It was a sunny October afternoon when I arrived for my appointment with Bill Rauch. I was early and, as I waited, I saw Bill walk from the Admin building to the Bowmer and reappear ten minutes later.
On his way back, he was approached by a member of the public - not an admirer seeking an autograph, but clearly someone with a real query.
Bill listened to her and shepherded her back into Admin to find a solution: this is not a man who believes he is above the simple courtesies.
When we did meet up, he told me that he’d been across to the theatre to see the end of Oklahoma: even as this production was drawing to the end of its run he was still lifted by it, and justifiably proud.
I had intended to defer the questions I had about this production until we’d talked about his feelings on preparing to leave OSF in August 2019, but his enthusiasm was so palpable that, after congratulating Bill on this show, I plunged straight in.
Had he considered, I wondered, having a female Jud? Of course he had, and he had rejected that possibility because he believed that, even in the utopian, liberal community which was his vision of Oklahoma, there might lurk sufficient prejudice to make a female Jud unacceptable. I was musing whether the world of Oklahoma was in some respects parallel to the world of Ashland, Oregon: a place outwardly tolerant, but, in reality, very willing to draw clear boundaries in terms of what it believed to be acceptable, both socially and artistically?
It was a week before I was able to pose that question, because, just as our interview began, Bill Rauch was called away to an urgent meeting: a meeting which, I later learned, concerned the loss of sixteen posts within the company. When we resumed our conversation, he agreed that there were indeed obstacles and challenges which he had faced along the way in trying to fashion the vision he had had for OSF. He emphasized that he had tried to bring about change incrementally, always with a keen eye on what the market would bear. He had striven to redefine ‘classic theatre’ so that the company’s repertoire was more inclusive and embraced not only a broader range of stories, across races, genders and sexual orientations, but also reflected non-European theatrical traditions which had not previously been represented on OSF’s stages. Inevitably, this meant that there has been less space for some other kinds of drama: much though he would have liked to have staged plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, his priorities have been elsewhere and, indeed, European plays as a whole have been less frequently performed under his tenure than at any other point in the company’s history.
I asked Bill what he was most proud of (a question, I suspect, which had been put to him more than once in recent months) and he clustered his answers under several headings. Artistically, he gave full credit for the Festival’s success to the company as a whole, and was proud that so many plays seen first as OSF productions had gone on to have a life elsewhere. He did not confine that pride to plays which had transferred to Broadway and to other major professional theatres: he was if anything even more proud of plays like Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter (premiered at OSF in 2008) which are now established choices for non-professional companies and high-school theatre groups, and spoke warmly of the fact that it was high-schools who had large enough pools of actors to take on some of the more ambitious of the OSF productions.
He was proud too, of the changes in the buildings used by OSF—the improvements to the Bricks, the increased accessibility (especially in the Angus Bowmer Theatre), the new workshops at Talent, and, most recently, the new rehearsal facilities in the Hay-Patton Building. All of these make theatre in Ashland a more enjoyable experience for audiences and for company members.
At the time of our meetings, the name of the new Artistic Director had not been announced, but that person will, in all likelihood, have to follow Bill Rauch’s lead in effecting change gradually. He did not feel that it was probable that the name of the Festival would change (the theatre Festival in Stratford, Ontario dropped Shakespeare from its name at the end of the 2012 season—although, admittedly, Shakespeare had been in its title only for four years). Research suggests that the majority of first-time visitors to OSF will go to see a Shakespeare production, and this is even more the case with school groups. Regular patrons, on the other hand, may decide that they’ve seen Henry V frequently enough to give one particular production a miss (in the case of the 2018 production that would have been a big mistake). Bill’s analogy was with a steak house—if you visit a steak house for the first time, you will probably order steak. Somehow, I think he had made that comparison before!
Our conversation wide-ranging, and I will give further details in my March column. We covered such topics as who actually wrote Shakespeare’s works, and the merits and drawbacks of productions using original Elizabethan/Jacobean pronunciation. That latter topic led to a discussion of the translation of Shakespeare in the Play on! project, under the direction of Lue Douthit. The future of that project will be the focus of the next part of this column, along with continuing life of American Revolutions cycle and the Canon in a Decade.
Geoff Ridden has taught in universities in Africa, Europe and North America. Since moving to Ashland in 2008, he has become a familiar figure on radio, in the theatre, in the lecture hall and on the concert stage. He is artistic director of the Classic Readings Theatre Company and has a particular interest in adaptations of the plays of Shakespeare. Email firstname.lastname@example.org