Jan 16, 2008

The Rep Rap

I'm glad to see that a discussion about the lack of resident and/or rotating repertory companies in contemporary American theater has been taken up, spurred in part by Mike Daisey's recent Under the Radar show How Theater Failed America (which I regrettably missed). I'm also gratified to see that in their discussions around the topic, Isaac Butler and Scott Walters, in their own different ways, link this lack of local autonomy to the lack of that sense of community which theater is ideally supposed to reflect and create.

That's at least part of the reason I'm so excited that Bill Rauch, founding artistic director of Cornerstone, has taken over the nation's only remaining (and thriving) resident acting company, Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Bill's first season there begins in a few weeks, and it looks exciting. But he didn't start Oregon's practice of employing upwards of 70 actors on steadily improving 10-month contracts for decades now. Having witnessed the results firsthand for several seasons around the recent turn of the century, I can say that the sense of connection between audience and performers is palpably different than in most of the regional theaters I've covered (and that includes, with a large number of exceptions, many of the New York shows I've seen, though on this point I should defer to colleagues who've been around NY longer). And it resonates exactly with the way I hear Brits glow about both the grind and the grandeur of rep (along with a handful of Americans who enjoyed the glory days of the Guthrie or ACT), and it resonates also with the way the best of L.A.'s tiny, barely-paying theaters, in my experience, created a islands of community in an often unforgiving cityscape, and needless to say in lieu of remuneration.

The other reason is that, as anyone who's read this blog for a while probably knows, Cornerstone and OSF are two of my favorite companies anywhere, and though they wouldn't be the first two theaters I would put side by side in my mind, the match-up of Bill and OSF increasingly seems intuitively right, and is a credit to both of them (and, if I may preen for a moment, feels like a mutually reinforcing vindication of my taste).

The links go deeper and stranger, if you'll indulge me an entirely personal digression. I recently found out that my birth mother's mother is originally from Medford, the nearest big town to Ashland, Ore., and the site of the nearest airport, into which I've flown many a time. My birth mother has told me that her mother used to tell her tales of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. That gave me a bit of a tingle down the spine.

Weirder, perhaps, if not as eerie, is that on my recent, entirely non-business trip to Mexico, one of the chaps who co-ran a lovely b&b I stayed at happened to be Craig Hudson, founding director of Oregon Cabaret Theatre in Ashland, who still spends about half his time in Oregon and knows the Festival and its personalities very well. What are the odds? It is a small, synchronicitous world at times--the theater world, I mean.

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