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Curtain Call: OSF actor Rex Young

Stage productions throughout the United States ground to a halt with the arrival of COVID-19, and actors everywhere found themselves in the wings with no sense of when they’d see a cue light again.

With 21 seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival under his belt, actor Rex Young certainly could not be faulted for feeling a sense of security, working for an organization that offers long contracts of repertory work.

But he would be the first to admit that even in the best of circumstances, actors realize that uncertainty is part of the theatrical milieu. The pandemic, however, has been markedly different.

Online gigs offer a few opportunities, but actors crave the face-to-face collaboration and audience reaction.

“I have done a few Zoom readings,” Young said, “but I miss the people and sense of purpose.”

Young has had more opportunities than most actors when it comes to interaction with audiences. In addition to his onstage work, he and his wife, Miriam Laube, have been regular hosts of coffee hours for OSF premiere members. In that setting, he has interviewed OSF actors and support personnel while helping field questions from members about the professionals and their work.

Not all of Young’s work has been in Ashland. Besides a bit of film and television, he has acted in New York and done regional theater in Cincinnati, Louisville, Indiana, Seattle, Milwaukee, Virginia and Utah, among others.

Young was born in Medford. His parents met at Southern Oregon College, now SOU. His father was a newspaper reporter in Seattle and elsewhere, and his mother worked many years at SOU.

“We moved around a bit, settling in Seattle,” he said. “When I was 15, we moved back to Ashland.”

He got a taste of acting early on.

“I took some theater classes in Seattle and did a few shows before moving to Ashland and being exposed to OSF,” he said.

It was when he started attending plays at OSF that his interest in the craft intensified.

“I was awestruck by the stories, the theaters and the people. I became a super fan, seeing the shows as often as I could, and memorizing the souvenir programs and the people’s stories inside.

“Realizing that people made a living doing this was all I needed to start my journey.”

One of his favorite jobs before he began his acting career was being an usher at OSF.

“I got to see hundreds of performances and watch as they evolved over the course of a season.”

He says watching actors perform multiple roles over multiple seasons while seeing all the set and costume designs for hundreds of productions was an education and a gift.

His first paid acting job was at OSF. Early in the 1983 season, an actor playing a soldier in the production of “Hamlet” left the show. They needed someone tall who could handle one off-stage line.

“I had been volunteering and ushering at the festival and looking for any opportunities to get involved,” Young said. “There was some kind of audition, and I was offered the part. I still feel a sense of the specialness I felt then, when I got to go through the stage door before a show.”

One of his early mentors was James Edmondson, a long-time OSF company member who worked both as an actor and a director. He played the title role in Shakespeare’s “Richard II” in the first OSF play that Young saw.

“The performance changed the direction of my life,” he said. “I would later see his work countless times. We became colleagues and, most importantly, friends over the years. He is the first of many who have guided, supported and championed me.”

Young earned a degree in theater at Southern Oregon State College before attending the Harvard University Institute for Advanced Theater Training. He wanted to be a stage actor, focusing on Shakespeare. He says he has been lucky to have that be his reality for the last 20 years.

“My career, like others, has not been a straight line. There have been detours and bumps in the road. But I do consider myself fortunate for the experiences I have had.”

When asked how he prepares for a role, Young said his process is an amalgam of techniques and varies, depending on the story of the play.

“I do as much research or other imaginative work as I need to do to be able to believe myself in the story,” he said. “Much of the necessary information is in the action of the play. How does it work? What is my character’s function within it? Maybe my approach is more dramaturgical than anything else.”

He says Shakespeare roles in which he had some of the most fun were as Sir Andrew in “Twelfth Night,” Touchstone in “As You Like It,” and Dogberry in “Much Ado About Nothing.” Playing Weinberl in Tom Stoppard’s “On the Razzle” was a delight as well, he said.

There have been challenges too.

“Emotionally, the toughest role was probably George in ‘The Language Archive,’” Young said.

George, in Julia Cho’s problematic play, is a troubled linguist whose words fail him in his personal life.

“Performing his journey so many times was a challenge,” Young said.

He says “On the Razzle” was probably his biggest challenge physically. “It was a farcical workout from start to finish.”

He still considers himself a student of the craft, noting that getting it wrong is sometimes part of the process of getting it right.

“I’ve gotten better at being more comfortable with making mistakes,” he said. “I hope I’m getting better.”

In between gigs he used to do a lot of travel. Lately, it’s been cycling, garden projects, football and cooking.

His advice to his peers for surviving the pandemic is to not let go.

“Hold on to your creativity. We are going to need it. Even if it doesn’t pay the bills, find ways to keep it alive.”

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Rex Young