If you had cornered me around the turn of the century and asked me to name a few of my favorite theatre companies, I wouldn’t have hesitated long before answering Cornerstone Theater Company and Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The former troupe I followed, first with skepticism, then with growing enthusiasm, when it settled in Los Angeles after years of making theatre in tiny, off-the-beaten-track towns like Marfa, Texas, and Long Creek, Ore., and began to propagate its unique blend of community-engaged and professional ensemble work among various diverse demographics of the Southland. By the time I caught artistic director Bill Rauch’s staging of The Central Avenue Chalk Circle, a Californized adaptation of Brecht, in a labor hall in Watts, as the culmination of the company’s residency in that neighborhood in 1995, I was sold on both the company’s utopian vision and its joyous and rough-hewn but fine-grained practice.
At the other end of the spectrum, I had discovered a different sort of theatrical paradise up the I-5 in Ashland, Ore., where a bona fide theatre tourist town had sprung up around a so-called “Shakespeare festival” that had quietly (perhaps too quietly) grown into a full-service, nearly year-round producing theatre with as much new and contemporary work on offer as classics. If Cornerstone typified a communitarian ideal of theatre of, by, and for the people typically neglected by the nation’s institutional theatres, Oregon Shakes seemed to be just about the only major theatre still living the founding dream of America’s resident theatre movement, long since abandoned by most of its peers: rotating repertory, performed by a large acting company on contracts long and generous enough that they could put down roots in the community—where they could make their art and not sweat their next gig.
I not only loved each of these companies for their intrinsic, sui generis qualities; I also cherished them as role models, as case studies. Here were at least two shining examples of companies who belied the declinist notion that the theatre had failed America, and its mirror-image corollary: that audiences had given up on theatre.
And then a weird, almost unbelievable convergence began: In her last decade running OSF, a.d. Libby Appel began to regularly hire Cornerstone’s Bill Rauch to direct there. Before long I began to hear murmurs about succession, and in 2006, Bill left Cornerstone, along with cofounder Alison Carey, and took the job as OSF’s fifth artistic director. I’ve often joked since that it was like someone had broken into my brain and made my dream artistic match-up actually come true in real life, but that’s not quite right; if the thought had ever entered my mind of somehow bringing these two radically disparate companies together, it was entirely subconscious. I certainly never uttered it to anyone.
But there it was; it seemed almost too good to be true, and in the intervening years Bill has not only raised the bar at OSF in several areas—in production of new work, including the American Revolutions commissioning program; in the regular addition of both classic American musicals and non-Western world classics; in the demographic diversification of the company, not only onstage but in the administrative offices. He has also brought a number of his erstwhile L.A. theatre colleagues up to Oregon: Carey, who runs the American Revolutions program, but also designer Christopher Acebo, who’s an OSF associate a.d., sound designer Paul James Prendergast, directors Tracy Young and Art Manke, choreographer Ken Roht, and actors Brent Hinkley, Kate Mulligan, Dan Parker, and Christopher Liam Moore, who’s also become an estimable director in his own right at OSF.
Of course, Rauch isn’t running a dream; he’s not Willy Wonka. He’s artistic director of one of the largest-budgeted nonprofit theatres in the nation (after L.A.’s Center Theatre Group and New York’s Lincoln Center Theater), and he has stretched its rotating-repertory approach to accommodate new-work development and even, gulp, new-musical-theatre development. Last year he made his Broadway directing debut with one of his more auspicious American Revolutions commissions, the first of Robert Schenkkan’s LBJ history plays, All the Way—though, in a painful compromise that the play’s subject might have appreciated, Rauch had to bring it to New York in a starry coproduction with American Repertory Theater, minus the original Oregon cast.
The new work and cross-pollinating artistry continues apace in Ashland, though: On my long-overdue return visit there this past week I saw the world premiere of Lynn Nottage’s searing, sinewy new drama Sweat, directed by longtime collaborator Kate Whoriskey; I also saw an exuberant rendition of Guys and Dolls directed by Mary Zimmerman, of all people; Shishir Kurup’s rich, rangy production of Quiara Hudes’s The Happiest Song Plays Last; Chris Moore’s moving, sepulchral take on Long Day’s Journey Into Night; and Joseph Haj’s playful Pericles.
I can’t hide my disappointment, though, that perhaps the most anticipated ticket on my visit—a new musical by the inimitable Jeff Whitty, loosely based on Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia and featuring the song catalog of the Go-Go’s, which I’d read and loved on the page and had been looking forward to for literally a year—was canceled right at curtain time due to severe smoke conditions in the outdoor Elizabethan theatre. It was those damned wildfires (again). My date with Head Over Heels will have to wait.
But my deadline for a larger story reflecting on where Bill has led OSF, and vice versa, still stands. You can look for that in our October issue, which will come out 9 years to the month since I last sat down with Bill at length for American Theatre to talk about his momentous job transition. (Not to worry: American Theatre hasn’t overlooked Cornerstone in the intervening years.) I might have a different, or at least longer, list of favorite theatre companies if you asked me today. But checking in with both Bill and OSF puts me back into an ongoing dialogue, not only with his and their specific work, but with the questions it raises about, and the provisional answers it gives to, the largest challenges facing our theatre and our nation. Put crudely: Can we responsibly sing and dance while the hills around us burn? Maybe that’s exactly what we need to do—after putting out the fires, of course.