STAGE : The New King of Ashland : Oregon Shakespeare Festival gambled on an inexperienced director. But he's confident and talking expansion.

John Boudreau is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

With a regal sweep of his hand, Henry Woronicz shows off the new addition to his kingdom, a $7.5-million extension to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor Tudor Theater. Sharp sounds of saws and hammers sing out in the acoustical shell--where the Bard's verse can now be spoken, not shouted--as craftsmen complete finishing touches.

The youthful, 37-year-old thespian in jeans and tennies, who is known more for his acting than directing and who has never run a company before, is shepherding in his first season at one of the nation's largest theaters. The bearded artistic director ascended his throne in June, 1991, after respected 20-year veteran Jerry Turner abdicated for retirement last season.

Now all eyes "are idly bent on him that enters next." Critics greeted Woronicz's reign skeptically: "Who is this upstart prince, the favorite son who's just won one of the most powerful, if isolated, jobs in the American theater?" asked the Sunday Portland Oregonian.

Woronicz snoops around the 1,200-seat outdoor space several days before the start of the summer season in late June. With obvious pride, he settles on a bench in a quiet cove behind the structure. His graceful manners comport with those of the great actor he is. His face has a rough-hewn and chiseled look, a bit like Kirk Douglas.

"It's not broken and it doesn't need to be fixed, but it will be fine-tuned," says Woronicz, who has performed in festival productions for seven years, handling title roles in "Peer Gynt," "Cyrano de Bergerac" and "Henry VIII."

"There's a great legacy here, and I'm determined to honor it," Woronicz says, speaking softly. "One of the things that attracted me to the festival is that it takes its time. It's never in a rush, it's never desirous of what's hot, what's new. It's primarily a classical theater. The challenge is not to let them become museum pieces, but to keep them alive and functioning as meaningful ideas and words set into action."

Woronicz is only the third artistic director for one of America's most stable and oldest theatrical companies, which won a Tony for outstanding achievement by a regional theater in 1983. The festival wanted young artistic blood and chose Woronicz, who was the unanimous choice from a pool of 65 seasoned theater directors from around the country and England.

"We had a hell of a lot of people applying; it wasn't a question of having too few to pick from," says the venerable Turner, who did not participate in the search but insisted the festival cast a wide net. "There were some surprises in the way the decision came down, but I wasn't uncomfortable with it. So far I feel confident. I think generally the whole company does. I don't think you have to draw leadership primarily from directors. He speaks the language of actors, and I think that's a good idea. Not all directors do."

"We got taken to task by one paper in Seattle," says Executive Director William Patton, who has been with the festival since 1948 and was on the search committee. "It said we took the safe course. Actually, it was just the opposite. We would have made quite a different decision if we had been in a (financial) ditch like so many other theaters. Then you don't bring in somebody totally inexperienced. But we could take that risk. He will move the company forward without making radical changes."

He certainly won't start from scratch: Woronicz is surrounded by plenty of old hands, including Turner, who continues to direct; Richard L. Hay, the designer of the festival's three spaces and more than 165 productions, and Pat Patton, associate artistic director and a 28-year Ashland veteran.

"We need to widen the canon we work from," says Woronicz, who has an interest in works by Athol Fugard, August Wilson, Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco and whose model is the Royal Shakespeare Company. "That may involve plays from the Orient. We haven't had a lot of French plays or German plays. I tend to be attracted to plays like (David Hirson's) 'La Bete' or Edward Bond's 'Restoration.' We want to make sure people are seeing a variety of work."

This season's offerings, in fact, include "La Bete," the verse comedy that drew mixed reviews and lasted only a month on Broadway last year, and "Restoration," a British social satire on the powerlessness of the poor. The festival is also producing four Shakespeare plays, and a handful of others, including Lillian Hellman's "Toys in the Attic," Irishman John Millington Synge's "The Playboy of the Western World" and Max Frisch's rarely produced "The Firebugs." (Woronicz is staging "La Bete" and "All's Well That Ends Well." His past directing credits at the festival include "Henry IV, Part II," "Romeo and Juliet" and Fugard's "Master Harold . . . and the Boys.")

One of Woronicz's priorities is to erase within two years a $225,000 budget deficit from the company's Portland season, held in a 900-seat Edwardian theater from November to April. Woronicz plans to rotate plays between the two venues, and the company is negotiating for lower rent from the city of Portland, which should greatly ease the shortfall.

And he wants to increase the racial diversity of his company and audience, hire more guest directors--he brought in four this season, including three women--and develop new playwrights.

"I will try to pull more brand-new work into the festival," he says. "We're arguably the largest regional theater in the country, and we should hold some of the responsibility of nurturing new writers. We don't need to be the Actors Theatre of Louisville. That's not our main mission. But we have the resources, a permanent company that's here 10 months a year. It should be an ideal place to have a writer come and work in residency."

Of course, the meat of the company remains the classics, and the Bard in particular.

"If you look at our playbill for the last 57 years," Woronicz says, "it's basically the history of Western civilization. I think Peter Brook said, 'Any theater that can dedicate itself to the work of William Shakespeare is doing so out of the belief that it is the greatest school of life.' My work in Shakespeare over the last 15 years has certainly proved that to be true. You can find it all in that work."

A trip to Ashland, where 11 plays rotate in repertory on three stages from February through October, is an annual pilgrimage for more than 360,000 people. (The company's Portland venue draws more than 76,000 a season.) More than 90% of its audience comes from at least 150 miles away, and 50% from out of state.

The town's streets, lined with boutiques, coffee shops and New Age stores, are set against picturesque pastures and rolling green hills. Visitors spot the previous night's heroines and villains sipping coffee at sidewalk tables or hustling to rehearsals. (Sixty-four actors play about 225 characters and understudy roles.)

"People come and spend four, five days here," Woronicz says. "They talk about the play at dinner, then they see another that night and talk about it afterward with drinks. It's like an academy in the best sense of the word. . . . We often talk about the magic of Ashland, and I'm not quite sure what that is. I have a pet theory: The theater has been here so long, and there have been so many performances, so much energy and joy and entertainment, that it has sunk into the ground, and it's in the trees and the water and everything else."

Festival founder Angus Bowmer, an eager young teacher from Southern Oregon Normal School, presented the first season in 1935 with productions of "Twelfth Night" and "The Merchant of Venice." The city's business leaders, worried that the Bard wouldn't bring in the bucks, wanted pre-play boxing matches to cover an anticipated deficit. Bowmer reasoned that Shakespeare himself put up with bull- and bearbaiting between shows and complied. In the end, the plays provided a neat profit--and covered losses from the boxing.

The festival has come to dominate the town; its administration office is ensconced in a former hotel, its prop shop in an old roller rink. The company, once considered an oddity among rural residents, now generates $60 million a year in business for the local economy. Alumni include Powers Boothe, William Hurt, Stacy Keach, Kyle MacLachlan and Jean Smart.

"The festival, in many ways, has been kept a great secret in American theater," Woronicz says. "It's 57 years old, has produced hundreds of plays, employed thousands of actors and technicians. But because we're not located in a city and we don't do a lot of national PR, we don't get much recognition from our peers. It's not a flashy organization. The festival does no advertising."

Just good work. The theater's performances consistently earn praise from critics.

"We would like to take more of a leadership role," Woronicz says. "I think we'd like to host conferences, encourage more creativity with our own work, invite people to see that and take things on tour. We would like to start to flex our muscles a little bit, but not in a bravado way. . . . There are a lot of big regional theaters that don't really know what we do. We tackle plays with 20-person casts."

The company thrives amid the rustic Rogue Valley. "It's like actors' nirvana," Woronicz says. "It's allowed actors, directors, artisans to become an integral part of the community. The actors here don't talk about having a career; they talk about having a life in the arts, in the theater. There are actors who own houses. A lot of people make fun of that: I heard someone say that there were more mortgages in this company than in any theater in this country. I don't think that's true. There's a lot of the old mythology that you have to suffer for your art, starve in garrets."

The festival, by tradition, encourages a chorus of opinions.

"We have what we call a company relations meeting once a month," the artistic director says. "We try to let everybody's voice be heard. We may be the last socialistic theater in the West."

Woronicz, a native of Needham, Mass., evolved into his craft: "I don't have one of those seminal moments where my Aunt Maude takes me to see 'Guys and Dolls' and I was hooked for the rest of my life. I just started doing it in junior high and high school."

He continued acting in college, while he earned his bachelor's degree in communication arts from Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts. Since finishing school in 1976, he has acted and directed at theaters across the country, including the Boston Shakespeare Company, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre and the Los Angeles Theatre Center (where in 1987 he acted in "The Film Society").

Woronicz, who had planned on starting his own theater ensemble, hopes to return to the stage next season. But now his job is to stoke creative embers for the more than 500 members of his company and to help manage its $11-million budget.

"We knew he was a superb theater artist," says William Moffat, president of the festival's board of directors. "We knew his artistic values fit this theater well. He has sort of a quiet authority that shades to stubbornness that we like. But he was clearly weak on experience. If he turns out to be a passable administrator, he'll be great for us.

"He's beginning to show the kind of administrative strengths we hoped he would. He's also showing his lack of experience. He understands his weaknesses and is not defensive about them. He's growing. We're extremely happy at this stage."

According to Woronicz, his old boss, Turner, offered this piece of advice: "He said, 'Henry, you've got to remind them it's a theater. You do plays.' That was always his bugaboo, that we'd become like a corporation. It's certainly easy in a repertory situation--we do 700 performances a year here--to feel that you're just churning it out. That's the biggest danger for an organization like this."

Woronicz is ready to drift backstage of the remodeled outdoor theater, which was paid solely through donations. Construction workers are dissipating, and final preparations for the evening's performance of "Othello" are made. Later, a cloudburst will soak actors and audience members. But most, sodden to the bone, stay to see the Moor's undoing.

The festival, Woronicz says, is doing something vital. He pauses once more, then adds: "Theater is one of the last bastions of public discourse. It's not regulated to celluloid. It's an event. It's about throwing out ideas. It's a mixture of temporal and corporal. It exists live in front of you with blood, sweat, spit and all that, and then it's gone."

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