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Ready for the Big Stories OSF’s Alison Carey brings the drama of U.S. history to the stage
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Ready for the Big Stories
OSF’s Alison Carey brings the drama of U.S. history to the stage
By Suzi Steffen
Alison Carey, one of the more powerful women in the U.S. theater world, commissions history in order to make history.
Carey runs the American Revolutions United States History Cycle program, a massive undertaking by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to bring the scope of Shakespeare’s plays to the history of the U.S.
Though the plans have been in place since Bill Rauch took over as artistic director of the festival in 2008, things have been quiet on the surface, especially during the Great Recession. Carey and the OSF commissioned plays, but they weren’t written yet, and she applied for grants, but grant cycles aren’t speedy. So while Rauch’s revitalized 2009 OSF season ruffled some feathers but sold better than anyone’s wildest projections or dreams, much of Carey’s work stayed behind the scenes and out of the limelight — until this year.
A month ago, the festival announced that American Revolutions had new funding: a three-year, $600,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a four-year, $200,000 grant from L.A.’s Edgerton Foundation to create five new musicals. The first of the commissions, American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, by Richard Montoya and Culture Clash, opened July 3. Carey served as dramaturg for the production, one of what will be at least 15 fully produced American Revolutions plays (the others will get readings and workshops at the festival).
Carey’s history- and theater-book-lined office, near the center of the brick OSF office warren, sports several whiteboards. The one nearest her chair has a large TO DO list, with empty boxes neatly squared beside reminders like “Mamet • Stoppard” and “READ 1,000 PLAYS!”
She looks at the list and laughs.
“I decided to move past whiteboards,” she says. Of course, Carey reads hundreds of plays, but she adds that even if she read a thousand plays this year, a thousand more would await her.
Carey seems uniquely qualified for her job. She majored in history and, later, cofounded Cornerstone Theatre Company with Rauch. Their 24-year-old L.A.-based company’s motto is “Telling Our Nation’s Stories,” and as resident playwright, Carey helped take classic plays and adapt them for the present, producing work in various places in L.A. and across the country (including in a house she bought for several hundred dollars in the middle of Kansas).
She has plenty of experience working with multiple perspectives, various playwrights, specific communities and the grant-making organizations that help keep theater alive and well in the U.S. But this assignment’s a bit different: Commission 37 productions in the course of a decade, plays and musicals that reflect on, take a new look at, deal with, explain or otherwise present some portion of the complicated history of this young country. That 37 comes from the number of Shakespeare’s canonical plays (“Some say 35, some say 39; the OSF goes with 37,” Carey says, raising an eyebrow to say she’s not a Shakespeare scholar, but she’ll go with the OSF flow).
This might sound like Serious Playwrights Writing About Big Topics, but anyone who has seen even one of Shakespeare’s history plays knows that there’s usually bawdy humor amid the backstabbing, plotting, assassinations, wars and nation-building. One thing Carey says she wants to do with this body of work is help Americans “step away from the panic, or step meaningfully beyond the panic” about the many issues facing us in the 21st century.
“We have a lot of decisions to make,” she says, “and we need all of the tools we can acquire to make those decisions effectively. Looking to the past is one of those tools.”
Hence the commissioning of smokin’ hot musical writer Michael Friedman, whose Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (book by Alex Timbers) has been received with critical and popular adulation, to write a musical for the OSF, and of artists like Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog) and David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly).
The scope of Carey’s job, actually, looms so large that whiteboards could scarcely contain it. For a while, she and Rauch thought that the commissions would be about U.S. presidents, the way Shakespeare’s history plays follow the kings of England. But the project didn’t really match up, so now the mission on the OSF website reads, “The plays of American Revolutions will look at moments of change in America’s past, helping to establish a shared understanding of our national identity and illuminate the best paths for our nation’s future.”
Yeah, OK. Can this country, which appears to be ripping at the seams and spilling oil, bile, racism and general hatred, come to a shared understanding, and do we have a national identity? “I believe theater can make the world better,” Carey says. On the other hand, she says that early on in the job, she was wondering whether she could make any difference. “It’s hard to find the evidence that change is possible, so are you even dreaming of a thing that’s possible in the world?”
Then she reminded herself that the world has changed; for instance, amendments to the U.S. Constitution almost always expanded the rights of citizens. Part of her job consists of engaging playwrights, historians, dramaturgs, musicians and other artists in helping the audience understand that history was never something fixed: “There’s a sense sometimes that the things of the past are inevitable, but if we stop and think about it, people were making choices,” she says. “If theater can help remind us that we can be agents of change, and that nothing is inevitable, if theater can help give us that sense of power, then the future gets that much better.”
But that doesn’t mean Carey’s only looking for progressive or liberal playwrights. She also wants to engage conservative ideas and writers. She has put out calls for conservative playwrights to submit plays, and she’s been to dinner at the house of Maggie Gallagher, famous conservative writer and president of the anti-marriage-equality Marriage Institute. Carey plans to go to Liberty University, Brighton Young and other religious or conservative institutions in order to look at developing playwrights in their drama departments. “There are conservatives out there who want to be part of the artistic conversation,” she says.
The dictates of good artistry mean that nothing can be doctrinaire, including the first play of the cycle. After seeing the play, former Oregonian arts editor Barry Johnson wrote on his blog, “If I harbored some fear that Bill Rauch … was intending to bludgeon us with polemics, arguments, proofs, rants, sob stories or didactic exposition, then Richard Montoya and Culture Clash’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose dispelled it.”
Carey deeply appreciates the resources available in Ashland, with a huge costume shop and a great scene shop, a place where audience members have what she calls “a kaleidescopic experience of theater” as they go from She Loves Me to Ruined to Henry IV, Part One to American Night. That’s why this cycle fits with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, she says.
“America’s story is a big story, and we’re ready to do it.” •
American Night runs through Oct. 31 at the New Theatre. The Weekly will review it in late August.