First thing: Take care of the audience

Bill Rauch

Bill Rauch, Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director, acted and directed theater throughout his childhood and academic career. Rauch became an Artistic Director of Cornerstone Theater Company in his early 20s, which he guided for 20 years, while also directing for theaters including South Coast Repertory, Yale Repertory Theatre and OSF, before becoming OSF’s Artistic Director in 2007. This is the first of a two-part column.

BR: Libby Appel, my predecessor, was really generous with me. For five years in a row, she invited me in to work in all three theaters, to do all different kinds of work, so when I applied for the job, I knew the organization, the town and the audience, and was able to speak about them with some passion.

EH: Any surprises when you got here?

BR: I was surprised how supportive the audience was. For instance, I felt that OSF’s incredible company of actors could put their own stamp on musicals, from the wonderful way that they interpret stories. When we did “The Music Man” in 2009, we thought, “This is a Shakespeare-loving audience, and they may turn up their noses at a classic American musical.” The fact that all the musicals we’ve done have been so embraced by the audience was delightful.EH: You’ve brought a variety of literature to the stage.

BR: I wanted to expand what we call the classical canon. In this country, we think about the European and the American canon: Shakespeare and the American classics. I’m proud that we’ve been able to do classics from the other parts of the world.

OSF did new plays long before I got here. But in the past 10 years, we’ve accelerated the rate; we commissioned and developed a lot more new work. And then when we’ve produced it, we’ve gotten it out into the world, taking these productions and moving them to other theaters. It’s so exciting, that there’s been so much interest, in the rest of our field, for the stories that we’re telling here.

I’m always interested in theater that foregrounds the fact that the audience and the actors are in the same space at the same time, and that it’s entertaining and emotionally engaging. Going on the emotional journey is really important to me. I try to program work that would excite me as an audience member.

Sometimes I joke that if I have any gift as a director, it’s that I’m the stupidest audience member in the world, and that I’m very slow to understand who’s related to whom or who wants what. Shakespeare plays are so brilliant, and the text can be very dense. When I direct a Shakespeare play, I try to direct it so that I would follow it, and then hopefully other people in the audience will as well.

EH: How did you bring all the production elements together to create such a powerful production of “Roe”?

BR: Lisa Loomer is a populist in the same way that Shakespeare was. She likes to address as broad a section of the audience as possible. In the case of “Roe,” whether you’re pro-choice, or pro-life, or all-over-the-map, Lisa will have characters who speak your point of view. We tried to follow Lisa’s lead on how this production can be generous and open-hearted and clear. That was our guiding light.

I love theater because I love collaboration. We’re all in it together, and we all pitch in, and then you can’t even remember how an idea morphed. It was done collectively and communally.

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