Bill Rauch aims to modernize event

ASHLAND, Ore. — Say you’ve got a 73-year-old theater festival — one of the largest repertory producing orgs in the country — with a $27 million budget and 100 or so actors on its payroll. You’ve got to produce 11 shows over nine months in a rural Oregon town, not always known for embracing change.

Now: Drag the whole enterprise into the 21st century.

Who on earth could pull this off? Who would want to?

The answer to the second question, at least: Bill Rauch, who a year ago became just the fifth leader of Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival in its 73-year history. Whether he’ll succeed remains to be seen, but his experience as a theater artist and community builder certainly can’t hurt his chances. What also can’t hurt are ambitious commissions from such scribes as Suzan-Lori Parks.

Rauch reports that the festival, which runs February to November, is in decent financial shape. Attendance is strong this season, but advance sales are not where he’d like them to be. With cultural tourists accounting for most of the 400,000 people who will attend the fest in a given year, gas prices and travel costs are worrying.

Still, when he talks about OSF and Ashland, his new adopted home, he brightens.

He got his first good look at the festival as a guest director in 2002 and liked it instantly.

“Ashland is isolated. Rural. Surrounded by natural beauty. And with a huge commitment to community,” he says. “A Cornerstone kind of town.”

Cornerstone Theater Company is the troupe Rauch co-founded with Alison Carey in 1986, fresh out of Harvard. It brought Shakespeare to small-town Mississippi; Moliere to the Kansas prairie; Aeschylus to a Nevada Indian reservation — enlisting the help of local amateurs and plumbing local issues along the way. It finally settled in Los Angeles in 1992.

Rauch’s novel ideas and let’s-put-on-a-show initiative attracted the attention of national media and funders. And they no doubt appealed to OSF’s board, who tagged him as a replacement for artistic director No. 4, Libby Appel.

Among Rauch’s innovations at OSF so far: a 10-year American Revolutions project, overseen by Carey, which will commission 37 historical plays by the likes of Parks and David Henry Hwang. He has also overhauled the pre-play, outdoor “Green Show,” which showcases an eclectic slate of local and touring performers.

Change is evident on the season lineup as well. Chay Yew’s staging of “Our Town” represents the first 20th century play ever staged on OSF’s outdoor stage (modeled on the Globe Theater). And the ancient Indian epic “The Clay Cart” is the first of many non-Western classics Rauch hopes to introduce to auds.

Turns out “Clay Cart” is one of this year’s hottest tickets, but naturally, not everyone in Ashland is thrilled with Rauch’s agenda. About a quarter of the acting company turned over in his first year at the helm, and he indicated there are still some differences among those who remain. (One recent, heated topic in the ranks: traditional vs. contemporary approaches to Shakespearean speech.)

And as Rauch tells it, there’s nothing he welcomes more than input — even from festivalgoers. Paraphrasing fest founder Angus Bowmer, Rauch says, “There’s a director’s theater and a writer’s theater. But we’re an audience theater.”

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