Oregon Shakespeare Festival, after years of positive evolution, prepares for another big change

OSF Theater

OSF’s open-air Allen Elizabethan Theatre

Written by David Templeton

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in Ashland, Oregon, is currently marking its 86th year of existence. That means that OSF has outlasted Betty Friedan, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Lloyd Bridges, Agatha Christie, Roy Clark, Pope Pius XI, Carl Jung, Fritz Lang and Daniel Boone, all of whom successfully made it to the age of 85 – but no longer.

In other words, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is, well, old.

Based on what’s happening there this year, though, you’d never know it.

The company,founded in 1935 by a schoolteacher named Angus Bowmer,staged its very first plays in the midst of the Great Depression. Those first plays, for those of you who like to collect trivia, were William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and “The Merchant of Venice.”

Bowmer_Angus_1937_ba018691

Angus Bowmer

The city leaders feared the shows would lose money, so they insisted that Bowmer include some boxing matches, just to make sure the festival made money. According to legend, it’s a good thing that people were in the mood for some good theater, because as it turned out, the profits from Bowmer’s Shakespearean double-whammy were more than enough to cover the losses incurred by the poorly attended boxing bouts. In the years that followed, OSF steadily grew into a thriving nonprofit theater operation, and is now one of the most acclaimed and influential theater companies in the country.

Today, OSF presents eleven shows each year, beginning in March with four shows in its two indoor theaters, then gradually unveiling more and more, reaching its zenith in June with the opening of the large outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre, and wrapping things up in late October.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of theater-goers visit Ashland, including an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 from the Bay Area. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what success looks like.

Over the last 85 years, of course, the company has experienced occasional periods of hardship and challenge, and has generally responded to it with resilience, invention, imagination, creativity, expansion and, when necessary, a willingness to change. That’s as true of its artistic choices as it is of its organizational and business decisions. As the surrounding culture has itself evolved, OSF, through its eleven annual shows, has sometimes mirrored the events of that wider world, and has sometimes stood in staunch opposition and condemnation of those events.

Which brings us to the present.

While it’s true that, since 1935, certain periods of OSF’s history have proven to be more artistically and culturally fruitful than others, one could easily argue that none has been so thoroughly, satisfyingly and (sometimes) uncomfortably revolutionary as what’s taken place there over the last 12 years. That’s how long Artistic Director Bill Rauch has been guiding the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as its fifth A.D., succeeding Libby Appel, a game-changer in her own right. One could effectively argue that with her persuasive support of new works and contemporary plays from modern playwrights, Appel basically set the table for Rauch to come in and serve up what has been a veritable feast of transformation.

HEAD SHOT (Bill Rauch)

Bill Rauch, outgoing Artistic Director of OSF

From the beginning, Rauch has had a clear and confident vision of the company as more than just a team of world-class theater-makers presenting first-rate productions of enduring classics and the occasional contemporary comedy or drama. He’s taken the artistic might and muscle of OSF and used it to transmute the organization into a mighty engine of moral, political and artistic revolution. With an urgently inventive, wildly radical sense of artistic inclusivity, Rauch has accomplished more than just alter his audiences’ expectations of what theater looks like, and whoshould  be invited onstage to help bring that vision of theater to life. Rauch and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival have undeniably—and perhaps permanently—morphed and shifted the way other theater companies operate as well, escalating the conversation from a debate on what kinds of theater are marketable to a question of what kinds of theater are necessary.

This year, as Rauch launches his final season in Ashland before relocating to New York, to become the first-ever Artistic Director of the upcoming Perelman Center for the Performing Arts (within the new World Trade Center), his profound impact on the evolution and growth of OSF is on full and rich display. Based on the first four shows of  2019, the outgoing AD has put together a season that clearly stands at its most diverse, daring, inventive, inclusive and (to use a word many Artistic Directors would rather not hear) political season since Angus Bowmer first suggested that one path through the Depression was to allow the art of theater to bring us all together in a community appreciation of the arts.

Nataki Garrett

Nataki Garrett, incoming OSF Artistic Director

There is every indication that what Rauch began will continue under his successor, the groundbreaking stage director Nataki Garrett. Raised in Oakland, and most recently,ActingArtistic Director of the Denver Center of the Performing Arts, Garrett’s appointment as the next A.D. of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival not only makes her the first person of color to take over the position, but with OSF’s annual budget of $44 million, it’s a historic move, putting Garrett at the top of the most prominent and powerful African-American women leading an American nonprofit arts organization today.

In other words, next year should be very, very exciting,

But we still have 2019 to see through, and Rauch’s final year has only just begun.

The season officially launched the weekend of March 8-10, kicking things off with a gender-fluid staging of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” playwright Lauren Yee’s searing “Cambodian Rock Band,” an envelope-expanding “Hairspray: The Musical,” and the world premiere of Octavio Solis’ Steinbeckian “Mother Road,” the latter directed by Rauch himself, making it his penultimate directorial act of his OSF career. His final production as a director in Ashland will be his bilingual adaptation of Shakespeare’s “A Comedy of Errors,” opening this summer. The rest of the season – with new shows opening in the company’s three theaters every or so through July – includes a staging of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”and “All’s Well That Ends Well,” Paula Vogel’s stunning “Indecent,” Christina Anderson’s “How to Catch Creation” (which will be directed by Garrett), a mind-blowing adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland” by Eva Le Gallienne and Florida Friebus, and “Between Two Knees,” another world premiere developed by the Native American sketch comedy group The 1491s.

While we wait for seven of those shows to open, one by one, OSF’s 2019 season has already begun its annual work of entertaining audiences, blowing up barriers and challenging artistic expectations.

As usual, of course, some shows do that better than others. My own views of the first four shows of the 2019 OSF season can be found elsewhere on this website.

[For the full schedule of the 2019 Oregon Shakespeare Festival season, visit OSFAshland.org.]

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