of scenes from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” one of the plays set for performance in Ashland during the 2014 OSF season that begins Feb. 14. OSF actors Christiana Clark, who has just wrapped up her rookie season in Ashland, and Jeremy Johnson, who has been with OSF for four years, each played multiple roles with minimal costume changes.

In the second act, they presented snippets of modern comedies, mostly geared toward a younger audience, such as the Ilwaco and Naselle high school students they coached during workshops in Chinook Friday.

The audience rewarded them with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Master of Ceremonies Jon Krager spoke of the Friends of Chinook School and their tenacious efforts to restore the facility to active life on behalf of all the communities of the lower Columbia. “Heritage families” and newcomers alike have worked hard for this success, he said.

Loma Billups, one of the Friends, remarked “This has been a long time coming.” She joined Nicholson in observing how Bowmer’s relatively brief time in Chinook had an oversized positive impact on locals whose lives were enriched by his lessons. The evening raised enough money to guarantee the return of OSF to Chinook a year from now for more educational outreach. Event organizers including Friends members, OSF Emeritus Board Member Marty Lemke, Ocean Beach School Board Director Sandy Stonebreaker and others will begin meeting soon to explore additional ways to make theater and ongoing part of Chinook life.

Chinook’s Joanne Leech served sweets appropriate to the Shakespearian theme during the intermission, while The Depot and Shelburne restaurants provided food and drink before Thursday’s performance. The Ilwaco High School Jazz Band, the Bayside Signers and part of the Naselle High School Marimba Band all presented shows before the stage dedication.


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