OSF: Playing Outside the Lines

Bil Rausch

2016 Is the first year in Oregon Shakespeare Festival history where a majority of the actors are actors of color, it is one of the milestones in this eighty first season of the festival and four hundredth anniversary of the Bard’s death.

Artistic Director Bill Rauch dropped this knowledge on a crowd gathered at the Hannon Library this past Thursday, March 3, about the newly begun 2016 Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) season. It is the fourteenth year for Rauch as Artistic Director at OSF.

The question Rauch addressed was, “How do you take a near ‘perfect’ 80-year-old festival and make it better?” One aspect of the 2016 season that separates it from past years is that it is the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. It will be the last major anniversary related to Shakespeare in many of the audiences’ lifetimes. To celebrate, OSF will perform five Shakespeare plays during the season. Normally they feature fewer than that.

Rauch touched on many other topics as well, including institutional racism and appealing to younger audiences. “OSF has a tradition of looking at plays from a diverse cultural background,” One way he does that is to have actors and staff of different cultural backgrounds. This year there are more actors of color, Rauch explains, “That is a huge milestone to have reached for any theatre in this country and certainly for a theatre of our scale—with over 100 actors on payroll, that’s a big, big milestone for us to have reached.”

Rauch also emphasizes how much relevance these classic plays will have on modern times. Rauch reveals Shakespeare’s Richard II will be playing, which accentuates what it means to be a leader. He relates this to the current presidential election year. “It’s an examination of the transfer of power, and it’s really a study in who should be a leader and are you born into leadership or do you earn leadership. How does revolution happen?”

Another play in the OSF repertoire is a production called Roe. It follows the story of Jane Roe, plaintiff in the Roe v. Wade supreme court case, and her lawyer, Norma McCorvey. “The relevance is so breathtaking and overwhelming,” Rauch expresses. “Whatever point of view you have on abortion you’ll hear it from an actor on stage. All points of view are represented.”

While OSF works diligently to be inclusive and diverse, the age demographics are predominantly groups over 45. “We have some of the best audience demographics in the country,” says Rauch, “The average age each year creeps up. We want our plays to reach younger audiences.” He encourages students and other young people to attend the festival if they can. “It’s about being able to enjoy stories together to experience what it means to be human.” Rauch wants the youth in Ashland to be able to see that on stage as well as their parents and grandparents.