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Cast of new directors

A quick look at the roster of directors for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 11 plays in the 2008 season reveals a remarkable fact: Six are working at the festival for the first time.

New OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch will direct two plays; former Artistic Director Libby Appel, former Associate Artistic Director Penny Metropulos and 13-time guest director Laird Williamson will each direct one. Other than that, it's OSF newbies.

Opening weekend is even more lopsided, with three of the four season-opening plays directed by new-to-OSF directors. William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," directed by Mark Rucker, will kick off the season tonight in the Angus Bowmer Theatre. Angus Wilson's "Fences," directed by Leah C. Gardiner, will play Saturday afternoon in the Bowmer. "Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter," written by Julie Marie Myatt and directed by Jessica Thebus, will wrap up opening weekend Sunday afternoon in the New Theatre. "The Clay Cart," written by Sudraka and directed by Rauch, opens Saturday night in the Bowmer.

"It's amazing to work on something so long, and then have the audience tell you by their reaction where you were right and wrong," Leah Gardiner says not long after watching the first preview performance of "Fences."

"When they are collectively gasping, you know you're in the right direction. You also know something when you have them NOT clapping."

Palywright August Wilson won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for "Fences," and the play is still widely performed. It is the story of Troy Maxson and his family. Troy is a garbage collector who once played baseball in the Negro Leagues and is bitter at never having played in the major leagues. "Fences" represents the 1950s in Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle" of plays dramatizing the black American's experience in each decade of the 20th century.

Gardiner is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and a former director-in-residence at the New York Shakespeare Festival. She did not know Rauch before he asked her about a year and a half ago to direct the play, although the two are represented by the same agency.

"I'd hear about her work," Rauch says. "The more I talked to people about her, the more interested I got. I was moved about her passion for this play. She's such a poet."

Although not known as a director of Wilson's plays, Gardiner diid direct his "The Piano Lesson" at the Madison Repertory Theatre.

"I get aked to direct classics and musicals," Gardiner says. "I'm told I direct in poetic metaphor."

Gardiner considers Wilson one of our greatest playwrights. But he does not have a reputation for creating strong women characters, and "Fences" is in large part about manhood. Yet Gardiner says the part of Rose, Troy's wife, is a fully devloped character and one of the strongest women in all of Wilson's plays.

"I see Rose as Lady Macbeth without the violence," she says. "She's three or four steps ahead, she knows what's best and when Troy's lying. She wants to fix things. She was a pre-feminist for black women. With many black families, those women were Rose."

Jessica Thebus, in contrast to Gardiner, has known Rauch for years. They met when she got a grant to observe his Cornerstone Theater in Los Angeles for a few weeks in 1999.

"We really hit it off," Rauch says. "We stayed in touch.

"I saw her (version of ) Sara Ruhl's 'The Clean House' at the Goodman in Chicago. I was just blown away."

Thebus is an associate artist with Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company and an artistic associate at About Face Theatre. She has directed at many theaters as well as toured internationally with the Bread and Puppet Theater. She is a faculty member in the Directing Program at Northwestern University.

She says, "Bill sent the play ('Jenny Sutter') and I found it very unusual, very beautiful."

She says there is no way to foresee entirely what things will work or not, on stage, until a play goes in front of a live audience.

"It teaches you things that were funny that you didn't think were funny," she says. "You can't even tell in rehearsal."

Then, she says, there comes a point when actors have done all they can in rehearsals and just need a live audience.

"Jenny Sutter," which will have its world premiere Sunday, is about a 30-year-old U.S. Marine and mother who comes home from Iraq and puts down her rifle but isn't ready to pick up her kids. Nursing wounds both physical and emotional, she winds up in a makeshift community whose misfit residents offer what just may turn out to be steps on the path to healing.

Myatt, whose Marine father was a commander in Vietnam, points out that large numbers of returning women veterans (some 180,000 have served in Iraq and Afghanistan), many of them wounded, are a new thing in our nation's history. She wonders if we're ready. Thebus says she doesn't know if the play will help people understand vets' problems.

"But it will make them think about them," she says.

Much of the play takes place in Slab City, which is a real place in the California desert. It's represented in the production by the OSF's senior scenic designer, Richard L. Hay.

"We know what was happening wasn't absolutely realistic," Thebus says. "Concrete, tent and sky. Richard made a beautiful space."

Thebus ticks off reasons the OSF has quickly become one of her favorite palces to work.

"The skill elvel, the enthusiasm - to say nothing of the feat of four plays opening the same weekend," she says. "World-class designers, the schedule, the way the actors are treated. It's very unusual."

Gardiner agrees.

"I have never felt so cared for, so looked after and nurtured as an artist and a person," she says. "Bill had made this. As an artist, you find these moments where the experience you're sharing, it's bigger than you.

"Bill has created an environment where you feel like you're just a vessel. You don't struggle when you make art here.

"I don't know if it's the mountains or what. There's a spirituallity about it that allows you to be free."

Leah C. Gardiner, in her first time at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, directs “Fences,” which opens Saturday in the Bowmer Theatre. Scott Bradley designed the set.