Under a Cloud of Smoke

Oregon Shakespeare Festival season kicks off amid staff departures and financial loss

When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens its new season with four plays the weekend of March 8, the real drama may be behind the scenes.

In the past year the festival has faced some of the deepest challenges in its more than 80-year history. First, the festival’s superstar artistic director, Bill Rauch, announced in early 2018 he would be leaving this summer to become the founding artistic director of a new theater being built at Ground Zero in New York City.

Rauch will be hard to replace. In 12 years, he has taken OSF from being a very good regional theater to one with a national profile. All the Way, commissioned by OSF and directed by Rauch, won the Tony Award for Best Play in a subsequent Broadway production he also directed. Last season’s Oklahoma!, also directed by Rauch, was written about in the New York Times for its casting of same-sex romantic couples.

Then smoke from last year’s late-summer wildfires devastated OSF’s outdoor theater season. Altogether 26 performances in 2018 were canceled or moved to other facilities because of smoke, leading to $2 million in losses and layoffs for 16 of the festival’s 125 administrative employees.

Finally, the festival’s executive director, Cynthia Rider, said in October she would not renew her contract with OSF.

As of late February, the festival had announced no replacement for Rauch and only an interim replacement for Rider.

Is OSF in trouble? I asked Rauch in a telephone interview.

“The center is very much holding,” he said. “We’re doing great. But there’s no doubt that it’s a time of tremendous transition for the festival, between my decision, which was almost a year ago now, and Cynthia’s decision to not renew her contract in the fall.”

OSF has experienced other growing pains as well, Rauch pointed out, with the festival’s budget doubling from $22 million when he began work in Ashland to $44 million now.

“You combine that with the wildfire smoke challenges, there’s something we could describe with the word ‘epic’ for sure.”

Rauch admitted the search for his successor — a search with which he’s not involved — has gone on longer than expected. “We were very optimistic that it was going to be a very, very fast search at the beginning of the search process,” he says.

But that doesn’t mean there has been any delay.

“It’s also not going to be, you know, the longest search ever in American theater,” Rauch says. “I think it’s going to end up being a fairly average-length search for a position of this profile.”

The four plays that will open March 8-10 are Shakespeare’s As You Like It, directed by Rosa Joshi; Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band, directed by Chay Yew; Hairspray, based on the John Waters movie and directed by Christopher Liam Moore; and Octavio Solis’ Mother Road, directed by Rauch.