The following is the text of Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Bill Rauch’s acceptance speech, given at our Inaugural Guiding Star Awards Gala, on March 4, 2017.
Thank you, Eric, for that beautiful introduction. I am so grateful to you and Susie and everyone from Cal Shakes for this honor. It’s a special treat to be here tonight along with my colleagues who are the recipients of the first-ever Luminary Awards.
I want to acknowledge my colleague Alison Carey, who is here tonight. When the two of us co-founded Cornerstone Theater Company over 30 years ago, we had a hunch that we wanted to test: we would make better art and become better artists ourselves if we created our work in collaboration with communities. We spent our first five years adapting some of the greatest hits of the Western dramatic canon including several Shakespeare plays to the realities of isolated low-income rural communities across the United States, involving 20 to 50 first-time actors onstage alongside our small ensemble. We then moved to Los Angeles to begin to build bridges within and between diverse urban communities. This work was life-changing for all of us, and completely made me the artist and arts leader that I became.
After 20 years as Cornerstone’s artistic director, I realized that I wanted to contribute to an institution that worked on a larger scale for a larger audience, but that once again had classics and new work and an acting company at the heart of the work. I was blessed to find all that I was looking for when I was appointed the fifth artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
This is my tenth anniversary season as the Festival’s artistic director. As we’ve tried to shift our large-scale classical theater into being more inclusive, more equitable and more dynamic, we’ve tried many experiments. We’ve built on OSF’s long-held tradition of casting diverse actors (in fact, our acting company is currently 62% actors of color), experimenting with culturally-specific approaches to Shakespeare texts including a largely Latino Measure for Measure, a Comedy of Errors set in the Harlem Renaissance, a Trolius and Cressida with production parallels to the Iraq War, and a Winter’s Tale set in Dynastic China as well as a mythical U.S. West Coast. We have expanded our very definition of the classical canon to include Sanskrit, Nigerian, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican and Korean dramatic and literary traditions. Inspired by the scale and scope of Shakespeare’s history plays and the number of plays in the canon, we’re commissioning 37 new American plays about moments of change in United States history; in less than a decade, that cycle called American Revolutions has yielded a greater bounty of influential new plays than we ever dreamed possible.
We’ve also tried to take the time to reflect on why we’re doing what we’re doing and to write it down. We’ve created a values statement for our repertory acting company. When some of our colleagues sensed that our executive director and I were not on the same page about OSF audiences, we challenged ourselves to create an Audience Development Manifesto, spelling out the four pillars of new audiences that we wanted to reach to strengthen and build on our core audience.
And a few years ago, with the help of a lot of my smart colleagues—including our extraordinary Repertory Producer Mica Cole, who’s also here tonight– I wrote a set of guiding principles for how we approach our namesake playwright at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I wanted every artist working at our theater to be able to see spelled out clearly in black and white what the assumptions are that we make about Shakespeare, and to understand our ‘house style’ when it comes to producing his work.
Shakespeare’s uncanny ability to capture the human experience with his characters, themes and especially his language may mean that he belongs to all ages and cultures, but the fact is, we are producing him in the United States in the 21st century. We need to be rigorous in our efforts to make connections between the plays of this radically populist author and the messy experiment that is our American democracy. And how do we reconcile the paradox that Shakespeare is often used as an elitist tool to make others feel intellectually inadequate, that the Shakespeare industry has been used too often to uphold the white supremacy that continues to hold back our country from achieving its full potential, with the equally true phenomenon that no writer in the English language has ever more fully explored the breadth of society and the complexity of the human heart, that in fact a spirit of aesthetic and spiritual and even political revolution seethes under the very words of his plays?
Dr. King talked about “the fierce urgency of now.” Whatever your political point of view, I imagine that most if not all of you will agree with me that we live in a moment of increased polarization, often destructive rhetoric and with desperately high stakes for the future of our democracy and even our planet. WWWSD: What would William Shakespeare do, right now? The good news is that we don’t need to waste a moment mourning his death four hundred and one years ago. William Shakespeare is right here with us, at the institutions that Eric and I are lucky enough to lead and that you are lucky enough to support.
I understand that Cal Shakes is in the midst of a strategic planning process to further refine your mission and vision. My brilliant husband Chris, who is here tonight and to whom I owe most everything good in my life, has directed two shows at your fine institution. I have long enjoyed conversations with Jon Moscone and now Eric, admiring your past and current artistic leaders as profound thinkers and innovative artists. From all these experiences, I know that OSF and Cal Shakes share an ever-growing understanding that social impact must be on equal footing with artistic excellence. Our fears may sometimes make us want to artificially separate them, but if my 30-plus year career has taught me nothing else, it is that social relevance and artistic achievement are inextricably tied, are two sides of the same coin.
In fact, as you endeavor to weave more inclusive voices from your communities into the very fabric of your art-making, you are pulling off what my teenage son the soccer player would call a hat trick: you are simultaneously being more responsible stewards of a literary legacy that is now in its fifth century, you are protecting the foundations of our own country’s democratic traditions that are approaching the 250 year old mark, and you are actively strengthening the foundation of the future for all our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who will see the triumphs and disasters of their times accurately reflected in the glorious words of William Shakespeare. Both our organizations’ shared commitment to education is especially vital when it comes to those future generations.
It’s pretty darned exciting, when you think about it, what we all get to do together as lovers of the classical canon and believers in the potential of our own society. I’m a lucky guy that I get to be on this journey with all of you in this room, and I feel humbled that you’ve honored me tonight for merely walking down that path alongside so many of you.
As Eric and I can both attest, what we do as leaders of non-profit classic theaters is often really hard. An acknowledgment like this award will help my heart on the most challenging days to come. For that and for so many others reasons, I thank you.