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Innovation is the hallmark of Rauch's last season

With the first four productions hitting the stages of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in less than two weeks, the OSF campus is bustling with hundreds of artists and technicians putting the final pieces together for opening weekend.

Among them is Bill Rauch, who is in his 12th and final season as artistic director. He will hand the baton to a new AD this summer when he leaves the festival to assume artistic leadership of the Ronald O. Perelman Center for Performing Arts at the World Trade Center in New York City.

He’s excited about the new challenge and the opportunities it entails, he said, but for now he is focused on OSF and the 2019 season.

Evening previews for “As You Like It” are scheduled for March 1 and 5, with opening night March 8.

For “Hairspray: The Broadway Musical,” previews are March 2 and 6, with opening night March 9.

“Mother Road” previews are March 3 and 7, followed by an opening matinee March 10.

And evening previews for “Cambodian Rock Band” are March 6, 7 and 8, with an opening matinee March 9.

Previews are finalized productions, not rehearsals, and provide the cast and creative team an opportunity to see how audiences interact with a show, so any final adjustments can be made prior to opening.

Launching later in the season are “Between Two Knees” (April 3), “Macbeth” (May 28), “Alice in Wonderland” (May 29), “All’s Well That Ends Well” (May 30), “La Comedia of Errors” (June 29), “Indecent” (July 4), and “How to Catch Creation” (July 23).

Rauch is directing “Mother Road” by Octavio Solis, a celebrated, nationally renowned playwright and director who now lives in the Rogue Valley.

“This play just grabbed my heart a couple years back,” Rauch said. “I feel lucky that he held off for us for the world premiere.”

Inspired by John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” it’s an imagined sequel about a contemporary young Mexican-American man descended from protagonist Tom Joad, reversing the Joads’ journey from California back to Oklahoma.

“It’s a beautiful meditation on the American character and American spirit,” Rauch said. “It’s about what it’s like to be on a road trip and to look for home. I believe it will become an instant classic.”

The musical spotlight this year falls on “Hairspray,” directed by Christopher Liam Moore.

Many people are familiar with the film version of John Waters’ story about a 1962 Baltimore teenager, Tracy Turnblad, who lives in a world that tells her plus-sized gals shouldn’t be dancing on television and that racial segregation is here to stay. But she has something to say about that.

The production honors Waters’ original subversive vision in a joyful production with wall-to-wall music and dance.

“We’re going to blow the roof off the Bowmer!” Rauch said.

Last year, OSF had to move or cancel 26 performances because of wildfire smoke, resulting in about $2 million in lost revenue.

“Certainly, our biggest challenge still is wildfire smoke and its impact on tourism,” Rauch said.

OSF is meeting that challenge by scheduling the three Elizabethan plays at the Ashland High School Mountain Avenue Theatre July 30 through Sept. 8, including added matinee performances.

The 400-seat alternate venue features state-of-the-art sound and comfort, and is equipped with dressing rooms, a control booth, a full fly system, an orchestra pit, a green room and a spacious lobby. The company will use sets and costumes at both venues.

Even though tickets are synced between the outdoor theater and the Mountain Avenue Theatre, performances won’t go back and forth from day to day, depending on weather during that period.

“We don’t want audiences to get whiplash,” Rauch said. “But if there’s no smoke or it clears up, we’re prepared to perform at the Elizabethan.”

The tradition of OSF is one of innovation. In that spirit, Rauch’s last directorial effort at the festival will be “La Comedia of Errors,” debuting June 29.

“It’s our first-ever produced work from the Play On! project,” Rauch said.

First, Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” was translated into contemporary modern English, then into a bilingual rendition.

“Our goal was to make the show comprehensible whether you speak just English or just Spanish,” he said.

The production shares the same nine actors who are in the cast of “Mother Road.” It will be performed at a variety of show times in a variety of spaces, including OSF’s Thomas Theatre and the Hay-Patton Rehearsal Center.

“We’ll be touring it to local community centers at no cost to them,” Rauch said. “There will be no recorded sound and no sets — just props, costumes and live music. It’s very portable, so we can do it in incredibly different spaces.”

Rauch said he has enjoyed his tenure at OSF.

“It was a dream job. I saw OSF as one of the most important theater companies in the U.S.,” he said. “I was impressed with the passion and loyalty of its audiences, the quality of the productions, and the mix of plays.”

He sees Shakespeare as continuing to be a core attraction of the festival.

“If you go to a steakhouse, you order steak,” he said, noting that members, students and first-timers usually want to see some Shakespeare at a Shakespeare festival.

Acknowledging the draw of musicals for general audiences, he said there is also an appetite for new works. Some of the new plays commissioned by OSF have found success even beyond Ashland.

“Two of the most produced plays in America today are ‘Sweat’ and ‘Indecent,’ both commissioned by OSF,” Rauch noted.

Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way,” commissioned by OSF and performed at the festival in 2012, went on to Broadway in 2014 and won the Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, with Rauch directing.

After Rauch passes the baton to a new artistic director, he hopes to return to Ashland often to see productions, connect with audiences, and possibly to direct as a guest artist.

Rauch said there is a special vibrancy in the way plays talk to each other at OSF.

“There are stories told across time, across continents, and across cultural differences, with characters talking to each other with a kind of spirit and abandon, and without fear,” he said.

“It’s something we shoot for every year, but we try to really bring it home in my final season.”

For more information and to order tickets, see osfashland.org.

Jim Flint is a retired newspaper publisher and editor living in Ashland. Reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Photo by Kim BuddBill Rauch in his last season as artistic director, addresses the OSF team in a January company call in the Bowmer Theatre.
Photo by Kim BuddAt an early read-through for “Mother Road” are, from left, assistant director Kareem Fahmy, playwright Octavio Solis, and director Bill Rauch.