Theatre Heaven in the Rogue Valley

I want to tell you about my first visit ever to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, very much alive after 77 years. I’ve been hearing about Ashland’s OSF since 1962, but I can’t say how much of the vitality and generosity I experienced there is a recent development – since Bill Rauch became artistic director five years ago –   and how much goes further back in OSF’s history. My hunch is that Bill, with his years as co-founder and AD of Cornerstone, brought his particular skills in building community and empowering creativity to an organization that had the means and the desire to grow in ways that might have astounded OSF’s founders. Or not. I wonder if there’s been any recent reportage or analysis of how OSF has been so successful in so many areas?

While there, I saw a dress rehearsal All the Way by Robert Schenkkan, a play commissioned as part of OSF’s American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle, about LBJ and MLK and their roles in getting the Civil Rights act passed 1963-1964;  performances of Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella, adapted and directed by Bill Rauch and  Tracy Young, a challenging mash-up of those three plays; Animal Crackers, a revival of the Kaufman-Ryskind-Marx Brothers anarcho-musical farce.

Medea Macbeth Cinderella

All three were, in my view, impeccably done, necessary productions. But what most surprised me was that every show – from the dense bricolage of M/M/C to the gloriously slapstick “Animal Crackers” –played to a capacity audience that was enthralled and unabashedly appreciative.

A few days later, back in SF, I met a drama teacher from an impoverished high school in Portland who told me stories of OSF’s very unusual generosity in making sure his students were able to get to Ashland regularly and experience OSF in depth. Perhaps this sounds like an uncritical gush. But is there another place/organization like OSF in this country? I know that some excellent work happens in large resident theatres. But do they hire a company of actors for a nine-month season of rep that ranges from Shakespeare to new, experimental works? Do they anchor a town’s economic life? Do their stage crews – who turn over five or more shows a day – think of themselves as an ensemble and do physical warm-ups before starting work? Aside from all of OSF’s “measurable” successes, I witnessed signs an internal institutional culture informed by – no other word for it – love. I’ve experienced this in small “alternate” theatres and small co-op ventures here and there, but never in a large, long-lived, “mainstream” institution.

So, the questions that might be relevant in discussions about the future of non-profit theatre in this country: is OSF a unique,  unreplicable confluence of phenomena? Is it a rare example of the upside to a being a large institution with abundant resources? Does it illustrate what can happen when an organization outlives its problems? Is their current flowering a result of a visionary leader from a particularly value- and mission-centered background being empowered to transform a conventional organization into something new? All – or none – of the above?

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