ASHLAND, Ore. – It’s a bittersweet season for those behind the scenes at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
After 33 seasons as executive director, Paul Nicholson will be retiring when curtains close this fall. A replacement search is underway, with the help of a management consultant for the arts.
“It’s a big deal for all of us on many, many levels,” said Mallory Pierce, director of marketing and communications for OSF.
When Nicholson started in Ashland in 1980 – after running a New Zealand theater for six years – the festival had a budget of just over $2 million, 300 company employees and 200,000 audience members. Nationally, OSF was seen as a second- or third-tier theater.
Today the festival budget is nearly $30 million; company members number more than 600; and the audience exceeds 400,000.
“And now I think by anybody’s reference, we’d be considered one of the premier theaters in the country, and it feels good to have been part of that,” Nicholson said.
He noted that when he first came to Ashland, the festival was set up to give actors and others pre-professional work, but not long-term jobs in their field.
“That’s probably the single thing I feel proudest about – creating a situation where people working here could have an actual life here in the theater,” he said.
Nicholson’s pending retirement and the search for his replacement were a few of the topics discussed at a recent press conference to mark the opening of the 2012 theater season.
• Jumpstart on 2013: The lineup for the 2013 season has already been announced, earlier than usual. “We were ready,” explained artistic director Bill Rauch. “We wanted to do it, if we could.” Among other advantages, an earlier announcement helps student groups – which number about 40 percent of the festival’s audience in the spring and fall — plan ahead.
A few of the offerings for next year: “The Taming of the Shrew,” “My Fair Lady,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “King Lear,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
• Schedule for 2012: Here’s the lineup for this year’s season, which includes four world premiere productions.
In the Angus Bowmer Theatre: “Romeo and Juliet” (Feb. 17 – Nov. 4), “Animal Crackers” (Feb. 19 – Nov. 4), “The White Snake” (world premiere, Feb. 18 – July 8), “Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella” (adapted by Rauch and Tracy Young, Feb. 18 – Nov. 3), “All the Way” (world premiere, July 25 – Nov. 3).
In the New Theatre: “Seagull” (Feb. 23 – June 22), “Troilus and Cressida” (March 28 – Nov. 4), “Party People” (world premiere, July 3 – Nov. 3).
On the Elizabethan Stage; “Henry V” (June 5 – Oct. 12), “The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa” (world premiere, June 6 – Oct. 13), and “As You Like It” (June 7 – Oct. 14).
• Watch those high beams: Last year the festival scrambled when the 70-foot-long main supporting beam in the Angus Bowmer Theatre cracked end to end in mid-season. The theater was closed for 62 performances, resulting in more than $2.4 million in lost revenue, $328,000 in repairs and $867,000 for alternate venues, including a tent set up in Lithia Park.
Insurance thus far has covered more than $2,600,000, and the festival is still in discussions about the remaining claim balance of $900,000, theater officials said last week.
• “Animal Crackers”: The festival’s opening musical comedy is an adaptation of “Animal Crackers,” a 1928 collaboration between the Marx Brothers and writer George S. Kauffman. Rauch noted that it’s a challenge to keep such a production fresh and spontaneous without compromising the original creation.
“’Animal Crackers’ is about controlled chaos,” he said, “…how much is permissible and welcome, and when does it cross the line to hurting the story.” He noted that he and others often go back and see shows at regular intervals to note their growth and see how they are doing.
Nicholson said that Marc Bedard, who plays Captain Spaulding/Groucho Marx, has done his homework. “He has a whole raft of Groucho quotes in his hip pocket, ready to come out,” he said. “He’s well prepared.”
• “The White Snake”: This world premiere elicited much excitement among early audiences at OSF. Rauch elaborated on the unorthodox methods of Tony Award-winning playwright and director Mary Zimmerman.
“She creates script from scratch,” he said. “Literally there was not a page of script the first day of rehearsal. After the first day with the cast, she went home and wrote a couple pages, brought them in the next day – and kept going that way.”
The final two scenes were completed between technical and dress rehearsals.
“She created it for and with those actors – responding to their strengths and where their hearts lie,” Rauch said. “Those actors got to give birth to that with Mary. There is that piece of their creativity in it now.”
Rauch said he loves the story of “The White Snake” and asked Zimmerman, a Chicago resident, if she would consider coming to Ashland to adapt and direct it. “It’s the first time she took on a project she didn’t invent herself,” he said. “There was a lot of discussion from her about whether her model would work in a strange town and theater.”
• Retiring thoughts: Nicholson said he’s closely involved in the process to find his replacement, though it won’t be his decision. He has agreed to stay on until no longer needed. What’s next for him? Some building projects, maybe some consulting and writing. He’s also been approached by some universities about possibly creating his own courses.
“It’s a bittersweet year,” Rauch said. “It’s a really emotional year. It really makes us take stock of what Paul has given us.”
Click here for reviews of four opening plays by A News Café contributing writer, Lincoln Kaye.
For more information about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, visit osfashland.org.
Candace L. Brown has been a newspaper and magazine reporter and editor since 1992, including eight years at the Redding Record Searchlight. She lives in Redding and can be reached at email@example.com.