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  • Starting from scratch

    Whether an adaptation or a newly commissioned work, every world premiere begins in the writer's imagination
  • The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, while staying true to its namesake playwright, is increasingly becoming known for producing world premieres of modern works, some of which it commissioned.
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  • The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, while staying true to its namesake playwright, is increasingly becoming known for producing world premieres of modern works, some of which it commissioned.
    This season includes an OSF-commissioned adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time"; the world premiere of "Family Album," a musical by Stew and Heidi Rodewald; and the world premiere of "The Great Society," by Robert Schenkkan, the sequelto his OSF-commissioned "All the Way."
    The 2015 season will have three world premieres: Alexa Junge's adaptation of Sarah Waters' 2002 crime novel, "Fingersmith"; a musical by Jeff Whitty called "Head Over Heels"; and "Sweat," by Lynn Nottage, an OSF-commissioned work in the American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle project.
    "At OSF, while all the plays we do are treated as 'new plays' in the production process, with a world premiere, there is no production memory or history," says Lue Morgan Douthit, OSF director of literary development and dramaturgy. "There is always an element of risk and excitement."
    Commissions by OSF come from ideas developed by Artistic Director Bill Rauch and concepts submitted to Rauch or Douthit. Sometimes, there are artists with whom OSF wishes to work, such as Tracy Young, who adapted "A Wrinkle in Time," the group Universes, who developed "Party People," and Nottage, whose plays "Intimate Apparel" and "Ruined" were previously done at the festival. Rauch also seeks adaptations of works from other sources, such as 2012's "The White Snake," which is based on a Chinese folktale.
    "In the last five years, we've seen less traditional submissions of finished work," says Douthit. "We are getting more project-based or director-driven ideas to develop."
    Rauch is being sought by other theater organizations around the country to develop and share work, Douthit says. "We are seeing co-commissions and co-productions and shared casting."
    For example, OSF commissioned and developed Schenkkan's "All the Way" and produced its world premiere in 2012. The sequel, "The Great Society," was commissioned by Seattle Repertory, and this season's OSF presentation is co-produced with Seattle Rep.
    "All the Way" is now playing on Broadway, starring Bryan Cranston and directed by Rauch. It has been nominated for two Tony awards, best new play and best leading actor.
    "With our commissions, we choose the artists and then let them do what they want to do," says Alison Carey, director of American Revolutions. "It's about letting them find their message, while at the same time meshing the artist with the traditions of OSF.
    "We don't impose a pattern or a development process," Carey adds. "We trust our playwrights. The plays done under the American Revolutions project have been both imaginative and substantive."
    Once the play begins production, there will be restrictions, Carey says. "At that point, we are facing cast schedules within the repertory, restrictions on design. We are asking the director, 'What do you need? Why do you need it? What happens if you don't get it?' It's about being accommodating but also extraordinarily realistic and practical."
    Carey says if the world premiere of an American Revolutions commissioned project can't be produced in a timely manner at OSF, it may debut at another theater.
    "There is no average time from commission to production," she says. "Many writers hesitate to take on a commission with a deadline while others find a deadline helpful. What's important is the project, not a timeline."
    Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.
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