OXFORD — Efforts underway since 1997 to coordinate tourism and quality-of-life initiatives in this college town are paying off with a full slate of cultural family-style activities. It continues to grow with the addition of the inaugural Oxford Shakespeare Festival, which begins June 11.
The Lafayette-Oxford-University Cultural Events Committee began meeting in 1997 to explore ways to get the various communities — rural residents, city dwellers and college students — working together to develop the cultural life of Oxford, according to committee member Adrian Aumen.
“We wanted to do something to showcase community talent with a community event in the Grove,” said Aumen, who works in the University Relations Office at the University of Mississippi.
Among the fruits of their efforts is the Summer Sunset Series, now in its fourth year of offering free concerts on five Sunday nights in June and July. It kicked off this year with the Ole Miss Alumni Big Band Concert on June 6th. Other events include “Hosting a Gospel Showcase” and “A Midsummer Night’s Blues.” The series closes on August 1st with a performance by the Germantown Symphony Orchestra, led by Ole Miss professor Ron Verson.
Attendance has continued to climb, with about 1,000 guests at last year’s symphony event, said Aumen.
Jennifer Downs, assistant director of the Oxford Tourism Council, credits more students staying on campus during the summer and the increase in Oxford’s population with the program’s success.
“It’s interesting to see how we can come together and enrich the community,” she said.
Universal appeal of Shakespeare
Collaboration is the also the theme of the Oxford Shakespeare Festival, scheduled to bookend its events around the Second Annual Oxford Film Festival.
The month-long Shakespeare Festival begins with a production of
“Othello, Moor of Venice” at 8 p.m. at the Gertrude Ford Center on campus on June 11, 12, and 26. It’s followed by a family production of John Howell’s adaptation “Alice Through the Looking Glass” at 8 p.m. June 24-25 and 2 p.m. June 26, with final performances of both on July 2-3 to close the events.
Joe Turner Cantu, artistic director and founder, was impressed with the success of last year’s inaugural Oxford Film Festival and wanted to further utilize the Ford Center during the summer.
“I thought it would be a waste to have this beautiful state-of-the-art facility to be empty,” he said.
Cantu has a long track record with Shakespeare fests, having created the Texas Shakespeare Festival when he was at Southern Methodist University and a similar event at the College of William and Mary. Shakespeare has a universal appeal to theatergoers, and Cantu said he wanted to further the cultural offerings this summer with the classic “Othello”.
“The themes are universal, and the writing is some of the best theatre in the English language,” he said.
Tickets priced at $8 should put the events in the range of most families’ budgets, while the “Alice” production was chosen particularly for its appeal to younger ages. “We always want to do a family production,” said Cantu.
The event is expected to draw visitors from Memphis since various cast members hail from the University of Memphis and from Jackson due to the inclusion of Howell’s “Alice,” which had a successful run in 2002 as a children’s production.
Downs said that sponsors and organizers expect 100-500 in Oxford for the event. The regional draw could also be a result of alumni loyalty to the institution.
“A lot of our alumni live in Memphis and take any excuse to come back,” Downs said.
Elaine Abadie, executive director of the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council (YAC), said she was thrilled with Cantu’s plans to add the Festival to the summer’s offerings.
“He mentioned it to me, and I love Shakespeare,” she said about the YAC’s sponsorship of the event.
Film fest draws large crowds
The fledgling Oxford Film Festival on June 17-20 at the Ford Center is expected to draw large crowds again with more than 55 films already accepted for this year’s event.
“We screened over 60 films last year. It was successful beyond our wildest dreams — we had people coming from L.A. to New York,” Abadie said, noting that over 3,000 attended the first year’s events.
Winning films in each category — short, experimental, documentary, featured films, animation, and music video — win the chance to be screened by a major production company.
Wide range of cultural events
While organizers can’t put an exact dollar value on the events’ economic impact, the word-of-mouth value of Oxford’s reputation as a cultural mecca is certainly a plus for the community, according to Max Hipp, executive director of the Oxford-Lafayette County Camber of Commerce and Economic Development Foundation.
“All the arts we have here have an impact — it brings people into town, lots of tourists. It also enhances our quality of life here and makes our cultural life more attractive,” said Hipp.
The growth of the events can be partly attributed to their family appeal, said Downs. Most cultural events associated with Oxford, such as the Conference for the Book and the long-standing Faulkner Conference, have been more geared to the scholarly and academic community rather than the general public.
“People travel more with their families, and spending a summer day outside is a great way to do it,” said Downs.
Contact MBJ contributing writer at Julie Whitehead at email@example.com.