If the Oregon Shakespeare Festival doesn't have the most enthusiastic audience of any regional theater in the country, there must be some performing arts center out there with quite a rabid cult.
Ashland, OSF's quaint home nestled in the foothills of majestic mountain ranges and lined with arts-and-crafts boutiques and casual-nice restaurants eager to pour local Pinot Noir, is a destination town for theatergoing.
Spectators come from all across the Pacific Northwest and beyond for multi-day outings of Shakespeare, other classic and demi-classic authors and contemporary writing of a highly ambitious order.
No, it's not just about the Bard of Avon, though the festival's namesake sets the bar high in terms of dramatic scope and duration. Stemming the TV-influenced tide of much contemporary theater, OSF makes 90-minute intermission-less fare the exception rather than the rule.
The talk this year, the second full season of Cornerstone Theater Company co-founder Bill Rauch's tenure as artistic director, is all about "Equivocation," Bill Cain's drama about Shakespeare's struggle to write about the 1605 Gunpowder Plot intended to assassinate King James I and the nation's Protestant power-brokers. This surprisingly resonant play, receiving its world premiere under Rauch's direction, is a hot property, with a different production slated to open at the Geffen Playhouse in November and another one at Manhattan Theatre Club in early 2010.
And the OSF crowd, a portion of which had caught "Henry VIII" and "Macbeth," both of which shed light on events Cain is dramatizing, was unusually prepared to appreciate the political nuances and theatrical quips of this gallopingly intelligent work of historical fiction.
Rauch, who shared with me the breadth of his bold agenda, has brought to Ashland the same quality of communal idealism that distinguished his leadership of Cornerstone. Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, where he was in rehearsal for Culture Clash's update of Aristophanes' "Peace" at the Getty Villa, he talked about the extraordinary "ownership" of the festival's audience, the sense of investment they have in the institution, as well as the need "to shake things up in the company," to bring in fresh directorial perspectives and to challenge artists to "keep the work vital."
Like everyone else in Obama's America, Rauch is grappling with change and the resistance to change. On the plus side, new play development is percolating impressively with the commissioning of playwrights for a 37-play, 10-year series exploring epochal shifts in American life. (Alison Carey, who co-founded Cornerstone with Rauch, is the director of the project, "American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle.")
Outreach to local residents, who make up less than 15% of ticket-buyers, has bumped up their attendance. And total ticket sales topped 400,000 for 2008, down just a bit from the record set in 2007, the final season of Libby Appel's 12-year reign as artistic director.
No one could argue that this three-stage theatrical behemoth with an annual operating budget of more than $24 million isn't gleaming with renewed purpose. But a two-day splurge of theater, which in addition to Cain's drama included "Henry VIII," "The Music Man" and "Paradise Lost," exposed an area of weakness that OSF will need to address to advance its place in the hierarchy of major nonprofit theaters -- a midlevel acting company that could use a substantial overhaul.
This observation was unavoidable in my first day, when I attended a matinee of Clifford Odets' 1935 Depression-era drama "Paradise Lost," directed by Appel at the Angus Bowmer Theatre, and an evening performance of Shakespeare's "Henry VIII," directed by John Spies at the beautiful outdoor Elizabethan Stage.
I was excited to encounter both of these rarely staged works -- the Odets because it speaks uncannily to our current dire economic straits and the Shakespeare because it's one of the only plays of his I've never seen before, and I was in the mood for some alfresco pageantry.
The good news about both productions is that the stories were lucidly conveyed, with the meat-and-potatoes of plot presented without a lot of directorial garnish. Given the lumpiness of the tales, this isn't a bad strategy, and it seems to be one that OSF audiences have come to depend on. What I gleaned from my conversation with theatergoers (some of the friendliest and most voluble I've ever encountered) is that these folks would rather be spellbound by narratives than hypnotized by auteurs or even dazzled by superstars.
But the acting standard was disappointing. Now, there are undoubtedly many able performers in the sizable resident company, but some bad habits appeared fairly widespread. For example, whenever the action grew more intense, the performers tended to become louder -- with crisis points being delivered in shrieks. There was also a good deal of "indicating" or over-illustrating of characters' situations, often with generic emotions. And most annoying of all was the bazaar of eye-bulging, brow-clenching, fist-raising theatrics, nervously ensuring that we never miss a crucial point.
OK, I wasn't expecting the Royal Shakespeare Company in its heyday, but there seemed to me a discrepancy between the level of institutional professionalism and polish and the unsubtle quality of the playing. The choice of work was adventurously varied -- popular ("Macbeth" and "Much Ado About Nothing") and less popular ("Henry VIII" and "All's Well That Ends Well") Shakespeare, spry world classics ("The Servant of Two Masters"), revamped masterpieces ("Don Quixote," adapted by Octavio Solis), American writing old and new, a series of outdoor offerings billed as the "Green Show," and even a musical chestnut.
Playbills usually aren't worth commenting on, but the program at OSF, with its easily digestible synopses and short but insightful directorial notes, were graceful and informative. Patrons are actively being engaged in a theatrical conversation, and their voices can be heard throughout the festival, praising, criticizing, interpreting and fleshing out contexts. As Appel told me, "People here are willing to listen to a play that's so obscure, and that energy goes from the audience to the actors in a way the almost spoils them."
As for the other two productions I saw, both directed by Rauch, the acting -- especially by Anthony Heald as Shag (otherwise known as Shakespeare) in "Equivocation" -- was stronger. Although I'm not sure I entirely agree with the stranger at my hotel who diagnosed the fundamental OSF problem as directorial, even though Rauch got better performances out of some of the same actors that I had issues with the previous day. Rotating repertory gives everyone a number of chances to shine, yet a few of these performers would have had trouble if Peter Brook had been summoned for the Shakespeares and Stanislavsky had been brought back from the dead as an on-hand acting coach.
With 82 actors and 10 acting interns, OSF has the largest resident company in the country. The situation has the potential to be a dream not just for those thespians craving steady work of substance and a modicum of financial stability but also for audiences longing to see that multi-headed hydra known as a seasoned ensemble -- an almost mythological creature in an America of pickup casts.
Yet we're also witness to the keen difficulty of attracting high-caliber talents to sign on for a 10-month contract in an area that's idyllic but far from the media spotlight. Sought-after actors would have to be extremely devoted to their craft to accept the sacrifice of this almost yearlong commitment.
A top priority
Still, Rauch has brought to OSF more than just a palpable enthusiasm. He's come with a vision, aesthetic and political, that should be able to build on the achievement of Appel, who, when I asked her what she was most proud of, talked of having "raised the profile of the festival among theater artists" as well as having expanded the operation and broadened the repertory.
Raising the level of the acting pool -- clearly the most pressing order of lingering business -- is a top priority for Rauch. To this end, he wants the performers to be continually confronting new directorial perspectives (recognizing that comfort can lead to complacency), and he's appointed Scott Kaiser as director of company development, a new position dedicated to "the long-term growth of each artist and the company as a whole."
There are also weekly ateliers in which actors get to work on aspects of their craft. And he's assigned one group of actors to serve as an acting resource for the new play development wing -- an especially exciting development when you look at the names of those commissioned for the History Cycle, including Suzan-Lori Parks, Lynn Nottage, David Henry Hwang and Culture Clash.
In short, there are reasons for artists to buy, so to speak, OSF stock. After all, there aren't many places in America where talent can be stretched in so many varied directions. Or where diversity in casting translates into finding the best actor for the role, regardless of race, type or even physical challenge. In "The Music Man," Marian the librarian was played by the melodious-voiced African American actress Gwendolyn Mulamba, and Howie Seago, a notable deaf actor, took on the role of Marcellus Washburn. More exciting still, last season saw a multiracial "Our Town," directed by Chay Yew on the Elizabethan Stage, the first 20th century play at the outdoor theater.
Rauch says he's trying to create an atmosphere in which "risk is rewarded rather than punished." But when I asked whether he, being the empathetic guy that he is, finds it hard to make those tough end-of-year decisions about which actors will be invited back, his usual eloquence deserted him and he replied with just a single word: "Yes."
Not yet through with his second season, he's obviously still figuring out his game plan. But he reassured me that his ultimate concerns were the "mission of the theater and making the work stronger." "The Music Man" and "Equivocation" were certainly robustly staged and augur better things to come. With less deadwood in the company (and more chemistry between the leads), the pared fluidity of Rauch's production of Meredith Willson's musical would be right at home at the first tier of regional theaters. And Cain's drama, burgeoning with smart and snappy writing (too much perhaps for one play), signals that contemporary dramatists will be encouraged to imagine along the same grand lines of their classical predecessors, who will always be OSF's chief lure.
Not that these indefatigable audiences need much prodding. Give them plays of enduring merit, and they'll make a theater critic feel like a slacker by comparison.