The 1,200-seat Elizabethan Stage is one of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's three theaters.
When the curtain went up on the first Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1935, city officials had so little confidence that anyone would actually show up in Ashland to see Elizabethan drama that they staged boxing matches before The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night. No one knew if the lumberjacks and roughnecks would stick around the tiny southern Oregon town after the fistfights to find out if the play really was the thing.
The boxing turned out to be a disappointment, but Shakespeare was a knock-down, drag-out smash. That pivotal moment still informs the decisions of the festival's current artistic director, Libby Appel, whose feisty assertion that the theater is no place for museum pieces has thrust OSF to the forefront of regional theater in America.
"I feel strongly that there's no point in having a theater experience if it's not going to be vibrant and alive," says Appel, brandishing a small sign that she keeps on her desk and reading aloud the line from Peter Shaffer's Lettice and Lovage: "Without danger there is no theater." Libby Appel means to knock you out.
She presides over a company that presents 11 plays every year—in three different theaters—during a season that extends from February to October. Despite the festival's name, Appel has placed greater emphasis on new works at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Last season, OSF offered up a recent drama by Pulitzer Prize winner Nilo Cruz, Lorca in a Green Dress, as well as David Edgar's two-play cycle about U.S. politics, Continental Divide.
"We have made major connections with world playwrights, artists whose voices we're particularly interested in," Appel says. "We commission playwrights, we develop plays here, we have playwrights in residence. We're a world force now, and I'm really proud of that."
Edgar's two plays—Mothers Against and Daughters of the Revolution—were still being written as the company started rehearsal last year. "So it was a pig in a poke," Appel says. "I was taking a huge chance, but as far as I was concerned it was no risk at all."
Appel talks constantly about the dangers of being an artistic director in a theatrical landscape of contracting budgets and diminishing expectations. She is the person whose artistic discernment was in evidence in all 778 performances the company gave last season, and whose artistic ambition emboldens OSF's 450 actors, directors, technicians, and administrative staff as well as its 750 volunteers.
"I directed a play once for an artistic director who said everything you did was fabulous, so you never knew what was really good," Appel says. "I don't feel everything is fabulous. Boldness and freshness in interpretation is a crucial part of what we do, and therefore we're taking risks all the time. Because when you're not doing museum theater, you're taking risks.
"When you see a Shakespeare play, I want you to pulsate with what these images, and these ideas, and these characters are saying about your life. Not about somebody who died 400 years ago."
In 1996, Appel became only the fourth artistic director in the company's history, but she was already well-known in Ashland for the plays she had directed there, most notably a production in 1991 that was both controversial and revealing.
"I was the risky director who did The Merchant of Venice and rocked this theater," she says. The Christian characters wore Armani-style suits, and Shylock was presented as a yarmulke-wearing Orthodox Jew. "I'm an American Jew, and I had stayed away from Merchant all my life because of the anti-Semitism that's implicit in the character of Shylock," she says.
Appel decided the play went far beyond anti-Semitism—it was about xenophobia. That artistic choice has been reflected in countless decisions she has made since then to champion racial diversity at OSF. "The people who were furious with me then were Jews," Appel says. "But I fought the waves of fury and here I am, sitting in this chair."
Those attacks, though not the first, were important in forming her artistic armor. Appel's father came to this country from Russia, a Jewish émigré who became an accountant in New York.
Appel grew up in the outer boroughs. Her mother was a lawyer, her brother a lawyer and a CPA. Even so, her parents were supportive when Appel announced to her family shortly after seeing her first Broadway play that she intended to become an actress. "I was the black sheep of the family," she says, smiling.
She realized quickly that she was not a very good actress. "I'm an extremely competitive and ambitious person," Appel says, "and for me to see that I was no good was an important turning point." After graduation from the University of Michigan, Appel got married, started a family, formed a theater company, and pursued a master's degree in directing.
It was only when Appel's husband told her in 1970 that he wanted to finish a master's degree that she took a job teaching acting at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. After six years at the Goodman and five running the acting program at California State University-Long Beach, Appel was named dean of theater at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. But when she was invited by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to direct a Pirandello play in 1988, Appel realized almost instantly that she was home. "I came back from here and I knew that my career in academia was over," she says. "Looking back at my life and seeing it in a kind of dramatic arc, the way you see a play, it's obvious that everything in my life has led me to this place."
Ashland is situated in southern Oregon's Rogue Valley, a kind of hippie Brigadoon, where you can still find groups of white teenagers wearing dreadlocks. The town has one foot planted in 17th-century England and the other in the 1960s, which may be how Ashland has avoided the sort of twee tourism that turned Stratford-upon-Avon into an Elizabethan theme park.
When Appel was appointed artistic director, the festival was already on its way to becoming one of the most acclaimed regional theaters in the world. With the oldest full-scale Elizabethan stage in the country and a spectacular indoor theater named after its founder, Angus Bowmer, Ashland has become a draw for theater lovers far and wide. "It's destination theater," says associate artistic director Penny Metropulos. "People come here because they have time to consider the depth of these plays and the themes they present."
As the first woman to run the festival, Appel set out to make it more ethnically diverse and inclusive of women. But as Metropulos points out, "Making changes in an organization like this is a little bit like turning a ship at sea. You're not going to do it all at once."
Appel found her sea legs quickly. "She definitely feels she's the captain of the ship," says Octavio Solis, a Latino playwright whose new play, Gibraltar, was commissioned by Appel. "She encourages people's opinions and ideas, and when they're good she'll go for them. But ultimately she always asserts her own authority. She's not wishy-washy at all. She's a very strong, decisive leader in an organization that is so huge it needs that."
She not only increased the representation of nonwhite actors in the company to more than a third, she raised the number of new plays in the festival's mix. Some of these decisions met with resistance in Ashland, where families have attended the festival for generations, but that resistance has lessened over time.
Like a lot of people who run theaters, Appel is intent on attracting an audience that is both younger and less white, while hanging on to the sophisticated seniors who flock to Ashland. Which is to say, she has no desire to do a hip-hop version of King Lear. "For me, it's about the truth of the play in the moment that I'm living," Appel says. "I think to contemporize the speech, or bastardize it, is dumbing it down."
To bring the classics to this seeming theatrical outback, you still need to be able to throw a punch, but never bomb. "I think we've made it normal for an audience to see a play by Chekhov or Shaw and expect African Americans in it," Appel says. "Ten years ago, our audience would have been up in arms."
A 1997 festival production of Chekhov's Three Sisters featured sisters of different races. "I would get letters saying, 'How can you have a white father and a black daughter?'" Appel recalls.
Before diversity casting became an orthodoxy of political correctness, Appel was convinced that it simply made the plays better. She could not be persuaded that Chekhov—her theatrical hero—would have wanted it otherwise. "She's as stubborn as she can be, sometimes," Metropulos says. "She knows herself, knows what she likes."
Time-Tested: Shakespeare's Enduring Power
Although William Shakespeare was decidedly a man of his day, his plays refuse to be bound by the confines of any one time or place. While other playwrights' works have been hugely popular in their own time only to be forgotten by subsequent generations, Shakespeare's writing continues to feel utterly new to every generation that encounters it.
What makes his plays timeless is his sense of metaphor, his ability to enclose character studies in rich thematic envelopes that easily survive—and translate—from one period to another. Many of us, for example, have at some point felt the disappointment of not living up to a parent's expectations. In watching this archetypal situation play out so profoundly between a king and his son in Henry IV, we experience a distant circumstance as intensely familiar.
It helps enormously that Shakespeare often set his works in locations that are fanciful (Illyria in Twelfth Night) or foreign (Cyprus in Othello). This puts audiences at enough of a remove that we can view our own behavior, illuminated by Shakespeare's brilliant perceptions, with fresh eyes
Shakespeare also possessed an uncanny sense of which aspects of human experience remain complex and surprising over time. For example, he is one of the greatest analysts ever of the nature of power and the fragility of justice. In Measure for Measure, an apprentice nun is ordered to forfeit her virginity to save her philandering brother's life. Is this just? In such a crisis, does familial duty outweigh responsibility to one's soul? Should power be subverted when it seems arbitrary? We struggle with these very questions today.
Despite their enduring themes, Shakespeare's plays would not retain such power were it not for his thrilling storytelling. His conflicts are immediate, his characters compelling, his complex plotlines exciting. Consequently, other artists cannot resist remaking Shakespeare's stories as their own. Notable results of these reworkings include Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Paula Vogel's Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, and the musicals West Side Story and Kiss Me, Kate.
Throughout his works, Shakespeare employed a kind of scenic crosscutting, jumping between multiple subplots in the course of spinning one vigorous tale. The technique is akin to that used in modern film editing, which is surely one of the reasons the film industry never tires of drawing upon his work for inspiration. Think of such far-ranging cinematic adaptations as the drama O, a reworking of Othello; the teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, based on The Taming of the Shrew; Baz Luhrmann's modernized Romeo and Juliet; or more faithful treatments such as Kenneth Branagh's Henry V and Hamlet.
It has famously been said that there are no small parts, only small actors, and another reason that Shakespeare's work endures is the three-dimensionality of even his smallest roles. In the movie Shakespeare in Love, a strapping actor describes his company's latest play, Romeo and Juliet. “Well,” he begins, “there's this nurse . . .” since that is his assigned role. We laugh at the actor's ego, but the nurse is in truth an extraordinary comic character. Shakespeare's ability to create idiosyncratic and memorable smaller roles has made him beloved by actors and audiences for four centuries.
Finally, Shakespeare's plays remain immediate because their language is so breathtakingly alive. Much of our contemporary speech comes from his writing; the very way we structure our idioms and expressions owes a vast debt to his poetic imagination. For Shakespeare, language was malleable, always ready to be reinvented and expanded upon. Hundreds of words and phrases we use every day—from assassination to lonely, foregone conclusion to fair play—are Shakespearean coinages. His plays still feel vivid to us because the verse is muscular, experimental, and startling. Listening to them, we sense a poet reveling in the infinite possibilities of his miraculous mother tongue. He makes us rethink the way we express our deepest thoughts and thorniest ideas. And he wakes us up to the experience of being alive in the world today.
Beyond Broadway . . .
The regional theater movement took hold in the 1960s as an alternative to Broadway. Today, in addition to OSF, several companies in the West have developed reputations for innovation and excellence. Here are our picks for the other best theaters far from the Great White Way.
American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco
Anchor of the Bay Area's theater scene, ACT is noted for its lavishly staged classics, stewardship of new works, and penchant for Tom Stoppard. ACT also boasts a top-notch actor training program that counts Danny Glover, Annette Bening, and Denzel Washington among its former students. (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Berkeley, Calif.
An eye for riskier fare has garnered the Rep national attention and respect. Look for Rita Moreno's turn in Master Class to be a standout this season. To encourage a younger audience, $20 tickets are offered to theatergoers under 30. (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org.
La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla, Calif.
Cofounded by Gregory Peck in 1947, the prestigious Playhouse has sent its productions to stages around the world. A $16.5 million complex that includes a third theater is under construction and scheduled to be completed this fall. (858) 550-1010, www.lajollaplayhouse.com.
Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle
This theater is often a stepping-stone to Broadway, producing many works that wind up in New York. Also, new voices are showcased each May during the Rep's Hot Type play festival. (206) 443-2222, www.seattlerep.org.
Utah Shakespearean Festival, Cedar City, Utah
Winner of the 2000 Tony Award for excellence in regional theater, the festival began in 1962 with a budget of $1,000. More than four decades later, it has presented every play in the Shakespeare canon—each season at least four of the nine productions are works by the Bard. (435) 586-7878, www.bard.org.
Photography by Terrance McCarthy
This article was first published in January 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
For information about OSF, call (541) 482-4331 or visit www.osfashland.org. AAA Sojourns offers a five-day tour to the festival from Sacramento, departing June 11. For more information, call (888) 937-5521.