The first time Bill Rauch directed a play in Oregon, the venue was a cattle sale barn with a soil floor so dry that it had to be wet down before each performance so clouds of dust wouldn’t get kicked up and blind the audience. The only bathroom facility was an outhouse a decorous distance away. That 1988 production, an adaptation of Brecht’s The Good Person of Setzuan, retooled and re-titled for the farming town of Long Creek (pop. 230), featured a cast of local amateurs alongside Rauch’s professional colleagues who, with Rauch as team leader, had logged thousands of miles bringing theatre to tiny, under-served communities throughout the U.S. under the upstart banner of the then two-year-old Cornerstone Theater Company.
Rauch will soon return to the Beaver State in a big way: Starting next month, he’ll begin the process of taking over the reins of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, a $22.5-million repertory resident theatre powerhouse, succeeding Libby Appel to become only the fifth artistic director in the festival’s 71-year history. The post, which will become his full-time job starting next June, takes Rauch a long way from the day in 1986 when he and 10 other founding members of Cornerstone piled into a blue van with a mission to remake American theatre from the grass roots up—and, pointedly, far away from what Rauch and company saw as the stultified, culturally homogeneous programming and audiences at most mainstream regional theatres.
In the nearly 20 years since that first trip to Oregon, Rauch and Cornerstone have both evolved, not so much away from their original mission as into an expanded understanding of the possibilities of theatrical dialogue and community. After five years on the road staging adapted classics in the nation’s hinterlands, Cornerstone settled in multicultural Los Angeles and grew into an influential theatrical force with a budget edging toward $1 million (it’s now $1.4 million) and an institute with an annual summer residency to pass on its methodology to new generations of theatremakers. It was from the company’s unlikely West Coast home base that it began a rapprochement of sorts, mostly on its own terms, with the regional theatre establishment it had once opposed. Alternating with long-term playmaking residencies in L.A.’s far-flung communities (Watts, Pacoima, Boyle Heights and Beverly Hills, among others), Cornerstone mounted groundbreaking community collaborations with Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., Great Lakes Theatre Festival in Cleveland, Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Conn., and even the nearby Mark Taper Forum.
Soon Rauch himself began to be lured away as a freelance director to such Southern California mainstays as the Taper and South Coast Repertory, as well as to Minnesota’s Guthrie Theater and Connecticut’s Yale Repertory Theatre; at the latter, he staged the premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House in 2004. Among the theatres that came calling was Oregon Shakes, starting with Robert Schenkkan’s Handler in 2002. The company has invited Rauch back every year since.
In June, Rauch officially left Cornerstone as it hit its 20-year anniversary, with Alison Carey’s contemporary update of As You Like It, presented at the Pasadena Playhouse, as his directorial send-off. This month at Lincoln Center Theater, he helms the starry New York premiere of The Clean House. His long-overdue Gotham splash proves that among the post-Cornerstone paths Rauch might have taken was a thriving freelance directing career. But as Ruhl herself puts it, “Directors are seen as hired guns, but Bill intuitively wants something larger. He wants to build an artistic home for himself and for the people he identifies with.”
That’s one impulse that’s been clear from the beginning, says Carey, another Cornerstone founder.
“So much of the spirit of the company came from Bill’s personality. I had a very populist and political motivation when we started out,” says Carey. “But Bill’s inclusiveness was more instinctive, I think—he was just always bringing people in. And nobody forced Bill to do administrative stuff; Bill’s good at it and he enjoys it. He tends to bring administration into the art, and art into the administration. He’s always had them integrated, in a way.”
James Bundy observed this extraordinary balancing act up close: He served as Cornerstone’s managing director for a crucial part of the rural years, and has invited the company to both to the Great Lakes Theater Festival and to Yale Rep, where he currently serves as artistic director.
“He makes a big difference to his community of collaborators in terms of how they do their job and how they see their roles,” says Bundy of Rauch’s work, both with Cornerstone and on his own. “I think it has a lot to do with his personal orientation to the world. Bill is genuinely interested in and open to every person he meets. That turns out to be to be a great orientation for somebody who is working with a first-time theatre artist, or for somebody coming into a theatre company where people have done things the same way for a long time.”
But Rauch is no longer a post-collegiate revolutionary out to shake up theatrical business as usual, if he ever was. Artistic directors who’ve hired him repeatedly say they appreciate his leadership savvy as much as his boundary-breaking theatrical creativity.
“It’s not as if bringing him in affects how we rehearse and mount plays,” says David Emmes, founding co-artistic director of South Coast Repertory, where Rauch is an associate artist. “But I think his Cornerstone experience translates remarkably well into him being the kind of director who’s really able to empower actors and designers, and allow them to be fully open to the journey of the play.”
Says Libby Appel, who will retire as OSF’s artistic director next year, “There is little ego but lots of vision with Bill. He has the leader’s ability to value everyone in the room, but he still has the vision and strength of character to follow through on a decision.” He’s not been hired to shake up OSF, with its complex interlocking repertory schedule, she says: “This program has very severe structural demands, and he wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t worked beautifully over the last five years within the rules of the game. I can’t imagine him not making innovative changes, but they will be within the general structure of the festival.”
Nevertheless, Bundy thinks the theatrical landscape has changed since Cornerstone set out to map its own way—and that Rauch and Cornerstone themselves have had something to do with it. “I’m sure that Cornerstone has changed the game,” Bundy says, calling Rauch “one of the five most influential people in American theatre, in terms of how we do our work,” and citing the example of the Guthrie and Cornerstone’s recent co-production of The Falls, Jeffrey Hatcher’s new play inspired by Thornton Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner.
Is Rauch poised to expand his influence from his powerful new post in Oregon? And can he keep his uniquely pacific blend of art and administration going? American Theatre sat down with him in L.A. to talk about his past as a path-breaker and community-builder and his future at the helm of a huge, lavishly budgeted resident theatre.
ROB KENDT: When you and your compatriots piled into a van in 1986 and headed for what we now call the red states, what did you think was ahead of you? Did you want to found a company that would one day have a home? Did you want to make a career?
BILL RAUCH: We wanted to reach people who weren’t being reached by the professional theatre. And we really did have this hunch, a very passionate hunch, that we would become better artists if we did work for people who weren’t already going to theatre. When we first articulated it, in a letter to the Broadway producer Manny Azenberg, which is the first place we turned for money, we said, “If you just invest a couple hundred thousand dollars in us, we’ll come back after two years with all these great new American plays that we will have created, and we’ll bring them to some great theatre city.” It was very naïve. But by the time we took off, on June 30, 1986, we were already thinking in much longer terms. I don’t think any of us would have dared to say it would be around in 20 years. But it was all in service of trying to create something we believed in enough that we hoped it would have a long life.
The alternative was regional theatre, and that didn’t interest you.
Well, 9 out of the 11 founding members went to Harvard/Radcliffe, so we were heavily exposed to the American Repertory Theatre. And one ART staff member gave us this advice: “You can get on an escalator that’s swiftly moving up, or you can go try to reinvent the wheel for yourself.” Of course, he meant, “Get on the escalator,” but it felt crystal clear to us that we wanted to reinvent the wheel—that sounded much more exciting. The alternative, as we saw it, was regional theatre. And I think because we were young and we were arrogant, I don’t think we fully appreciated the diversity of regional theatre; I don’t think we appreciated how much regional theatre’s roots were revolutionary, and that it was a proactive response to something that was frustrating in an earlier time. We just knew that the regional theatre largely served a small percentage of the population, and that frustrated us. We wanted to serve a wider segment of the American people.
It sounds like from the start your work was administrative as much as artistic—you had to build a company from scratch to do your art.
We were so open and free and easy about so many things, but there were certain things we were absolutely rigorous about. One was that we would never live as exchange students in other people’s homes; that we would always have private bedrooms in otherwise unoccupied facilities. And two, that Cornerstone would be how we earned our paycheck. Those paychecks got mighty small in those early years, but it was never about getting a day job and doing Cornerstone on the side.
And we knew that if this was going to be how we made a living, we needed to build an infrastructure to make that possible. I think we also believed in the mission so passionately—believed in this dream of giving voice to community, creating art through community, collaborating with first-time artists, performing for first-time audience members—that we knew we needed to develop an infrastructure to make that possible because that infrastructure, as far as we knew, didn’t exist.
But you were able to make room for yourself and other artists to make art in the midst of making a company?
The heart of it was the art, always. When I was a young director, I used to go to every performance of every play I directed, and continue to take notes and tinker. Cornerstone’s early managing director, James Bundy, who’s now at Yale, was like, “The play has opened. You’ve got all sorts of big-picture artistic director things that you should be doing.” I was like, “I must be at every performance—they need me!” James is the one who really taught me that it’s okay to let a show go after it’s opened—and it’s not only okay, it’s actually healthier to let the actors own it and run with it. Of course, now the actors are protected by their union from my earlier impulses to continue to tinker, but in those early days, I used to just keep working on those shows until closing.
But you created a space, a headspace, where you could be an artist in the midst of all the logistics that had to happen.
Yes, because that was the reason we were creating the logistics. Also, I think we always thought of building the structure as a work of art unto itself.
You started Cornerstone in opposition to regional theatre. But now that the company has collaborated with major regional theatres, and you’ve directed there as a freelance artist, do you feel you’ve shifted the dialogue somewhat, so that you and the company come to these projects on your own terms?
I do think that when Cornerstone collaborates with a regional theatre, it’s not business as usual for that regional theatre. Doug Wager deserves all the credit for being the first regional theatre artistic director, at Arena Stage, to bring Cornerstone in, for A Community Carol . When I first met with Doug, I went in thinking, “Oh, he wants to talk to me about doing a freelance show.” My heart sank when I realized, three minutes into the conversation, that he wanted to talk about a Cornerstone show. I chafed at the idea that I’m not Bill, I’m Cornerstone, I have no separate identity. But within 10 minutes of that, I realized, what’s a bigger event—that a regional theatre wants to hire me to direct a play, which would be a nice thing for me personally, or a regional theatre wants to completely shift its priorities, completely reshape how it does business, over the course of a year, in order to adopt Cornerstone’s methodology and create a Cornerstone work of art? That was in fact a much bigger achievement, and a much more important thing for the company, for me personally, for American theatre—a much bigger deal.
Are you going to miss the community-based projects, working with nonprofessional or first-time community artists to develop and stage shows? Are there parts of that you won’t miss?
I’ll tell you what I won’t miss—and this is very mundane but very real—is the scheduling, trying to work around the schedules of people who are shoving in being in the play on the side of the rest of our lives. You combine that with very large casts, and the logistical challenges but also the spiritual challenge of not having the freedom to have everybody in the room all the time you need them—I’m not going to miss that.
But there’s so much that I already miss. I remember during the controversy over the representation of gay Muslims in A Long Bridge Over Deep Waters [2005’s culminating “bridge show” of Cornerstone’s “faith cycle” of plays], we had a meeting with about 25 members of the Muslim community representing multiple points of view about that issue. There were people inside and outside Cornerstone who said, “There are gay Muslims, and we want to represent them in our play. It’s a non-issue.” People were even insulted that we had to spend any time talking to anybody about it. And then there were people who said, “It’s a non-issue—the majority of the community has said, ‘This is offensive, this is against our religion, we don’t want it in our play.’ Why would Cornerstone even think about dragging a gay Muslim into the mix?” So you had these two completely contradictory worldviews, both of which were dismissive of the fact that the company would take the time to investigate both points of view.
Well, that meeting was scheduled for 90 minutes, and it was still going strong at 4 hours and 15 minutes later. [Cornerstone ensemble member] Shishir Kurup walked me to my car afterwards, and he said, “You know, you’re never going to have this give-and-take when you leave here. How do you feel about that?” I knew he was right. There’s something about the purity of mission and the purity of heart about Cornerstone—the people that you meet and the conversations you end up having are extraordinary. I’ve tasted that for 20 years, so I’m going to try to create situations for myself where I’m having those conversations.
Were you happy with the way that controversy was resolved?
I’m very proud that the scene existed in the play. I am deeply proud of the fact that we had that dialogue with 25-plus members of the Muslim community. Were there costs? Of course. There were no straight Muslims in the cast by the time we opened; there were straight Muslims in the cast originally. That’s a cost, but that’s a cost we decided to bear.
Do you imagine that in professional situations you and the playwrights you’re working with won’t have to deal with this kind of concern?
Well, when I directed Jeff Whitty’s The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler at South Coast Rep [this past January], there was a series of characters that were different fictional renditions of Jesus in the piece. And we had some deep and meaningful discussions around the table about our responsibility for how we presented Jesus. Jeff made significant changes and was constantly grappling with trying to be responsible to people in the audience who might be Christian, and balancing that with what he wanted to say about how Christianity has been subverted and perverted by people who are perhaps not following its most profound teachings. That was a conversation I would have had in a Cornerstone rehearsal room.
If a theatre in this country decides to put on Merchant of Venice, and a local synagogue protests because of the anti-Semitism in the piece—these are issues that theatres have to grapple with all the time. How do you listen to the impulses of the artists working with you, how do you listen to community impulses, how do you respect it all and make decisions and move forward? And what are the ethical choices to be made in any given situation?
When you came to L.A., did you have a sense that you were coming to a theatre city, or to seek collaborations with local theatres?
No, we knew we were going to be attracted to working in neighborhoods that other professional theatres were not working with. We did know that the talent pool, in terms of professional artists, would be very different in this city. But the big part of why we picked L.A. was cultural diversity. We were at the time still an all-white company, and we wanted to remake ourselves as a multi-ethnic company. And we very strategically chose Los Angeles because it looked like the United States of the 21st century.
There was skepticism among some of your supporters about your move to L.A.
Yeah, I was naïve about how intense the East Coast bias against Los Angeles is—the absolute fervor of that. When a little girl was killed by gang gunfire in Pacoima while we were working on a show there, we were told that we’d been rejected by our major foundation funder, and the quote from the foundation officer was, “The panel and I are disappointed that you’ve turned your backs on your mission, to seek the big time in Los Angeles.” The juxtaposition of that little girl’s death at our performance site and that quote just said it all. Or Peter Zeisler, who was running TCG at the time, invited me to be on the TCG board, but also expressed his displeasure about our move, saying, “Why did you leave America and move to L.A.?”
Do you think that you’ve turned around that perception or prejudice?
I think given the kind of work that we’ve done in Los Angeles, people get why we’re in L.A. and what L.A.’s about. And the fact is, Cornerstone actors do work in film and TV, so all that stuff that we pooh-poohed, like, “That’s not why we’re moving here”—inevitably, when you hire professional actors in this city, the film and television industries are part of the mix for them. Including my own husband [Christopher Moore]. And I directed one episode of TV [“Judging Amy”]. I confess.
I’m wondering how your work with first-time, community-based performers has influenced your approach with professional actors. Are you the kind of director who wants to know about and use an actor’s lived experience?
If Cornerstone has taught me nothing else, it has taught me that every human being is infinitely complex and beautiful. That lesson serves me as an artist wherever I’m working. Whatever I start to perceive as an actor’s limitations—I’m able to remind myself very quickly to not start mythologizing that actor based on their limitations, but to remember that that actor has incredible untapped reserves, and the only limitation is actually my inadequacy as a director to help that actor tap those reserves. Whether it’s somebody who’s been acting for 45 years and is locked into crusty old habits, or whether it’s somebody who’s never set foot on stage before, they’ve got something in them that could move and dazzle audiences. Can I help them access it, within the limitations of time we have? That’s the game, that’s the joy. That’s the steep mountain.
You could have a career as a freelance theatre director all over the country, but that’s not the path you’re choosing.
If I put enough energy into it, I could continue to make my living as a freelance director, moving from theatre to theatre. There are two problems with that being my long-term plan. One is artistic, and that is that I think I’m an artistic director at heart. As seductive as only directing plays and not having to deal with the headaches of running an institution might be, even in this short time away from Cornerstone, I’m learning that I love the artwork of nurturing an institution and running an institution.
And the second one I would say is even more urgent, and that’s my family. My husband of 22-plus years, and our two children, aged six and one—all four of us hate being apart. In what city in this country can you make a living as a freelance director without having to be on the road? It’s not that viable.
Which brings us to OSF. Did you know from the first play you directed there that it was the place for you?
Handler was a turning point in my life. I do link it, frankly, to my leaving Cornerstone. It was a show about snake-handlers, low-income people in a rural community in the Southern United States. My Cornerstone M.O. would have been to create a show about that community with people from that community, and have a life-changing, frightening, thrilling experience. Well, there I was in Oregon, at a large theatre, working with all professional artists—and I had a life-changing, very sacred experience. The input was different; the people telling the story were not the people who had handled snakes, but we had as resources a bunch of documentaries, and Robert Schenkkan, the playwright, had lived for a week with snake-handlers and gone to services. It was really interesting to be using those different professional tools, and to be creating a sense of community with all professionals. As a very small but telling detail, many of us in the cast ended up calling each other Brother and Sister—I was Brother Bill to a lot of the cast members—just as the characters did.
There was something communal, and again I’ll use the word sacred, about that entire experience. It was like going through a wormhole and suddenly being reconnected to the artist I was when I was 19, when I was 20, where suddenly I remembered what it was to create a work of art without the context of first-time actors and community-based methodology. And I was happy. I think maybe I’d fallen into a mental trap that community-based work was good, traditional professional work was bad. The Handler experience was so artistically and spiritually fulfilling that it opened up the possibility in my mind that while community-based work is good, professional work is also good, just in a different way.
Do you think that communal experience had something to do not just with where you were at that time, but also with the repertory acting company at OSF?
The fact that those actors were part of an ensemble, and knew each other, in the same way that Cornerstone works with an ensemble, in the same way the Wooster Group works with an ensemble, is not a coincidence. Resident acting companies in this country are an endangered species; they hardly exist anymore. And I do believe the best work in world drama comes out of company situations; I’m a passionate believer in company.
You know, it’s interesting, when you look at the places that have become my artistic homes of late: Cornerstone, ensemble; Oregon Shakespeare Festival, company; Yale Rep, not a company, but deeply connected to the Yale Drama School, so you have a group of students learning and working together over three years; South Coast Rep, run by founders, founding company members act in a majority of productions over the season; even the Guthrie, for many years an acting company. So I do think I’m attracted to places where company values are at the heart of the work.
What else draws to you Oregon Shakes?
I love the eclectic repertoire that the rotating repertory, and it being a destination theatre, demands. People come to see multiple plays, so there has to be a mix of Shakespeare and other classics, contemporary and commissioned work. That eclecticism appeals to me as an artist and as an artistic director. The legacy of the organization—that it was started in 1935, and to see the artistic bar just steadily raise and raise over those 70-plus years, is very moving to me. And how passionate and literate and devoted and opinionated the audience is.
OSF has an extremely diverse company.
Diversity has been increasingly important to OSF over recent years. Obviously, given my experience at Cornerstone, a big part of what I bring to bear as artistic director is a commitment to diversity, on stage and off.
In what new directions do you hope to take the company?
I want to expand the commissioning of new work that has been so effective at OSF, to increase the number of them. And to think about major multi-year artistic initiatives.
So after making plays everywhere but inside traditional theatres, you’re realizing that you can say what you want to say as an artist—even in a theatre.
Yes, that’s right. You don’t need to run away from the real theatre building to make exciting things happen. It’s tricky to talk about this; obviously, Cornerstone was my life’s work and it continues to be among the most vital theatre going on in this country. But for me as a director now, I’m excited to work in a space that was meant to be a theatre.
Rob Kendt is a critic and arts reporter living in Brooklyn.