WHILE I WAS IN ASHLAND for the opening four shows of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2018 season—and a splendid set of shows they are—I managed to secure a little time with Bill Rauch, the company’s artistic director. Rauch had announced a few weeks earlier that he was leaving the festival, which he’d led since 2007, to lead The Ronald O. Perelman Center for Performing Arts at the World Trade Center in New York City, a new multidisciplinary performing arts space. Although he won’t leave the festival until August 2019, I thought touching base with him made sense.
We met Sunday morning, right after a festival public event with the directors of the four opening shows of the year. Since Rauch had directed Othello, he was part of that panel, though he was probably the least loquacious panelist.
Although I found his approach to Othello quite revealing, I wanted to talk about something else. How had he made the festival a model for other big arts organizations that want to become more inclusive, less dominated by the white male perspectives that have had a monopoly on American theater since, well, the beginning?
In case you’re curious about what this looks like onstage: This year’s festival features about as many women in the director’s chair as men and roughly as many women playwrights as men (an achievement considering the number of plays devoted to Shakespeare). Those directors and playwrights include almost as many artists of color as white artists. More than half the acting company is made up of artists of color, and the company spans various ages and body types. The stories they tell onstage are wide-ranging, too, coming out of various traditions around the world.
Rauch has developed a very specific idea about how deeply ingrained the old way of doing business in arts organizations has become, that top-down, authoritarian leadership style, the tyranny of the maestro, that has infected the arts community from the start.
“In that question in the panel just now,” Rauch said, “when they were asking about leadership? One of the things I was going to talk about—most theaters in this country are run by very liberal people, not all but most. And the gap between the values we espouse in our plays—the Shakespeare history plays that show the evils of fascistic leadership—and then, we run our organizations in the very leadership style that we are critiquing in the play we are putting on. You see that hypocrisy again and again and again. Right? It’s obscene.”
But even a liberal artistic director who agrees that leaders need to lead differently, more inclusively, that power needs to be distributed more widely, and that aligning their artistic values with their personal values is important—even such an artistic director can draw back at the moment of decision.
“It’s such a powerful tool of white supremacy, right? White men hiring the white men they know, and white men hiring white men whose worth has been proven because of the opportunities they’ve already been given. It’s a vicious circle.”
Of course, when you go another direction, as Rauch did in Ashland, tensions arise.
“I think one of the places where the tension you’re naming has been most active is in the acting community,” Rauch said. “I came here because I believe that great work comes out of a resident company of actors. But the eclecticism of my taste and the ways we’ve tried to expand the playbill and the kinds of stories that we do, mean that we’ve had a higher percentage of turnover in the acting company, certainly than in Libby’s era [Libby Appel, served as artistic director before Rauch, 1995–2007] or before. That has been great for the artistic vitality, but I feel like we’ve pushed the boundaries on the commitment to an ongoing company. There’s been a tension, and there’s a tension every year when we cast.”
Although the unprecedented turnover in the acting company created tension, Rauch received continued support from the rest of the staff and the board that had hired him to shake things up. He remembered an early meeting in his tenure when the plays were being discussed—which plays would run all season, what theater they would play in, how much of the company’s resources would be applied to them.
“The first show I directed as artistic director was The Clay Cart back in 2008 that we ran all season,” Rauch said. “And that was because someone in the marketing department, Bob Hackett, pounded his fist on the table and said that doing classics from other parts of the world is core to Bill’s vision and why are we trying to stick it into the shortest possible slot. We’ve got to have the courage of our convictions and run this all year. And everybody clapped, and I realized, wow, my colleagues have more courage for me than I have for myself in this moment. And I took up the challenge.”
The audience has been generally warm to Rauch’s approach, too, though with some exceptions.
“In terms of the relationship with the audience, I have my share of horror stories about things that people have said that I found problematic or hurtful, but I’ve also learned when the work is pushing buttons, and when people are having strong reactions, that’s a good thing,” Rauch explained. “I’ve learned how projects plant the seeds for future projects. Even if there is a kind of audience consensus—that didn’t work, or we didn’t like that or that made us uncomfortable, whatever it is—what are we doing five years later? Eight years later? That was made entirely possible because of that show that quote, didn’t work, unquote. The measure of success starts becoming a much longer horizon of evaluation. And that’s been one of the most thrilling things I’ve learned in this job.”
We talked a little about his new job on the site of the World Trade Center, as symbolic a site for a performing arts venue in the U.S. as I can imagine right now. Rauch said that he didn’t have any intention of leaving the festival, which has proven to be a springboard to project new work around the country and even to Broadway, where the festival has piled up Tony nominations and victories in recent years.
“It just felt the possibility field was so rich—and a little scary—but was not something I could turn away from,” Rauch said. “I do think in terms of everything we’ve talked about today, which is modeling democracy in both the work itself and in the organization that supports it, I just think it’s an exciting place to try to continue.”
Bringing democratic values to the arts space, in general, has proven to be far more difficult than it should have, for various reasons, from the authoritarianism of the old-style leader to the blind admonition to “run it as a business” from board members equally enmeshed in top-down management styles. The result of the old way hasn’t been great art. It hasn’t been vast financial success. I’d argue that it has led in quite the opposite direction.
Of course, I’d have to admit that Rauch’s tenure at the Shakespeare Festival is currently exhibit one in that argument.