Libby Appel is going out her way. With Shakespeare's "The Tempest," which will open Friday at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Elizabethan Theatre in Ashland. It is not only her favorite Shakespeare play, it is about an aging magician with a flare for directing who decides to step down. Appel, who recently turned 70, will retire as the OSF's artistic director at the end of the 2007 season
Libby Appel is going out her way. With Shakespeare's "The Tempest," which will open Friday at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Elizabethan Theatre in Ashland. It is not only her favorite Shakespeare play, it is about an aging magician with a flare for directing who decides to step down. Appel, who recently turned 70, will retire as the OSF's artistic director at the end of the 2007 season.
"I don't know how it's possible," she says. "Everything has gone way too fast."
Appel, who was hired as the OSF's artistic director before the 1996 season, brought change to the festival and led it to new heights of national and international recognition. She paused before a recent rehearsal to talk about the theater, directing, the festival and its direction, hits and misses, the past and the future.
The first thing about the OSF is, it's bigger than in 1996. There are more actors (91) , more employees (475), more bodies in more seats (almost 400,000 last year). There is more money ($14.6 million in 2006 from ticket sales alone).
Despite the growth and the plaudits for artistic excellence, Appel says she knew in her heart back in 2004 it was time to leave, and that was that. She told the OSF's board then she would retire at the end of her next three-year contract.
"Anytime I've not followed my heart, or tried to find the reasonable reason, I've gotten in trouble," she says. "You live a life. I've done tons of compromising. I've made lots of decisions for my head, but the ones that count are from my heart."
Appel was artistic director of the Indiana Repertory Theatre when she was hired in November of 1995 to replace Henry Woronicz. She was the OSF's fourth artistic head, and the first woman to guide the nation's biggest regional theater.
For a dozen years she chose the 11 plays the festival would mount each year, chose the directors and cast the plays; hers was the dominant vision shaping the festival's artistic identity.
And she directed, usually two plays a year, a mix, over the years, of Shakespeare and the classics, modern standards and new plays. She raised the festival's national profile, increased the company's diversity and upped the edge factor by commissioning new plays.
She reached out to the community to talk about the theater, and she nurtured the OSF's efforts to introduce young people to Shakespeare. By almost any measure, she's had a great run.
But the road hasn't always been smooth. Her tenure began with a controversy. Some patrons, espcially early on, chafed at her color-blind casting, which led to actors of color in "white" roles. She was accused of casting favorites in plum roles, and of choosing safe, commercial plays.
OSF Executive Director Paul Nicholson says Appel will be remembered for enhancing the festival's artistic integrity.
"She brought more consistency," he says. "She brought in many of the nation's best directors. I couldn't imagine the last 12 years without her."
Appel got off to a rocky start. No sooner had she taken the reins than she sparked a tempest of her own in March of 1996 when she let go popular OSF director Pat Patton, who had spent more then 30 years with the festival. The move blindsided patrons, prompting angry letters to the editor and contentious public meetings.
There was no comparable outcry this spring when incoming OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch let go Associate Artistic Directors Tim Bond and Penny Metropulos, Resident Scenic Designer William Bloodgood and choreographer and Green Show Artistic Director David Hochoy, all brought in by Appel.
Appel says people understand now that a change at the top means changes near the top.
"Also, Bill and Paul (Nicholson) and I did a better job in communicating this time. When I did this in 1996 we didn't know how to control it."
She compares the public relations work they did around this spring's terminations with the outreach effort done around "The Merchant of Venice" in 2001 after a 1991 production of that play directed by Appel caused outrage in the Jewish community.
"We handled it badly," she says of the 1996 fracas. "But change comes with the territory. You can't do what you need to do without the people. The board knew I'd need to make changes."
Appel claims her favorite play is the one she is working on in the moment. Pressed, she puts among her most satisfying productions "Enrico IV," "Bus Stop," "Richard III," 2006's "The Winter's Tale" and this year's "The Cherry Orchard."
Disappointments include "Henry IV, Part 2," "Richard II," "Napoli Millionara" and "Macbeth."
The list of plays she'd like to direct includes "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Six Characters in Search of an Author," anything by Chekhov and Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge."
The last is a given, since Rauch has asked her to direct the play in the Bowmer Theatre next year.
She can see herself working as a guest director, but on a very limited basis.
"Being away from my home and my dogs doesn't appeal," she says.
One exception. Appel, who is known for her love of Anton Chekhov, says that she might stand out at the freeway with a sign: "Will work for Chekhov."
Appel insists that everything in a production starts with the text, or script, and everything must serve it. Director's concepts, she says, are secondary.
"I'm interested in the actor, a platform and some light," she says. "That's why so many of mine look minimalist."
Actor Catherine Coulson, who has been in five plays directed by Appel in 14 years at the OSF, says Appel is an actor's director.
"She always has a big concept of what she wants, and she lets us fill that in," she says. "Until she sees us going another direction, then she nudges back, kind of like a border collie. I feel a lot of free rein to create."
What about that production of "Macbeth" that inaugurated the New Theatre in 2002, the one with the big pool of blood? It had the most performances of any play in OSF history and is remembered with little fondness. She knows it missed the mark.
"I wanted a play to speak to the New Theater," Appel says of the intimate space. "I'm a minimalist. It's done with few actors.
"I wanted to do a very psychological version in the round, no escape, to focus on three characters, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and Banquo, and have the witches play the others. I was taking a risk."
SOUND AND FURY
Award-winning playwright Bridget Carpenter, whose "Up" was presented in the New Theater in 2006, says the experience left her with great affection for the OSF.
"It was very clear to me that the artistic integrity came from the top down," she says. "Libby's presence is so strong. She has such clarity of vision. I would leap at the chance to work with her if she ever changes her mind."
The Yale Repertory and the Yale School of Drama's Liz Carpenter, a guest director in 2000 and 2005 and of the upcoming "Distracted," says Appel is mindful of what her audience will tolerate.
"She was concerned about what made Casandra rip her clothes off (in 2000's 'The Trojan Women')," she says. "Euripides writes it. I felt it was important. Libby bought it in the end, but I had to work to make my case."
Appel has her detractors, too.
"I liked what she was doing much more when she first arrived," Michael Jasperson says. "I used to see everything."
Jasperson moved to the Rogue Valley in 1993 after retiring from the U.S. Naval Academy, where he taught theater, including Shakespeare. He taught Shakespeare at Southern Oregon University's Elderhostel and teaches popular classes in Shakespeare at SOU's SOLIR program.
"I loved her 'Henry V,'" he says. But I got bored with a lot of what's going on the last few years. It's become a rather bland theater.
"I don't think she does particularly provocative plays. It cannot be too provocative. They're reliant on a comfortable audience."
An audience survey in 2000 found that the typical OSF patron was a 53-year-old Californian with a family income of $85,000 and some graduate level college work. She or he came specifically for the festival, saw 3.8 plays and spent $93 per person per day not counting the plays.
Is OSF risky enough?
"I think it's been what the traffic will bear," Coulson says. "I think Libby has both led the audience and allowed them to lead her. Listening has been a big part of what she's done. She's brought in new plays. I'd say she's taken risks."
"I've never been censored by Libby," Diamond says. "I'm not trying to put a positive spin on this, but I think she wants to get behind every play on her stages."
Nor does Nicholson buy the notion that Appel has shrunk from risk.
"Look at the things we've done," he says, "the new plays, "Lorca" (in a Green Dress), "Magic Fire," the "Henry VI"s (for which Appel and the OSF's Scott Kaiser directed two Shakespeare histories adapted into one by Kaiser). That's risky stuff.
"I think she has a good sense of what the audience is looking for."
Does Appel have her favorites among actors?"I don't know that any director doesn't," Coulson says. "You can see a trend, but she's open to new ideas. She's not inflexible. If you say, 'Maybe you're not right here,' she'll listen."
THE CLOUD CAPP'D TOWER
Appel says she is proudest of the ethnic and gender diversity she's brought to the OSF, and of the OSF's new-play development efforts.
More than one of every four OSF actors now is a person of color. Productions might feature a black Romeo and a white Juliet, parents and children of different colors, or an ethnic mix of actors playing Chekhovian sisters.
Appel says there were complaints earlier, but not so much now. She believes open casting enriches plays by bringing more life experience to roles.
Nicholson says the OSF now employs more actors of color than any other American theater.
Appel brought a new emphasis on new plays, including commissions. These have included British playwright David Edgar's award-winning 2003 cycle "Continental Divide," which the OSF took to England, Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkhan's "By the Waters of Babylon" in 2005, and "Gibraltar," a 2005 production stemming from a collaboration between playwright Octavio Solis and seven OSF actors.
While the festival has been recognized by arbiters of culture — Time magazine put it in the top five regional theaters in the nation — Appel says she never chased success for success's sake.
"I was never interested in taking our work to a commercial venue in New York," she says.
The Goodman Theatre in Chicago, the only theater ranked ahead of the OSF by Time, does so. In Appel's view, the risk of such a move is the pressure to present safe, commercial work, which she says she has tried to avoid.
"I say to the board, 'What you're stuck with is my taste," she says.
Despite the fact that all OSF actors work on one-year contracts, Appel says she's made commitments to actors. Dozens of actors have been in the company for a decade or more.
"She's been loyal to the company," Nicholson says, "which has provided a consistency as far as the audiences. They know who is on stage."
But she has wanted the casting flexibility that comes with being able to hire and fire.
"Otherwise you get locked in," she says. "Your choices are dictated by who's in the company. My choices have been influenced but not dictated."
Coulson says Appel casts well.
"She gets the people she wants," she says. "She's the boss. That's a big percentage of the success of a play."
Appel says she's always given guest directors the same freedom.
"Bill Rauch's is a totally different aesthetic than mine," she says. "So is Laird Williamson's."
She doesn't sound worried about an aging audience.
"I'm an eternal optimist," she says. "I think things just morph. I think people will always want a live experience in a group. They said movies would kill the theater, then television, now the Internet."
She suggests that Rauch, 25 years her junior, will take new chances.
"My guess is, Bill will make it more dangerous," she says. "I am a classicist, and the festival has been classicist. I don't think the emphasis on Shakespeare will change, but there will be more edgy work."
She says although she had offers over the years, the one thing that never tempted her was leaving the festival.
"Even if I had been younger," she says, "it was my last, best place. I feel everything in my life took me to this job."
And then came that voice from the heart.
"The older I get," she says, "the more I'm aware of how true I have to be to that heart/gut instinct."
Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.