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Herb Rothschild Jr.: To OSF's incoming director

Dear Ms. Garrett,

Welcome to the Rogue Valley. There’s a multitude of proud OSF supporters here. I’m one of them. Probably I’m too late to influence your decisions for next season. Still, I want to make one specific suggestion. First, however, I must explain what motivates it.

Bill Rauch’s great legacy as artistic director has been to welcome plays by contemporary playwrights who are bringing new perspectives to the theater, to stage those plays with great power and, relatedly, to diversify the company by gender, race, ethnicity and physical capabilities. “Mother Road,” his last gift to us as a director, shows OSF at its current best.

During Rauch’s tenure, however, the productions of Shakespeare plays haven’t been equally memorable. Some have been strong, most mediocre, and a few sub-par. On Aug. 3, 2017, I made these same points in an op-ed that ran in both the Mail Tribune and the Tidings. It generated more responses than any other piece that month. I suggested that OSF’s main problem was the directors of its Shakespeare productions, and that their main problem is they don’t trust Shakespeare.

Some directors want to put their own stamp on their productions, and they believe they can do that by making obvious changes to the staging, such as setting the play in a different time or switching the gender of characters. Such changes aren’t per se mistaken. The mistake is thinking that such changes are the keys to memorable productions.

The more prevailing aspect of the directors’ problem is their distrust of Shakespeare’s relevance for modern audiences. So they think they themselves must make them relevant. An odd illustration of this anxiety occurred in association with OSF’s current production of “Macbeth.” It’s a fine production, anchored by another outstanding performance by Danforth Comins. José Luis Valenzuela, the director, let the inherent power of the play emerge. Yet, in his program notes, he writes that Macbeth is haunted by “fear of people who don’t look or act like him,” and that “a big issue” of our time is “the fear of the other.” It’s a big issue for our time, but it isn’t an issue at all in “Macbeth.” Fortunately, Valenzuela didn’t try to make it so. What his incongruent program notes reflect is the pressure directors now feel to be relevant.

Such relevance is topical. Shakespeare has endured because his relevance is fundamental. What Macbeth fears is something deep in reality that will render fruitless his most strenuous efforts to shape the future. In a play that “makes us and mars us,” we learn to fear that all human action is useless and, simultaneously, hope that reality will not tolerate every order of our imposition. Humankind now faces a grim reckoning for what we’ve been imposing on nature since the first staging of “Macbeth.” Look! Birnam Wood is marching on Dunsinane.

So here’s my suggestion: Forego directors when you begin producing Shakespeare. That was standard in Shakespeare’s time; the acting companies, including his, had no directors. The ensemble of players produced their plays. Once they agreed on casting, each worked up his part, focusing intensely on the language as the key to understanding the character. Like chamber musicians who have been together for a long time, they knew how to meld their parts without anyone’s imposing his will on the whole.

I think the OSF actors are up to this challenge. Give it a try.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.

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