A Talmudic Sage—along with countless other wise-heads, no doubt—noted that there is good reason Man was equipped with but one mouth and twice as many ears.
Watching Bill Rauch direct a play, I would have guessed that his ears numbered several times that.
Privy to an early rehearsal of “All the Way,” a dramatization of the political struggle to pass Civil Rights legislation, I bore witness not only to the arm-twisting leadership of President Lyndon Johnson, but to the equally effective servant leadership style of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director.
What I saw was a fellow who led with his ears, engaging with respect and soulful attention to the ideas and concerns of everyone in the room, the playwright, performers, his assistants and consultants, even this scribe, a former reporter, who had a bit of inside knowledge about how an impromptu news conference might be realistically played out.
According to Bill, he was drawn to theatre for the art form’s collaborative nature; from the perspective of his collaborators, the effect is one of empowerment. For his audiences, the impact on the resulting work is, I believe, as powerful as it is invisible.
During an earlier sit-down interview with Bill, I asked him to respond to a quote from a theatre professor of mine who’d directed at the Vienna Opera. “Theatre,” he used to say in a thick Austrian accent, “is not democracy.”
Bill’s thoughtful take on that was more nuanced:
“I don’t think good art is made by majority rule,” Bill replied. “It’s not about holding a vote on what color a prop should be or where an actor should move—but I do think great art comes from surprising inspirations. As a director, you have to stay true to your vision; you have to check your gut, but you also have to stay open.
“Respecting multiple points of view makes a work richer. I feel it very strongly that the best idea in the room wins.”
Attending a rehearsal in the building adjacent to the New Theatre, I saw what he meant. A few of the scenes were being staged for the first time. Actors portraying U.S. Senators had just assumed their secondary roles as news reporters to record the fiery words of the segregationist governor, George Wallace (played by Jonathan Haugen), who was challenging Johnson for the nomination. The initial staging was static. Then one of actors suggested putting Wallace on the move with the reporters chasing him down.
“Let’s try it,” said Bill.
The actors ran through the scene again.
“Yes,” said Bill, “the energy is better. That was more fun, great, very nice. What I love is using the space in a different way.”
And what I loved, having been a student of theatre in college, was watching an angst-free and easy energetic process where the mutual respect is palpable.
Not surprisingly, Bill applies that same leadership style to his artistic stewardship of the company, particularly to the process of choosing a season. Before he arrived on the scene, heads of the various OSF departments had been solicited for their input on play selection; Bill took it to another level, inviting comment from all members of the company, with the intent to embrace even more diverse perspectives.
“There might be a carpenter or stitcher or an usher who has a particular perspective to share,” said Bill. “Or people will just speak their truth about whether a particular play moves them, and this may have nothing to do with the job they do. You don’t know who is going to have what idea or present what passion. And those moments are gold, they’re beautiful.”
As one example, Bill cites the “Clay Cart,” which he decided to stage in 2008—he became the company’s fifth artistic director a year before. “It was the kind of play I wanted to do from outside the Western canon.”
Bill said, “It was Bob Hackett who worked in marketing who spoke up during meetings. He said, ‘If Bill feels this strongly, I think we should have the courage of our convictions and run it all year long.’
“It was a real risky thing, first simply to choose a 2500-year-old Sanskrit play, and then to run it 121 times all season long.”
Bill, who draws equally—and simultaneously—from deep wells of holy chutzpah and humility, has continued to push the creative envelope, introducing four world premieres to this season’s line-up. In addition, he’s also staged the unconventional “Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella, in which the three classics share a stage, with some interweaving of characters, themes and dialog. Bill readily acknowledges that this play that he first conceived as an undergrad at Harvard decades ago, “is as risky as anything I’ve done here.” It’s also clearly a risk he relishes.
While he appreciates that M/M/C has elicited “very polarized” responses from audiences—By the way, I’m one of those folks who adores this production—Bill says that he isn’t disturbed by negative responses, and that likeability isn’t necessarily the best way to rate a production’s success.
“Making something that gets your juices flowing, or that gets under your skin, or that somehow affects you in a deep way…that’s more important.”
Of course, Bill has good reason for feeling confident in these so-called “risky” choices. Shows like “American Night,” a world premiere Hispanic-themed comedy, sold out every performance a few seasons ago.
“The audience is on this ride with us; sometimes we are in the lead, saying ‘Let’s go down this path,’ and sometimes the audience will run ahead; I feel like we are dancing together down the path in a great way.
“This theatre has always had a balance between tradition and innovation. Always.”
For those who know Bill’s background, it isn’t surprising that he is comfortable with risk-taking; the fear of failure—whatever that is—doesn’t daunt him.
“In junior high, I would write plays and send them to publishers,” he said. “Of course, none of them were ever published. But when I applied to college, I included all of my rejection slips (with the application).”
Theatre was always a “huge” part of Bill’s early life. Growing up in New England, his parents had a subscription to the summer theatre in Westbrook, Conn. As a teenager, he became a volunteer there, eventually taking on two key roles: head usher and janitor.
“By day I wore my overalls and cleaned up the garbage and hosed down the deck. Then I changed into my three-piece suit to take tickets.
“But they didn’t call me janitor,” Bill said. “they called me playhouse beautifier. Isn’t that fantastic! I love the poetry of that description.”
And, what delights Bill most is that, ultimately, “playhouse beautifier” is just as apt for the job he holds today.
“No question,” said Bill. “It’s what I’m still trying to do.”
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