Cultural Context: Finding the Universal Through Specificity
Bill Rauch: Artistic Director, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Good afternoon, fellow Blackfriars denizens; my name is Tyler James Haggard and I’ll be helping to bring you the latest updates from some of our wonderful presenters this week.

Today’s keynote speaker is Bill Rauch, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. Dr. Ralph Cohen introduces Bill as a career risk-taker whose mission has been to “apply the power of theatre to build bridges” in the least likely of places, whether it’s in the badlands of North Dakota or the urban sprawl of LA.

Dr. Cohen concludes his introduction saying, “To understand Bill, you have to know that there’s a sign over his desk. It says one word- it’s ‘yes.’ ‘Yes’ is the key to improv; it keeps conversation going; there’s no riskier word than yes. One realizes that you can reach your own goals by saying yes to the goals of others.”

Bill checks in with his audience before he begins, setting a stopwatch on his phone, pausing before he hits start. “Ready?” he asks with a grin.

Bill’s lifelong interest in Shakespeare began when he was five years old. He remembers staging Romeo and Juliet for his parents along with his two sisters and brother. The kids would usher their parents into a closet so as not to see the scene changes, a bold production choice that Bill has nonetheless phased out in his later work. A few years later, after adapting the text of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for his 7th grade fellows who found the language challenging, he was invited to skip gym class the next year in exchange for directing the play himself.

“There are many lenses through which one can view Shakespeare’s plays; psychological, spiritual, philosophical, existential,” Bill says.  Throughout his career, Bill has found himself particularly interested in the plays’ social context and how these stories can enter into dialogue with the community that exists around a particular production. If one can be specific about productions in a social context, the plays have a greater chance of reaching and transforming the community in which they’re being performed.

Cornerstone Theatre Company, Bill’s first theatre company, was founded in 1986 and is currently based in LA. The company soon found themselves in Marmarth, ND (pop. 143) producing Hamlet with actors from the local community, many of them ranchers. An early decision was made to adapt certain phrases from early modern English to reflect how the community spoke; at one point, Hamlet describes Claudius as a “horse’s rear.” 

The local actors also questioned the play’s relationship to religion. Since many of the actors in the production were Christian, it was important, for instance, that they determine if Hamlet’s first “O, God!” is intended as prayer or blasphemy; one of the actors taught Sunday School and felt he couldn’t stand before the children in good confidence if it turned out to be the latter. By responding to the needs and sensibilities of the community, Bill began to see how a production so tailored can explore aspects of the play and of local social dynamics which may not be apparent at first glance.

The rest of Bill’s career is a case study of social Shakespeare; Cornerstone’s 1989 production of Romeo and Juliet focused on issues of classism and racism in the predominantly African-American city of Port Gibson, Mississippi- on opening night, for the first time in the town’s history, black and white audience members shared the same auditorium floor. When visiting the town years later, the citizens told Bill that improved race relations in the town had been largely attributed to the production that began to bring the community together.

Since assuming artistic directorship of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2007, Bill has overseen productions including a sexually-charged, disco-influenced Midsummer (by his own admission, a production which was accompanied by a sense of “panic” that he may be leaving his “career in flames”), numerous productions which have utilized American Sign Language and deaf actors in significant and meaningful ways (ex. Old Hamlet’s Ghost signing without an interpreter, giving new weight to Hamlet’s final line regarding silence), a stage adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (itself an adaptation of Macbeth), and The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa, a election-themed take on Merry Wives that inadvertently inspired Ian Doescher to pen the Star Wars Shakespeare series. Each of Bill’s productions has emphasized diverse casting in conjunction with the social lens through which Bill is constantly looking.

Bill ends his keynote by reminding us that “the plays were written for the groundlings and the nobility together; it’s our job to bring together as many people as possible” by exploring these works in a socio-community context.

The session concludes with one question from an audience member: “What’s next?” “For Oregon Shakes?” Bill clarifies. “We’ve been successful as a company getting new works, new plays out there to the larger theatre community… but how can we continue to get Shakespeare out there, too? Pair the canon with contemporary plays.” No surprise that Bill continues with his mission to facilitate meaningful conversation between the past and the present .