OSF Leaders Thrill Town Hall Audience With Discussion of Coming 2016 Season, Touring Productions, Diversity, Environmental Sensitivity and More
– by Lee Greene
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) kicked off the festivities in preparation for the opening, four weeks hence, of the 2016 Repertory Season by holding a Community Town Hall on Thursday, January 28, for a packed audience of community members in OSF’s Thomas Theatre on the Festival’s Ashland, OR campus. OSF’s leadership was well represented at the event, with both Artistic Director, Bill Rauch, and Executive Director, Cynthia Rider, giving short presentations and then participating in an extended question and answer session, moderated by OSF Community Producer, Claudia Alick. Questions were taken from the audience, and also supplied from submissions received online which were read by Ms. Alick. It was obvious from the interest, involvement, and engagement of the community members in the audience, and from the responses of Ms. Rider and Mr. Rauch, that as Ms. Rider verbalized, “The Shakespeare Festival is a part of the Ashland community and does not exist without the Ashland community.” Unsaid, but obviously just as true, the Ashland community is an indispensable part of the Shakespeare Festival.
The event was presented at the stage in the Thomas Theatre holding the set for the 2016 production of a unique new adaptation of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Yeomen of the Guard, which among other things, will offer very innovative “immersive promenade seating” on stage. In fact, your writer was coaxed by OSF Communications Manager Julie Cortez to try the promenade seating for the Community Town Hall and agreeably sat front and center on stage on a bale of hay. It was certainly immersive, and comfortable – I can hardly wait to experience the promenade seating for the actual performance of The Yeomen of the Guard next month; it promises to be a truly novel, certainly different, potentially thrilling, and quite memorable theater experience.
The conclave commenced, after introductions by Ms. Alick, with brief presentations first by Ms. Rider, then Mr. Rauch. Ms. Rider began by noting the set for The Yeomen of the Guard and pointing out the unique promenade seating. Everybody seems to be excited about this, both within the OSF company, and judging by the reactions, within the community and the company’s audience as well. Ms. Rider went on to summarize the success of last season, which was financially prosperous despite the loss of several outdoor performances due to extreme forest fire smoke. Next she spoke of the Festival’s ongoing “bricks renovation” construction project – this year (Phase One), improvements are being made to the Bowmer Theatre, including the addition of a passenger elevator. Next year (Phase Two) will bring renovations to the outdoor brick area and setting where the Green Shows are staged. She then presented a brief overview of OSF’s new long range plan, which provides the company with a 10 year vision artistically and 3 years of actual advanced planning. That included a discussion of the Company’s Vision, Mission, and 4 Core Values (Excellence, Inclusion, Company, and Stewardship). Rather than try to accurately repeat all that here, I instead refer you to the page on the OSF website that so effectively presents all that vital, company-guiding information: https://www.osfashland.org/about/what-is-osf.aspx. She then turned the dais over to Mr. Rauch.
Mr. Rauch, seemingly always projecting the excitement and sheer joy that involvement in live theater provides him, began by discussing how exciting it was to attend the back-to-back openings by OSF’s touring companies of OSF’s Sweat at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. one night recently, and Pericles the next night at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. And in a couple of weeks, OSF’s The Unfortunates will be opening at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. All together, Mr. Rauch beamed, there will be 7 different OSF productions opening around the country this year. Next he spoke about the coming season’s shows being the first to rehearse in the new Hay-Patton Rehearsal Center next to the Thomas Theatre on the Ashland campus, and how exciting and stimulating it is to have all the casts for all the shows present in the same building, with the opportunity to interact with and facilitate one another. Looking ahead, he noted that the 2017 season is almost completely set, except for one last play for the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre. He went on to discuss the challenges of achieving balance among the plays in repertory during a season, including classic versus new plays, plays appealing to various age groups, and even providing balance within each group of plays in repertory at one time during each of the six segments making up a season. Mr. Rauch wrapped up his short presentation by discussing diversity – beginning with the announcement, to much applause, that this is the first season that actors of color represent a majority of the company. He further elaborated that this was both a tumultuous and exciting time in the life of the company with respect to diversity. As I previously tried to convey, Mr. Rauch just oozes genuine, sincere, and abundant excitement and sheer joy, when discussing just about anything having to do with theater, amply on display during this Community Town Hall. And that excitement and joy is contagious – if you are at all interested in theater, you can’t help but be drawn in by Mr. Rauch’s infectious enthusiasm. Every challenge, every obstacle, every problem is just a felicitous opportunity to discover a new, original, creative, and happy solution. How fortunate the company is to have him as its artistic leader; if the Oregon Shakespeare Festival seems to be singularly vital, dynamic, alive, innovative, and creative among American theater companies (AND it IS!), one need NOT look much further than his leadership to understand why and how that has come to be.
The next order of business was a lively Question and Answer session with Ms. Rider and Mr. Rauch sharing the dais and Ms. Alick moderating, that filled the remaining 45 minutes of time allotted for the Town Hall, and actually ran over by a few minutes. By my count at least 20 substantive, thoughtful, significant questions covering a wide range of issues and content were put to the pair, emanating from the live audience and from the interspersed online submissions read by Ms. Alick. Each one received a thoughtful, substantial responsive answer from one or the other or both of OSF’s leadership pair. I’ll try to summarize a few of the highlights here, but obviously can’t cover all of the material in the detail presented at the event. Fortunately, the entire Community Town Hall was recorded, and the recording will soon be available online on YouTube and OSF’s website, for those who are really interested in the “full monty”. If you want to see the whole enchilada for yourself, HERE IT IS (and many thanks to the people of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for providing it):
I’m going to summarize seven topics of interest that came up in the Question and Answer session, several of which were the subjects of more than one question, inquiring about different aspects of the topic in different ways. First, Mr. Rauch was questioned about the process for selecting the plays constituting the company’s seasons, and was pointedly asked whether the political and social implications of a play had become more important than its theatrical merit in choosing which plays to include. Mr. Rauch declared “We pick GOOD plays, language and work that exposes what it means to be human.” “We pick plays because they’re amazing.” In explaining why the company presents new adaptations and new plays, he explained that there’s a value to being exposed to as many different kinds of plays as possible, and that the company has a responsibility to provide opportunities to be creating the classics of tomorrow (that’s how we came to have the great 400 year old Shakespearian classics we treasure today; Shakespeare was writing new plays for a live repertory theater company of his time).
A second topic involved questions about the extent that the company collaborates and shares with other Shakespeare companies around the country. This prompted responses from several staff people of the company about participation by OSF and its staff in the Shakespeare Theatre Association and its annual conferences. Mr. Rauch discussed the coming conference next week at Notre Dame, where the theme is social justice. Ms. Alick discussed an earlier conference at the Stratford Festival, and other OSF luminaries discussed last year’s conference in San Francisco where one of the main topics was the use of technology to effectively present Shakespeare to audiences.
Several questions were asked on a third subject, concerning the consequential effects that the many touring companies produce for the home company in Ashland. Mr. Rauch explained that the company’s leadership is very attentive and responsible to their work in Ashland when out of town with the touring companies, and detailed how he worked remotely to review rehearsals in Ashland and stay on top of business here while he was in New York for the Broadway premiere of All The Way. It was pointed out that while drawing cast members and musicians away from Ashland to participate in the touring companies might be viewed as diluting the company in Ashland, it both creates new opportunities for casts and musicians, who choose to participate in the touring companies, to be seen and establish themselves in the wider theater world, and also creates an opportunity to reinvigorate the Ashland company with fresh new talent filling the spots opened by those on tour. Also discussed was how the touring companies are producing an invaluable benefit for the Ashland company, by exposing theater-going people all over the country to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and attracting wider audiences to come to Ashland, expanding the company’s audience base beyond its historical Oregon-Northern California-Pacific Northwest roots.
A fourth line of questions concerned OSF’s American Revolutions plays – the ten year program of commissioning up to 37 new plays in the United States History Cycle. The questioner noted that OSF doesn’t always produce the American Revolutions plays (of 24 commissions so far, 7 have been produced at OSF) and inquired about the fates of those that don’t make it to one of the OSF stages. Mr. Rauch responded that “We want the plays to get out in the world wherever they may happen.” Some of the commissioned plays are being produced by other theater companies elsewhere, which OSF welcomes. That doesn’t mean that they might not eventually return home and be produced in Ashland. Mr. Rauch conceded that OSF needs to do more to provide exposure for the American Revolutions plays produced elsewhere, so OSF audiences can be aware of the productions and find opportunities to see the outside productions if they’re so interested.
A fifth line of questions worth reviewing concerned the progress of the construction on the Ashland facilities. Questioners wanted to know if the construction will be completed in time for the start of the season, or would delay or interfere with productions being performed at the Bowmer Theatre. Answer: construction always seems to go beyond deadlines, but the theatre should be functional and the performances go on regardless. Some new additions (like the Bowmer’s elevator) just may not be ready at the start of the season (Rauch: “If that happens, Ms. Rider and I will be carrying people up the theater on our backs!”, miming the action while saying it). Another question: Will use of the elevators, packed with people, slow down the starting time of the plays? Answer: The theater staff will be monitoring the effect of the use of the elevators during previews of the shows and making adjustments as needed.
A sixth line of questions concerned the Festival’s commitment to environmental responsibility and concerns. This prompted a whole series of responses on things OSF is doing to address environmental concerns, from Ms. Rider reading the portion of the Long Range Plan that focuses on that issue, to discussions by various OSF staff of the work of the company’s Green Task Force, which is focusing on finding and implementing ways of reducing the level of greenhouse gases produced by the Festival’s operations, and of the unique program by which OSF’s sets are being recycled: donated to the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity which is re-using the materials for their homes.
A final line of questioning I want to mention concerned the language of the plays presented by OSF. Several questions were asked, inspired by the OSF three-year, 39-play commissioning project Play on! 36 playwrights translate Shakespeare, in which 39 Shakespearean plays are to be translated to texts in contemporary modern English as performable companion pieces for Shakespeare’s original texts. A questioner wanted to know whether this season’s production of Shakespeare’s The Life of Timon of Athens was going to be performed in the original Shakespearian text or contemporary English. Answer: The original text. Another questioner explained that their spouse doesn’t understand the Shakespearian English and it would be very beneficial in getting them to attend the plays if the play did happen to be presented in contemporary language. Bill Rauch enthusiastically responded, “I have the idea of doing both the original language and contemporary translation of the play in repertory!” There it is, the “new, original, creative, and happy solution.” A fitting conclusion to a wonderful Community Town Hall.
If the goal of the Community Town Hall was to attract attention to the 2016 season about to open in four weeks, it was an unqualified success, as the large audience departing the theater left amidst much enthusiastic conversation about the coming season, with obvious excitement and anticipation over the productions soon to open. Opening weekend is February 26-28. Four plays will premiere in repertory that weekend: On Friday, February 26, at 8:00 pm., Twelfth Night will open at the Angus Bowmer Theatre. On Saturday, February 27, at 1:30 pm, The Yeomen of the Guard will open at the Thomas Theatre, and at 8:00 pm, Great Expectations will open at the Angus Bowmer Theatre. On Sunday, February 28, at 1:30 pm, The River Bride will open at the Angus Bowmer Theatre. For tickets, call the OSF box office at 800-219-8161 or order online at http://bit.ly/1yqvboU.