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Parting is such sweet sorrow

In a touching farewell Monday, Oregon Shakespeare Festival outgoing Artistic Director Bill Rauch described his pervasive “melancholy” at leaving the people and place where he and his husband have raised their children, and where the company during his 12-year tenure forged new ground with classic musicals, a redesigned Green Show and the U.S. History Cycle of commissioned works.

Rauch leaves in August to assume artistic leadership of the Ronald O. Perelman Center for Performing Arts at the World Trade Center in New York City. The Perelman attracted him because it’s a multidisciplinary arts hub with music, theater, opera, dance, film and musical theater — and productions that blend many of those disciplines.

In an interview with Jefferson Public Radio’s Geoffrey Riley on the stage of Southern Oregon University’s Music Recital Hall, Rauch heard many questions and loving plaudits from the audience, moving him to dab tears as he waved goodbye.

Citing the festival’s leadership in diversity and inclusion in the world of theater, Rauch said, “I’ve been mentored by extraordinary people as I opened my heart to thoughts I haven’t thought before. That’s the beautiful thing of theater, opening to new stories.”

Rauch was asked whether he hears much from people regarding what they don’t like about the festival.

“Every day!” he said, to much laughter.

He said one person even wrote with the “sheer audacity” to ask, “Why are you letting Mexicans take over the Festival?”

Pointing to stories of Native Americans, Roe v. Wade, and the Civil Rights struggle, portrayed in the festival’s commissioned series “American Revolutions: the U.S. History Cycle,” Rauch said the job of the artist is always to offer possibilities and be “in a dialogue with the present to explore what’s going to be in the future.”

He noted the importance of “hiring people smarter than you are,” adding, “I direct other people’s good ideas (and) we make better decisions collaboratively.”

Rauch offered glimpses into his past — that he fell in love with theater while working as a volunteer usher, getting to watch great plays over and over, then disappointing his parents who thought he should become a surgeon.

He guest-directed five seasons at OSF before taking the top job, was mentored by previous OSF artistic director Libby Appel — and directed seven world premieres here, including the Tony Award-winning “All the Way,” about President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign and historic civil rights battle.

In his new job, Rauch says he was hired with the understanding that “I’m a working artist and will continue directing. I don’t know that much about opera, but I’ll learn from people smarter than me.”

Asked about the role of risk, change and discovery at the festival, Rauch said “risk” may have a negative connotation in our society, but OSF has always honored change, as “it’s the only way an artist creates, by allowing the red to be there and the blue over there, and without that it’s deadening, not alive and vibrant. Don’t put emotional energy into bitterness. Make your own opportunities whenever you can, and follow your passion. It’s easy to get overwhelmed thinking of the correct way to perform the work, but there is no correct way. You take what’s in your heart and create what only you can create.”

Rauch said OSF’s sixth artistic director, Nataki Garrett, now at work, is “the perfect person to be in the job, passionate, clear, calm.”

Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Outgoing Artistic Director Bill Rauch, right, talks about his time with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in an interview moderated by Geoffrey Riley Monday at Southern Oregon University. Photo by Denise Baratta