How an Oregon Theater Got the Attention of the Tonys, the Pulitzers and Broadway

Ashland Oregon Shakespear Festival
Courtesy of T Charles Erickson

The small town of Ashland, Ore., lies just over the California border in the forested foothills of the Siskiyou and Cascade mountain ranges. It has a population of 20,000, a bustling restaurant scene and great hiking trails. It also has a large-scale nonprofit theater that has spawned two current Tony-nominated plays and one recent Tony winner.

For most of its 82-year existence, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been something of an insider secret, best known among the West Coast theater fans who flock there to catch shows during its nine-month annual season. But as its robust commissioning programs have yielded new plays that have gone on to runs around the country — along with a string of recent successes on the theater awards circuit — OSF is fast becoming an important incubator of new stage work beyond the New York City limits.

“I used to think of them as a place that did second, third or fourth productions of plays, not a place that was generating new writing,” says Lynn Nottage, whose OSF commission, “Sweat,” won the Pulitzer in April and is in the running for the best play Tony. “But now they’ve commissioned a cross-section of playwrights who touch every single region of the country and who are wonderfully diverse across gender and ethnic lines, and I think that the fact that they’re so inclusive is being rewarded because the work feels fresh and immediate and in conversation with our time.”

“Sweat,” which chronicles the pressures that pull apart a group of friends in the dying factory town of Reading, Penn., is one of the plays that grew out of American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle, OSF’s ambitious initiative to commission 37 works that dramatize moments of change in America’s past.

Paula Vogel’s Tony contender “Indecent,” a backstage drama about a Yiddish theater production that touches on censorship, homophobia and anti-immigration sentiment, also was a product of the program, as was Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way” — the historical drama that went on to star Bryan Cranston on Broadway, win best actor and best play Tonys and inspire an HBO movie adaptation.

Shows commis-sioned by OSF include “Sweat” (left, on Broadway), “Indecent” on Broadway (center) and “Henry IV Part I” (right) from the fest’s current season.
Sweat: Joan Marcus; Indecent: CaRol Rosegg; Henry: Jenny Graham

Neither “Sweat” nor “Indecent” is tipped to win the Tony on June 11 — the front-runner is “Oslo,” with “A Doll’s House, Part 2” the dark horse — but the awards attention nonetheless points to the scope, ambition and reach of new plays coming out of Ashland since director Bill Rauch (“All the Way”) took the reins as artistic director in 2007. The theater group’s higher profile has also attracted new interest from the audiences, creatives and donors that sustain the nonprofit.

“It all creates a kind of momentum, and everyone just starts paying attention a little differently,” notes OSF executive director Cynthia Rider.

With a $40 million annual operating budget and three stages — a 1,200-seat outdoor venue, a 600-seat modified thrust and a flexible black box that ranges from 270 to 360 seats — and a nine-month season of 11 plays, OSF’s level of activity is on par with major New York nonprofits like the Public Theater and the Roundabout. Some 125,000 annual visitors, 88% of whom come from more than 125 miles away, account for ticket sales that approach 400,000 per season. (The theater’s estimated statewide economic impact rings in at more than $250 million a year.)

Among the 600 professionals annually employed by OSF are the 100 actors who make up its repertory acting company — the largest repertory troupe in the country, ranging from new faces to actors who are 20-year veterans. (Among its alumni: Denis Arndt, nominated for a Tony this year for “Heisenberg.”) With diversity a major concern for Broadway and the
theater industry at large, 61% of this year’s OSF ensemble are actors of color.

Although new work was always presented as a complement to the ongoing Shakespeare portfolio, OSF’s commissioning activities stepped up with Rauch, who created the program that would become the American Revolutions as part of his initial pitch for the artistic directorship.

“I thought about Shakespeare’s history plays and the way they addressed the anxieties of his age by chronicling transfers of power in his country’s past,” he recalls. “What if we could address where we are, and where we might head as a country, by dramatizing moments of change in our own country’s past?”

“Theater is supposed to be big and messy and grab you and hold its arms out to you. Small plays can’t always do that.”
American Revolutions director Alison Carey

American Revolutions has become a multimillion-dollar, long-term initiative that is commissioning 37 plays (one for each title in the Shakespeare canon) from a diverse swath of writers addressing a kaleidoscope of moments and issues in U.S. history. Nine shows have premiered, and the final batch of commissioned writers will be announced this summer. (Next to premiere: Idris Goodwin’s “The Way the Mountain Moved,” bowing at OSF next season.)

In a theater landscape where budgetary pressures usually restrict cast size, set requirements and other factors, OSF’s resources, including the company of actors, let writers go big. “One of the advantages to writing at OSF is they’re not afraid of size,” says Schenkkan, the Pulitzer winner who wrote “All the Way” for American Revolutions. (The sequel, “The Great Society,” was commissioned by Seattle Rep and developed with OSF.) “It’s not the normal problem where you can’t have more than four actors and a living room.”

“Small plays don’t seed the field, in terms of artists or audiences,” says Alison Carey, who co-founded Cornerstone Theater Co. with Rauch 30 years ago and is the director of American Revolutions. “Theater is supposed to be big and messy and grab you and hold its arms out to you. Small plays can’t always do that.”

The annual costs of the initiative vary from year to year, but the 2018 budget of $450,000 is about average, Carey says. Each commissioned writer has the option to partner on the project with a co-commissioning theater; “Sweat” was co-commissioned with Arena Stage, and “Indecent” with Yale Repertory Theater.

Although American Revolutions tends to get top billing, OSF oversees several commissioning projects, including Play On!, the controversial program that taps writers to create modern-language translations of Shakespeare plays as companions to the original; the new Korean Stories Project; and a number of one-off commissions for writers including Nottage. (OSF’s push for diversity carries over to its commissioned writers: 51% of the Play On! writers are playwrights of color, and 51% are women.)

Although the commissioning process is almost finished, the American Revolutions plays will be hitting stages over the course of at least another decade. Of the factors that have contributed to the success of the projects so far, Rauch singles out one in particular — the repertory company of actors — citing a tradition going back to Shakespeare and extending through Chekhov, Brecht, Garcia Lorca and Odets. “Almost all the great works of the Western canon of dramatic literature,” he says, “come out of company settings.”

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  1. Carole Hesse says:

    My husband and I have lived in Ashland and worked as volunteers for the festival for 30+ years. We love the ensemble of actors and the various parts they play in different plays each year. They obviously love what they do and we come away from performances with a sense of a diverse humanity on display. Some tourist towns seem filled with people pushing to have a good time. The tourists in Ashland are intelligent, interesting and simply enjoying quality theatre. No push required! Student groups, Olli classes, people from all over, and locals mingle to create responsive, eclectic audiences. Good theatre, good restaurants, a beautiful park, quality shops and friendly people. We fell in love with the town when we first arrived and love it even more today.

  2. sonja says:

    I grew up in Oregon and our high school theater classes made several trips to Ashland to see plays put on by this organization. The mother of one of my theater friends was would take the family every summer to the Shakespearean Festival. My friend recalls one magical evening performance, many years ago where a meteor streaked across the sky. The audience looked up, stood, pointed and watched. Performers, seeing the odd behavior of the audience stopped and looked up as well. All observed in silence as the meteor made its brief, bright appearance. When out of sight, the actors immediately picked up their lines and the audience settled back into the show. An experience Broadway can’t match.

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