15 minutes with . . .
In 2006, as Cornerstone Theater Company neared its 20th Anniversary, co-Founder and by many accounts guiding spirit Bill Rauch announced that he had accepted the position of Artistic Director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. In one step Rauch traded the reins of one of the nation’s least institutional theaters for one of the grandest, with a budget exceeding $24 million, a campus of three theaters for 770 annual performances before an audience of approximately 360,000. Suddenly, a man who had founded his company in response to the regional theater movement of the early 1960s was running a company that began before many people in the Regional Theater movement had been born.
Folks who have worked with Mr. Rauch, as I have, will find none of this either too surprising or too daunting. In March 2007, with his new day job just a few months away, he was into the meat of rehearsals for My Wandering Boy, a premiere to run during South Coast Repertory’s 10th Annual Pacific Playwrights Festival. The Festival, which has showcased all artists, not just playwrights, certainly served Rauch in recent years. His 2003 staged reading of Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House connected him to the play for its 2004 premiere at Yale Repertory and subsequent remounting at Lincoln Center. As his American free lance career was really taking off he accepted OSF's offer to become its fifth artistic director in seven decades. In June 2007 he began full-time, following departing Artistic Director Libby Appel.
Typically, despite too much to do, he was happy to sit for 15 minutes and talked to us about where he, his theaters, and our American theater might be heading.
CRIS GROSS: Is this your last free lance assignment before taking over officially in June?
BILL RAUCH: Yes. I am directing 'Romeo and Juliet' in Ashland in Libby’s final season. That actually overlaps by a couple days with My Wandering Boy . . . .
CRIS GROSS: So 'My Wandering Boy' will open after you’ve started rehearsal in Oregon?
BILL RAUCH: Yeah, I’ll be going back and forth a little bit. But this is my last free lance gig before I’m fully ensconced in Ashland for the next year plus. And then, you know, I very much hope that I’ll continue to work as a free lance director on average once a year . . . but not till I get through the first year. So the earliest would probably be the fall of ’08.
CRIS GROSS: And then you’ll just pick an offer that makes sense, allows you to support a writer . . .
BILL RAUCH: Yeah. It's in my contract that I can only do one a year. I think Libby Appel, my predecessor,had an exceptional year where she did two and there were years where she did none outside. But I figure one a year on average is probably what will happen. I hope!
CRIS GROSS: I’m sure you’ll have plenty of invitations. The theater world is sad to have you off the guest director roster. Certainly at Yale and here at SCR your contributions have been important in the past few seasons. In fact, it strikes me that SCR is an interesting theater for that last free lance job: It's the last theater still run by the original Founding Artistic Directors [David Emmes and Martin Benson]. Is there anything about SCR that provides a lesson on what to do or what not to do?
BILL RAUCH: This is my fourth year in a row here. I’m an associate artist, and this has been an extraordinary home for me. It really has. It’s been my second artistic home, after Cornerstone, in Southern California.
CRIS GROSS: Really.
BILL RAUCH: Absolutely. That I was able to do ‘The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler,’ which I’m doing in my first season at Ashland, is obviously a direct gift from my time at South Coast. What I take from my relationship with David and Martin and South Coast Rep is obviously longevity. The fact that there still is a founding company with members who act with the company: Richard Doyle is in this piece that I’m directing right now. The fact that David and Martin have been there so long. OSF is a company that has a lot of longevity. And I’ve always been a company guy, an ensemble guy. Those values are very similar values in many ways.
And obviously the connection to new work here, which is newer to OSF. It’s been happening in Ashland, but not remotely to the degree or on the scale that it’s happened here.
CRIS GROSS: In the template of the season schedule, you have certain number of stages, shows . . .
BILL RAUCH: Eleven productions on three stages, running from February to the end of October.
CRIS GROSS: So those are some long runs.
BILL RAUCH: A bunch that run six months, but then two that run all eight months.
CRIS GROSS: Now I assume that when you walk in, nothing is sacrosanct. Anything can happen, but at this point you’ll probably look at everything from the standpoint that “it works.”
BILL RAUCH: Well, obviously a lot works. It’s been going just fine without me for 72 years. But at the same time there should be no stone that we leave unturned in terms of the questions that we ask and the ideas we’re kicking around. Everybody up there knows that I intend for us to commission more new work.
CRIS GROSS: Is there currently a new play on average in a season, or two or less?
BILL RAUCH: Well, it depends on how you define a new play . . .
CRIS GROSS: Well let’s say a first or second production . . .
BILL RAUCH: Well, yes, on average there have been two plus in those terms of new plays, often three. World premieres, you know, usually not more than one a season and certainly some seasons without any world premiere. One big thing is the U.S. History cycle. Alison Carey is coming up to run that. And we plan to commission and produce a lot of work that looks at our country’s history. And trying to build a body of work that really parallels the Shakespeare.
CRIS GROSS: Speaking of history and Shakespeare, are you familiar with Amy Freed's ‘Beard of Avon?’ That feels like a play that could run every few years at a Shakespeare institution like yours. . .
BILL RAUCH: Beard of Avon is a play that I love and hope we can do some day. I'm going down to San Diego this weekend to see Restoration Comedy.
CRIS GROSS: Regarding the UCI position, has that had to slide.
BILL RAUCH: Unfortunately, yes. I will have been there two years.
CRIS GROSS: Now, for some insight into how you'll approach some potentially conflicting interests of the institution, let's talk about the areas of Audience Development, Artistic Development and Community Development. Audience Development goes beyond increasing ticket sales, to attracting fresh people by making them interested in and uninhibited by 'the institution' to providing ancillary education for longtime subscribers and donors. . .
BILL RAUCH: Angus Bowmer, the founder of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, used to say that some theaters are playwrights’ theaters, some theaters are directors’ theaters, some theaters are actors’ theaters, but that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival belongs to the audience. It’s an audience theater. And I’m very moved by that quote. The audience loyalty, the audience passion, how literate and how smart the audience is. The fact that people, on average, come from 300-plus miles away to see multiple plays and spend three, five days obviously speaks volumes. These are people who love theater, and care about theater enough to make the trek. So, I think the audience is at the center of the work. I think that in general as an artist, but I think that’s especially true in Ashland. That's part of what attracted me to the company.
At the same time, I think that there’s a lot of work that we can do in the coming years about the diversity of the audience, in every sense – the socio-econominc diversity, the age diversity, and the racial and ethnic diversity of the audience. I think that’s a huge task. But I think it’s certainly linked to the work that we're doing and to the artistic development and to who the artists are that we’re bringing in. It's all tied together.
CRIS GROSS: So there’s a difference between allowing them to dictate and keeping their interests at the forefront.
BILL RAUCH: Absolutely. And, you know I picked the season, thinking a lot about these selections, with great input from various quarters, wanting to reflect what I cared about and that also was not just a slap in the face in terms of 72 years of history and legacy. And, I had to build on the kind of mix and the kind of plays that OSF audiences are used to and come from far away to see. And, also to introduce some of my own priorities. So you’ll have to look at it and tell me how I did.
CRIS GROSS: Now, in terms of artistic development, there’s everything from helping individuals grow to fostering an environment where you benefit from the interaction of an artistic community or family. There already is a strong sense of company up there, and you'll be introducing new people who will be perceived as your "team," perhaps. So how will you work those delicate relationships?
BILL RAUCH: Trying to find that balance. It’s the oldest acting company in the country by a wide margin. And obviously they’re extraordinary actors in that company. As the plays that we select change, those changes will be reflected in the acting company. So, I do anticipate change, but you know, again never throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I'm not making such drastic changes. Acting companies in this country are an endangered species. They don’t really exist anymore. Ashland is one of the only places that they still exist and the fact that it exists on the scale that it does is a lot of what attracted me to the job, obviously. Coming from Cornerstone I believe in the company. I did a statement on artistic staff restructuring, and that articulates a lot of what I want to do. I want to get artists beyond directors into leadership positions on staff and those were difficult decisions. I had to let go of some of the wonderful people.
CRIS GROSS: That looked like a tough move.
BILL RAUCH: Very tough. But I’m so excited that Chris Acebo, our set designer here, is coming up to be the Associate Artistic Director. To have a designer in that office and a designer’s perspective and a designer's link to production and looking out for production issues and design issues in the artistic office, feels very important to me. It’s like Alison [Carey] is a dramaturg and a playwright, and she’s going to be running that program from a dramaturg's and playwright’s perspective. So, I’m very excited about, you know, people looking at work from different prisms in terms of their discipline.
CRIS GROSS: In terms of interaction with the community, where Cornerstone really made unique inroads, how will OSF evolve as a resource for the surrounding community in terms of education, social and even political energy? Or how should a theater want to be in the community in general?
BILL RAUCH: Well, I do believe that all theater is political and all theater is community-based. Obviously Cornestone, working primarily with amateurs in a show, is different from a Broadway musical. There are different aesthetic concerns and certainly different producing mechanisms. But, you know, all work is created in relationship to community on some level, and even if you’re looking at the national tour of ‘Wicked’ and the community is of 13-year-old girls around the country, that’s a community-based piece. It’s a piece that is speaking to a particular generation and that’s why it’s caught fire all over the country. So, I do think that ultimately all work does have a relationship to community and that artists can be as thoughtful or as thoughtless about what that relationship is as they choose to be or need to be at any given moment.
Probably the boldest connection to what I’ve done at Cornerstone that we’re going to see in Ashland in the first couple of years is the Green Show that happens outside on the bricks before the summer shows. It’s the only art that we offer free of charge to the public on our home campus. There’s a lot of local folks who just come and see the Green Show every night and don’t stay and see the other shows. Recently it’s been Dance Kaleidescope, a really terrific modern dance troupe that Libby brought in from Indianapolis. What we’re going to do in 2008 and beyond is a rotating bill of a lot of different groups including a lot of community-based groups. So really opening up that stage up to become a true platform for the community: youth performers, different kinds of musicians, dancers. So that it really starts becoming not only a place that the community can gather and celebrate itself, but that we can also introduce the Festival to different kinds of audience. So, I’m excited to think about that.