BACK STAGE WEST

July 09, 1998

 

Ashland, the Ride

For audiences, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is an enchanting theatre theme park. For stage actors, it may be the best gig in the country.

 

by Rob Kendt

 

I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of a responsible journalist to say what dream it was; a critic is but an ass-kisser if he go about to expound this dream.

 

Methought I was in a sunny, verdant small town where no car is required to get around; where a sleepy, pedestrian-friendly main street has as its town center an impressive but not overbearing three-theatre facility with a total of nearly 2,000 seats; where capacity audiences eagerly watch excellently produced and exquisitely performed theatre, much of it classic and most of it meaty drama, six days a week, twice a day, rain or shine (one stage is gloriously outdoors, spared a major air-traffic flight path but not the weather), and where--this is the part that's most dream-like--a diverse staff of 68 actors performs 11 plays in repertory on six- to 10-month contracts at Equity wages.

 

Of course, I actually was in Ashland, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is quite real. Once just an outdoor summer Bard fest with an annual attendance of no more than 30,000 and non-union casts and crews, OSF has grown into a nearly year-round professional theatre multiplex with unimpeachable production values and utmost artistic seriousness, attracting 350,000 audience members from February through October to what is perhaps the most robust theatre tourist destination in the U.S. outside Manhattan. And under the leadership of artistic director Libby Appel and, before her, Henry Woronicz, OSF has begun to stake its claim as a regional theatre powerhouse of national and international importance.

 

Ironically, the busy repertory model OSF has built in the picturesque Siskiyou mountain plain of Ashland, at the southern end of Oregon, is its most singular achievement, its biggest logistical challenge--and, in a sense, an intractable obstacle to wider recognition. Its long-term resident pool of artists, who are on year-to-year contracts but who tend to be invited back repeatedly, are committed for so long to Ashland's main native industry that tours and exchanges are nigh impossible to arrange; most actors are double- and triple-cast, so to pull any performer out of the season means disrupting two or three casts. OSF will make its first East Coast appearance when its 1997 world premiere production of The Magic Fire, Lillian Garrett-Groag's memory play about post-WWII Argentina, will travel lock, stock, and barrel to the Kennedy Center--in November, after the festival season ends. Naturally, November to January tends to be the only window in which OSF's productions and artists can entertain other venues or offers.

 

But who needs away games when you're batting so well at home? Indeed, the home-grown institutional strength and power of OSF--and the ways it uses that power--deserve wider appreciation on their own terms. The commitment of its artistic staff not only to tending the flame of Shakespearean performance and interpretation but to nurturing new and newish plays and writers, to racially and culturally diversifying its work and its staff, to maintaining a solid and well-paid professional acting company, and to reaching as wide and as dedicated an audience as it can seat compares favorably to any nonprofit regional theatre one could name. Its only existing peers are non-American: Stratford Ontario and the Royal Shakespeare Company. The U.S. does have its share of summer Bard fests with solid credentials and greater aspirations--Utah, Alabama, Berkeley, Santa Cruz--and a few companies that still offer long, cushy contracts to a handful of actors, though not typically the chance to do serious repertory.

 

In short, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a unique, almost freakish, exception in today's American theatre economy. Probably the last true remnant of the spirit of the once-vibrant U.S. regional theatre movement, which had repertory work as its ideal, OSF hasn't merely survived the funding cutbacks and shifts in audience demographics that have eviscerated other nonprofit theatres--it is in excellent and seemingly ever-improving health.

 

Well-Oiled Muscle

One way to measure the long-term health of a theatre is to look at what is typically its most vulnerable spot: its commitment to paying its actors. By that standard, OSF, which went to a full Equity contract in 1987 and currently employs roughly 80 percent union talent, is in phenomenally good shape. (Another gauge: Its $13.7 million budget.) Though not a member of the League of Resident Theatres, it uses the LORT B+ scale, for which the minimum is $619 a week, and maintains a generous cap on the upper end. It also provides housing to actors who can show proof that they're maintaining a residence in another city, and offers the chance for performers to make extra money leading backstage tours and performing for local schools.

 

"It's like a well-oiled machine," said Joe Garber, the Equity representative who negotiates the LORT contracts in the Western region. "It seems like OSF endeavors to make it a comfortable working environment, and that they respect the work of everybody involved, not just the actors."

 

Said Mark Murphey, who has acted at Ashland a total of 17 seasons on and off since 1969 and before that at the American Conservatory Theater under William Ball, "When I started here in 1969, the pay was $35 a week. It was non-union, just a summer Shakespeare festival. The pay has never gone backwards since then, as far as I remember. The money's not bad here. I've raised a family. I've got nothing saved, and my family's not on the medical insurance, only me. But for theatre in this country, it's very fortunate. If you're invited back year after year, Ashland provides you with stability. It's a small, beautiful town, and it's got good schools."

 

Robin Goodrin Nordli, who this year plays three roles, including Yelena in Libby Appel's production of Uncle Vanya, has worked up and down the West Coast's Interstate 5 regional theatre corridor, as well as briefly in the Los Angeles film and TV market. She auditioned for nine years to get into OSF. When she finally did, she realized its unique value.

 

"I think I'd worked enough other places that by the time I got here I really appreciated what was here," she said. "It doesn't get much better than this. I can walk home at night, as opposed to being in a major city. You have 10-month security, which allows you to do the work instead of worrying about your next job. We're treated well, the production quality is high, we get paid well, it's steady work. I'm spoiled."

 

Melany Bell, who plays Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream and a dream dancer in Les Blancs, noted that while the pay is "enough to live on, living in Ashland is kind of expensive, because it's a tourist town." Indeed, $500 for a small one-bedroom does seem high for a "small town" (though it would be a steal in L.A. and almost unimaginable in San Francisco or Manhattan).

 

There is more of value here than money and pleasant working conditions, of course. For Christine Williams, another young actor with memorable roles in The School for Scandal and Sandra Deer's new play Sailing to Byzantium, OSF is "like the ideal grad program. It's great to get to watch the older actors over the course of a season."

 

This kind of unofficial apprentice situation is often what the company is looking for when it brings in new actors, explained associate artistic director Timothy Bond.

 

"We try to avail ourselves of actors who look like they're looking for a life in the theatre," said Bond, who ran the multicultural Group Theatre in Seattle in the early 1990s before joining the OSF staff last year. "They don't grow many of those. Most young actors are looking to do theatre to be exposed for film and television, but we're looking for actors who are committed, and able to commit to a life in the theatre. Ashland is one of the last places you can do that."

 

Of course, it's not a place for raw, unformed talent to learn from scratch: "We're looking for an actor that's muscular, in the sense of being vocally, physically trained, who can handle contemporary language in a 140-seat black box and speaking Shakespeare on the 1,200-seat Elizabethan stage, both with aplomb," said Bond.

 

Indeed, not many actors join the company each year: This year, of 68 contract actors, only a dozen are new to Ashland. At least part of this low turnover has to do with OSF's uniquely brokered casting process (see below), which gives priority to currently contracted artists. For new actors, OSF does hold open calls each year; associate artistic directors Bond and Penny Metropulos do casting tours to colleges, and do generals in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. (The casting consultant in Southern California is Martha McFarland of South Coast Rep; in New York it's Alan Filderman.) Recommendations from theatre directors and university department heads are also taken seriously. (To find out more about OSF's casting policies, see end of story.)

 

Despite the long contracts, casting can work in the other direction: Many Ashland actors participate in the Shares program, in which the cost of flying in theatre artistic directors and casting people for stage and film is shouldered collectively. Said Nordli: "I've gotten seen more here than I did when I was in L.A. I can't always pursue what's offered, but directors and casting people get a chance to see my work and I get to meet them."

 

Making a List

As with good drama, the huge task of casting the festival begins with conflict--the conflict list, to be precise. Actually, it begins with the selection of plays by a committee of actors and directors, under the final fiat of artistic director Appel, but once the plays are selected, they are scheduled--not just penciled in, but intensively mapped out.

 

It's no easy calendar: The season's current template begins at the end of February with three shows opening in rep at the gorgeous 600-seat indoor-thrust Angus Bowmer Theatre (named for the actor/director who founded the festival in 1935), and one show opening at the cozy 150-seat black box, the Black Swan. In April, another show is added to each. In mid-June, the festival's festive outdoor centerpiece, the 1,200-seat Elizabethan stage, opens three plays, typically all Shakespeare; around the same time, the Bowmer and Swan each close one show and open another. That's a total of 11 shows a season, with nine running in rep during the peak summer weeks.

 

Hence the conflict list: an intricate, interlocking grid of which shows' rehearsal and performance schedules do and don't overlap. And given the multiple-role repertory casting, this means creative conflicts of a sort, since directors, actors, and plays can't always match up as might be wished.

 

"One of the joys of seeing a play on Broadway or in Los Angeles is that it will be cast according to the absolute needs of the play--in other words, it will be dead-on casting," said Appel, a compact dynamo who once directed the theatre programs at Cal Arts and Cal State Long Beach. "We don't do that here. I mean, I hope we cast well. But we cast actors for their range, their versatility, not their type. It's part of the risk of these productions."

 

It's a measure of the organization's respect for its talent that the next step is a series of meetings: Each resident actor gets a 15-minute sit-down with Appel to present his "wish list" of roles for the next season. Then the directors--a mix of OSF artistic staff and guest artists--present their own casting wish lists, based not on auditions, which they're not allowed to do, but on an actor's best showcase: the plays, to which all of the next season's guest directors are invited.

 

Then, explained associate producer David Dreyfoos, a frighteningly organized man in charge of scheduling and contract negotiations, comes "upward of 33 to 35 hours of casting sessions" in which he, Appel, and associate artistic directors Metropulos and Bond "sit and play with the grids of where people can go, what they can do, what combinations are good, what constitutes a good season for this or that performer."

 

Bond, Metropulos, and Appel also direct plays each season--which, Bond explained, makes for a delicate balancing act.

"We wear lots of hats," he said of the casting process, currently wrapping up for next year's season. "Directors' hats for our own shows, artistic directors' hats for the season, producers' hats for the talent--we're balancing all of these. Above all, we make sure that the plays are being served. We also try to develop and nurture the strongest repertory acting company possible, so that when as a director you have to go to your second choice, it's not the worst thing in the world. In fact, it might enrich the work."

 

When Lillian Garrett-Groag, who directed School for Scandal this year, first saw the notorious "conflict list," she confessed that she "ran out of there screaming. It's very scary, because the more you direct the more you realize that casting is 80 percent of your work. But at OSF the standard is so fantastically high that I've never had a problem where I've thought the show was compromised. It forces directors to truly think of non-traditional casting--not just multi-racial, that's a given--but to really re-examine the play and what different actors can bring to it."

 

Tony Taccone--artistic director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, who has directed Coriolanus and David Edgar's Pentecost at OSF, and will helm next year's Othello--agreed.

 

"In a rep situation, you make different adjustments--you might say compromises, but when the acting company is excellent, and I think it's solid at OSF, I see it as an opportunity to make an adjustment to the play rather than, 'Oh my God, I've got to use that person,'" he said.

 

For the actors, the casting process is daunting, flattering, wildly uncertain--"insane," said Nordli, with a smile that indicated her knowledge of how much more gracious and courtly it is at OSF than the submission/audition grind everywhere else.

 

Said Ashland veteran Murphey, "The wish list is something I like. Personally, when you've got a company situation--it was the same way with Bill Ball--my feeling is that it works better if you've got one person in charge of casting. Now, Libby obviously listens to all the directors and who they're interested in. But she is still the person in charge. So you feel like there's that one person who has seen your work, knows you pretty well --I feel safe in her hands when casting time comes around."

 

The Other Side

So OSF offers challenging, well-paying work like no other theatre in America. Who could complain about that? Perversely, the festival's very uniqueness makes it "a little distancing," admitted Nordli. "Most of the people I know are in L.A. trying to do film and TV, so they've traded off. As much as they mourn the loss of this, they're trying to make the big buck."

 

Taccone seconded the general perception that OSF is removed from the theatre mainstream.

 

"It has a reputation of being immune from critics, from the rigors of inner-city, urban theatre companies," said Taccone. "Some of that's true. It doesn't suffer from the pressure of a competitive environment. For actors, it's a little like a socialist state, and you can get stagnant. People can atrophy there after five or six seasons, but the artistic staff works very hard to prevent that from happening."

The actors, restless creative people that they are, want to prevent stagnation, too. Said Melany Bell: "At a certain point, you need to get kicked out of the nest and not be on the nipple anymore. I need the stimuli of big cities to feed my art, and to work with different kinds of people to feed my resume. But this really does feed me right now. I like to think of this as a home base."

 

Said Aldo Billingslea, a towering and talented actor in his sixth season at OSF who has decided to take a teaching job in the Bay Area next year: "You can tell which people are here for the first time, because they're like, 'I'm in nirvana. How do I stay here?' I was like that at first. I didn't get a better perspective until later of where I wanted to go next. I need to go to smaller theatres and play bigger roles, and I've got a family now."

 

Indeed, the stability of work in Ashland can be a deceptive seducer. Said Taccone, "The joke in Ashland is, As soon as you buy a house, you're not going to be asked back. You can work there five, six, seven years, and it can be very traumatic when you've laid roots and then they get pulled up. People lay down bigger roots there--this is 10 months in one place, and that's not like two or three months in a town."

 

Resident actor Murphey knows the Ashland joke, and is having the last laugh (for the time being; one never knows about next year at OSF). "The year I bought the house here was 1983, and the next season I left," Murphey said. But he kept the house and rented it out profitably in the transient housing market of Ashland until he was invited back.

 

It seems that in the enchanted world of Ashland, even the downsides have a bright side. Murphey credits this seemingly blessed state to the building of the Angus Bowmer Theatre in 1970. Designed by company designer Richard L. Hay, the Bowmer became the model for indoor-thrust mid-sized theatres throughout the country, as well as Ashland's true year-round regional mainstage, where classics are typically presented with a twist and contemporary plays--Lorraine Hansberry's Les Blancs, Tom Stoppard's Rough Crossing, Rita Dove's Darker Face of the Earth, David Edgar's Pentecost, next year's Seven Guitars by August Wilson--are given lavish, intent, definitive productions that stack up to the best theatre standards anywhere.

 

If, as Taccone noted, OSF's commitment to truly new, groundbreaking work has been "erratic"--it's true that no one could mistake this popular tourist attraction for the Berliner Ensemble or the RSC that produced Marat/Sade--its commitment to intelligent, literate plays by untrendy, uncommercial playwrights, many with strong West Coast identification (next year's include Ellen McLaughlin and Octavio Solis) seems thoughtful and consistent rather than second-guessed or "safe," and frankly compares respectably to the programming of most regional theatres in the nation.

 

Appel, only in her second season as artistic director, seems grateful to her predecessors for the rich opportunities they've created for her and the artists of OSF.

 

"Each of the artistic directors here has made groundbreaking changes that have moved the festival forward," she said. "They maintained the festival as something that's incredibly popular where you can still do art. This isn't Disneyland."

 

Perhaps the classiest and wisest investment OSF has made has been in its actors, who can feel with justification that working in Ashland is a true and rare professional success, not merely a stepping stone to greater horizons. After all, are the horizons that much greater?

 

"People always say, 'Where are you going to go from here?'" said Nordli. "I don't know. I could go back to L.A., and I haven't done the New York thing yet. But I can't imagine it being any better than this."

 

To be considered by OSF, send photo and resume to:

OSF Casting

PO Box 158

Ashland OR 97520

Make sure resume includes your mailing address, which theatres you've worked at, and which directors you've worked with. Audition information will then be sent to you; this info will only be sent to you after you have submitted your photo and resum.

To reach the OSF box office, call (541) 482-4331.