Ashland times 2: A Q&A about the festival’s new direction

It’s been around since 1935, when, legend has it, a young college prof named Angus Bowmer persuaded the town fathers of Ashland, Oregon, to let him produce two performances of “Twelfth Night” and one of “The Merchant of Venice” on an old Chautauqua stage for the town’s Fourth of July celebrations. They gave him $400 and one stipulation: He’d also have to stage some boxing matches to cover the expected deficit from the Shakespearean shows. The boxing matches lost money. The Shakespeare did boffo business and covered the prize-ring losses. And with that, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was off and running.

A lot’s changed in the intervening 73 years. The festival is by most measures the biggest regional theater company in the United States, producing 11 plays annually — usually four or five of them by Shakespeare — in a season that runs from late February through October, and which uses three theaters: the 1,200-seat, open-air Elizabethan Stage (actually an outdoor Elizabethan-style stage attached to Greek-style amphitheater seating with a wraparound porch like a vintage 1930 baseball park’s); the exquisitely adaptable, 600-seat Angus Bowmer Theatre; and the sophisticated black box known as the New Theatre, which averages about 300 seats. To these shows the festival sells more than 400,000 tickets every season, making Ashland a particularly upscale sort of tourist town, with an Elizabethan purse, sweet Victorian buildings and, underneath both, the practical bones of a modern Western working town.

As the festival goes, in many ways, so goes Ashland: The commercial success of the two are intricately linked. Both have benefited from the festival’s astonishing stability. After Bowmer, it’s had just four artistic directors: Jerry Turner, Henry Woronicz, Libby Appel and, beginning this season, Bill Rauch.

Rauch takes over at a perilous time. Ticket prices are straining visitors’ budgets at a time when the country is in a recession and traveling costs in particular have skyrocketed thanks to runaway oil prices. The Ashland audience, partly because it costs a lot of money to produce this sort of theater, skews old and upper middle class. And — let’s face it — the classics don’t have the hold on the public imagination that they once enjoyed. As the vocabulary and rhythms of Elizabethan English slip farther away from us, so does the belief that it’s important to hang onto them. So the festival faces peculiar challenges: to remain true to the old and also feel contemporary; to gather young audiences despite its high prices and antiquarian nature; to keep the cash register ringing at a time when tourism — even cultural tourism — is a risky business. And to somehow maintain its artistic integrity while it’s doing all that.

Art Scatterers Barry Johnson and Bob Hicks have seen between them hundreds of productions at the festival, going back to the late 1960s and covering most of the seasons from about 1978 on. This season Barry’s seen five and Bob eight of the 11 productions. That’s a lot of theater, and as you can imagine, both have developed their own delights and prejudices.

What’s going right and not so right in the first year of Rauch’s reign? What does his first season suggest for the festival’s future? We had a two-way conversation, with Barry asking the questions and Bob responding. Read on, then add your own thoughts. This should be a group discussion.

Barry: The production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Mark Rucker, was a flashpoint of sorts. When you think about it now, are you still confirmed in your position on it, that it sacrificed too much of what is great about the play in juicing up its theatricality? Or do I have that wrong? If it converts significant numbers of new audience members, is it worth it?

Bob: Well, I’m going to sound like a geezer answering this, and I really don’t think of myself as an uptight defender of the Elizabethan ruffle-collared faith. I can’t advocate original practices because, for one thing, that would mean no women in the casts, and for another, things would be likely to drag on and on until they felt a little like a kabuki show, with people wandering in and out of the theater for lunch and drink and other diversions. We are not Elizabethans, and we shouldn’t wish we were or pretend to be. But.

First, no single production is going to save or kill the festival, and no production is going to save or kill off Shakespeare. One of the reasons we still find Shakespeare fascinating is that his plays allow us to test our contemporary theories against the great shifting Gibraltar of his plays. We need to try out new ideas, see how far the thing will stretch, look for fresh meanings in old stories. I happen to think, for instance, the 1999 teen movie 10 Things I Hate About You is a fine and funny adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, with its own parallel logic and comic landscape. So if you don’t like this Midsummer Night’s Dream — and I don’t — another one’s going to come along real soon.

That said, I think it’s also essential for any production to stay true to the core feeling of a play, and for me, this Midsummer doesn’t do that: Its pop-culture silliness trivializes what is a great and sophisticated comedy. It’s not a matter of theatricality — nothing’s more theatrical than a fine actor fully given over to the moment — but of coherent theatricality. You don’t throw a few bars of a Miley Cyrus tune in the middle of a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth so you can lure younger listeners. It doesn’t fit. We can stretch the original, but we have to maintain its integrity.

A lot of people enjoyed this show, but there was a subtext to what I heard a lot of them say: The festival has to do this if it’s going to develop the younger audience it needs. But at what point does a show stop being about the characters the playwright created and become the story of a director trolling for an audience? Obviously different people have very different answers, and I’m OK with that. But I do think too much of this sort of thing would be a dangerous trend — cheap thrills overwhelming prolonged thought. And I think if you worry too much about putting butts in the seat and too little about doing good theater you risk becoming too easy and therefore irrelevant.

Barry: Do you agree that Bill Rauch is doing something different enough at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that it’s obvious onstage? If so, what is it? Or should we get back to this question next year, when we have a larger sample size?

Bob: Yes, good question, yes.

Bear in mind that I didn’t see three very important productions, and to get a full sense of Rauch’s first season, it’s really necessary to see everything. Because their runs ended before I could get to Ashland, I missed the world premiere of Julie Marie Myatt’s Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter and the revival of August Wilson’s biggest hit, Fences. Those two plays demonstrate the festival’s continuing commitment to African American theater in general and Wilson’s plays in particular, even though Rauch parted ways with staff director Tim Bond, who had done such a sterling job of directing previous shows in the Wilson cycle; and also, in the case of Jenny Sutter, the festival’s commitment to producing new work on contemporary themes. How did they come off? Wish I knew. I also missed Libby Appel’s new production of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, which hadn’t opened yet: Marty Hughley gave it a rave review in The Oregonian.

Rauch has said he believes in the big umbrella theory of theater, which means producing a lot of things from a lot of different viewpoints. Obviously The Clay Cart, his extremely updated and simplified version of a 2,000-year-old Indian comedy, demonstrates that desire. And I’m thrilled with his commitment to commission a cycle of plays over the next decade about United States history, a plan that’s bound to create some fascinating theater. The writers he’s announced so far are all intriguing: the team behind the Latino/Chicano troupe Culture Clash; David Henry Hwang, Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, Robert Schenkkan, Naomi Wallace, and the collaborative team of Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone. It’s really an ambitious, audacious project, and I don’t know of anything quite like it that’s been done before. August Wilson’s 10-play cycle, of course. And Eugene O’Neill mapped out a huge cycle of plays based on American history, which he called A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed, but didn’t get far with it, although the one play in the cycle that he finished, A Touch of the Poet, is fascinating and really ought to be produced more often. Rauch has hired his longtime collaborator Alison Carey to bring the festival’s history cycle to fruition, and I wonder if it would have been possible without the success of David Edgar’s twin plays Continental Divide, about contemporary American politics, during the Appel years. Rauch is striking out in new directions, but he’s also building on what the festival’s already accomplished.

We’re seeing a further expansion of the festival into truly multicultural territory — just look at the makeup of the acting company — which I think is a good and welcome response to the direction of American culture. And as you’ve pointed out, I think we’re seeing more of a presentational approach to acting, as opposed to the American realism that was the glory of the Appel years and of Jerry Turner’s takes on all those loamy, gut-crunching Scandinavian classics. And even though people talk a lot about Rauch’s street-theater background, I think he has a very commercial streak to his directing style — a sort of let’s-pull-everybody-in smoothness. We’ve seen it in previous seasons in his Las Vegas riff on The Comedy of Errors, his country-club version of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the high dramatics of his Hedda Gabler and the fetching freshness of his Romeo and Juliet. I’ve liked those shows variously — Hedda and Romeo quite a bit, Comedy and Two Gents less so — but all of them demonstrate a populist bent. When it works, it’s terrific. When I’m less happy with it, it’s because I think he’s pulling his dramatic punches for the sake of style.

First years under new artistic directors are notoriously difficult to judge, partly because everybody’s trying to read too much into every decision the new top dog makes. After another season or two, patterns start to emerge and you begin to get a sense of who this person is and what effect he or she is going to have on the company. So in a couple of years I might disagree with a lot of what I’ve just said. But for now, provisionally, this is how things look to me.

Barry: Rauch directed The Clay Cart and The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler. What did you think of Clay Cart? Do those productions “tell” you anything about him and his personal approach to theater?

Bob: I love Further Adventures, and I think it demonstrates the best of Rauch’s approach. It’s intensely theatrical, a little rowdy but controlled, and it combines old-fashioned storytelling with the ability to slow down and drop in for an intense dramatic moment. He really pays attention to the words (and Jeff Whitty’s script is well worth the attention), and both he and Whitty use comedy to disarm audiences that might otherwise be shocked or offended. This is really theater about theater, as well as being perceptive about what’s going on in the world outside the theater doors.

The Clay Cart is a good example of Rauch’s interest in expanding beyond the Western classics and contemporary plays. And it has some nice staging touches — the big circle, the implied spaces, the mix of music with words (which seems to be another direction in which he’s steering the company).

Wish I’d liked the play more. It’s pretty thin and cartoony, and for the limited payoff the show drags on far too long. It’s like a little folk tale, and I didn’t feel invested enough in any of the characters to want to spend that much time with them. My sister says she read a different translation that she liked a lot better than the one Rauch used: This one’s highly Americanized and simple-sounding, and of course very much shortened even though it felt too long. The cross-cultural business can be tricky: I sometimes felt a little uncomfortable, as if I were watching a Westernized version of an “exotic” Eastern culture, like The King and I, but other people might not get that hit. And the whole enterprise seemed a little A-B-C, a little too spelled out. The east/west fusion didn’t work for me, although I’d have been interested in seeing 90 minutes of an Indian company performing it in its own style.

Barry: Just to get a little more concrete, what were your favorite productions, performances, moments in this year’s festival?

Bob: On the top of my list, The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler. Close behind, Our Town. The Wild West Comedy of Errors was a little shambly but lots of fun. Coriolanus and Othello were solid (and easy to follow) productions of difficult plays.

In terms of acting: Kimberly Scott was scary-good as Mammy in Hedda, and Anthony Heald and Jonathan Haugen were riotous and also deeply moving in the same play as a couple of queens enduring the afterlife. Heald was an ideal Stage Director in Our Town; he really made the production work. I wasn’t a big fan of the play Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, but Sandra Marquez was terrific in the lead. Robynn Rodriguez ripped your heart out with her teeth as Coriolanus’s stage mom, and Richard Elmore was great in Coriolanus as the war hero’s political patron Menenius. Tasso Feldman and John Tufts were a hoot as the twin Dromios in The Comedy of Errors. Michael J. Hume was very good as the not-so-dumb buffoon in The Clay Cart.

And in terms of a moment: That killer third act in Our Town, culminating in the graveyard exchange between a brilliant Dan Donohue as the ghost of town drunk Simon Stimson and Demetra Pittman as Mrs. Gibbs, who acknowledges his dour view of life but adds softly that that’s not the entire story. A good thing to remember. We never know the entire story, but the stories keep on spinning.