Bill Rauch has been one of American theatre’s leading leaders since he and a bunch of fellow Harvard grads piled into a blue bus and formed Cornerstone Theater Company. Since that day in the mid-1980s, he led that unique community-building powerhouse to Los Angeles, where it expanded its national footprint and started an institute to teach its practices, while at the same time he slowly but surely built a formidable directing career on his own across the U.S.
One place it took him: Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which eventually hired him in 2006 to succeed artistic director Libby Appel. In the years since he’s helped lead OSF, already a world-class classical theatre with a large acting ensemble, to become a leader in new-play development as well: Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, and Universes’ Party People are just some of the plays commissioned by OSF’s American Revolutions program, headed by Rauch’s Cornerstone compadre Alison Carey. He’s also positioned the theatre at the forefront of a fieldwide push for equity, diversity, and inclusion, radically diversifying the acting company and staff, steering the company’s mentorship programs to an ED&I focus, and attempting to diversify the company’s board and audience.
Now he’s taking on a new challenge: to become artistic director of the Ronald O. Perelman Center, a new three-venue multidisciplinary performing arts complex at the World Trade Center in New York City. Rauch will complete his tenure at OSF in 2019 and then relocate to gear up for the Perelman Center’s opening, slated as early as the 2020-21 season.
I spoke to Bill today after the momentous announcement.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: How did this happen? Was 12 years just enough in one place?
BILL RAUCH: I was not looking for a job; I’m very, very happy at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I feel like it’s one of the great theatres in the U.S. But, although it’s a cliche, to run a performing arts center at the World Trade Center is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You know me so well, you’ve watched and been alongside me, so you can understand that when there was talk about community engagement, not only with artists from around the world but also with the five boroughs of New York City, it was clear that this opportunity was really special, really unusual, and made a lot of sense for me to explore when the search firm reached out to me.
How much will theatre be a part of the Perelman Center?
It’s a performing arts facility, so I think theatre will be a big part of the mix, as well as music and dance and other performing arts. The organization has self-defined from quite early on as producing, not a presenting entity. That doesn’t mean there won’t be work that exists in other places that comes there, and coproducing in collaboration with other arts organizations. The intimacy of the venues is also very attractive—they’re three midsized venues that are flexible based on the visions of the artists. And they can be also combined into one giant space.
The idea of a performing arts center at the World Trade Center has gone through many iterations and false starts. It’s slated to open for the 2020-21 season. I imagine you’re coming in after most of the heavy lifting has been done, and you won’t be expected to push it past the finish line, right?
Some extraordinary heavy lifting has already been done, but there’s still more fundraising to do. The majority of building costs have been raised, though.
So there’s no chance you’re signing on to a project that won’t open.
Do I feel confident that the building’s going to open? Yes.
Looking back at your years at OSF, do you feel there are goals you set for yourself and that you’ve met, and challenges and accomplishments you didn’t anticipate?
All of the above. I do feel that one of the things that’s brilliant about OSF is that each new leadership team has innovated and built on the success of what came before. When I took over from Libby, it was positioned for me and my colleagues to take risks and build on her and colleagues’ work; my dearest wish is that whoever succeeds me takes the organization in directions I couldn’t even imagine.
I’m especially proud of two things we’ve accomplished here—and I want to stress the “we,” I don’t want it to sound like I’ve done it alone. The amount of new work that we’ve been able to commission and develop and produce and share with the rest of the field—that has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams when I was appointed. And although we are painfully aware every day of how much more work we have to do, I’m proud of how far we’ve come in becoming an anti-racist organization, with equity, diversion, and inclusion at the center of what we do.
That last emphasis is something I would have expected from you, knowing your work with Cornerstone. The new-play focus was a bit more of a surprise.
Well, at Cornerstone all those adaptations were new plays. And the great works of the classical canon, most of them came out of company settings; I believe that great works come out of companies, whether that’s Shakespeare, Moliere, Brecht, Garcia Lorca. I think it’s not a coincidence that so many great new plays are coming out of the largest acting company in the country.
You’re right in the midst of the new season as this news breaks.
Othello, which I’m directing, has its first preview tonight, and we open four shows next weekend. A day after that, I start rehearsals on the Oklahoma! I’m directing. This isn’t my last season, though; I’ll stay through the opening of all the shows next summer before I move to New York.
And you’ll have a successor named by then?
Yes, we expect to. Libby and I overlapped for a year, and I hope for as much overlap with my successor.
Years ago when you took the OSF job, one reason you gave was that you wanted to settle down with your young family rather than hop around the country as a freelance director. You and your family are in a different place now, right?
My son Liam graduates from high school this June; he went from second grade to his senior year of high school here in Ashland. And our daughter, Xava—the blessing of the timing is great. At what other organization could I take two years to prepare to leave? In the time between now and our move, our daughter starts high school.
And there’s Chris Liam Moore, your talented husband.
He was an accomplished director before he came here, but he’s become a completely masterful directorial artist, here and at a lot lot of other West Coast theatres. He still acts sometimes too. I’m excited for my husband to have more opportunities to work than at the theatre I’m running.
So in summation…
I’ve got deep sadness about leaving OSF, but I look forward to living and working in New York City.