A new national theater, with help from Chicago

July 12, 2011

During six days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), I was very much surprised to find close to two dozen Chicago theater artists connected with the OSF in capacities ranging from artistic administration to playwriting.

Choreographers Randy Duncan and Thomas Rapley (House Theatre of Chicago) both are at OSF this season. Northwestern University theater faculty member Amanda Dehnert has staged an innovative Julius Caesar with a female Caesar. The OSF's production of Tracy Letts's August: Osage County features most of the Chicago (and Broadway) design team from the original production as well as composer Andre Pluess. Chicago-based costume designer Ana Kuzmanic is there, too. Even the acting interns include a Chicagoan, recent Northwestern theater graduate Miles Fletcher.

Next year the OSF will offer a new work adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman (her fourth work based on Asian classical literature) and Jessica Thebus will direct at OSF in 2012 as well. Down the road, the OSF's list of commissioned playwrights includes Frank Galati, Tanya Saracho and new Victory Gardens Theater artistic director Chay Yew.

This happenstance is of far greater significance to the OSF than it is for the Chicago artists. Given the reputation of Windy City theater, our actors, directors, designers and authors often work out-of-town. New York is common and London isn't unusual. But Ashland, OR?

The OSF wasn't like this when I first visited back in 1975 and 1985. Then, it was a large and important regional theater company but no more than that. Its veteran actors, director and designers were based in the Pacific Northwest. Only young and unknown actors came from across the country, gaining valuable repertory experience and professional seasoning before moving on to New York, Los Angeles or elsewhere.

Change had begun when I visited in 2001 and that change now is absolute. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival no longer is an important regional theater; it's an important national theater. It still draws young actors from across the  country, but now the veteran players include recognizable New York and/or Hollywood names, among them (this season) Anthony Heald, Peter Frechette and Kate Mulligan. In fact, Heald and his family now live in Ashland, where he's worked at the OSF for seven years.

The roster of designers, directors, composers and choreographers also now is national in scope. Much of this has come about because of the OSF's substantial commitment to the development of new work (although Shakespeare remains central to the mission) and to a newly-invigorated multi-culturalism. Both began under artistic director emerita Libby Appel (with her own Chicago roots) and are reaching full flower under current artistic director Bill Rauch, who succeeded Appel in 2007.

With tremendous ambition, the OSF is commissioning 37 new plays on American history from playwrights as diverse as Kristofer Diaz, David Henry Hwang, Suzan-Lori Parks and Naomi Wallace. Collectively called American Revolutions, the program has former Chicago dramaturg Julie Felise Dubiner as its associate director. The first of these plays, Ghost Light, is in the current OSF season and concerns the assassination of San Francisco mayor George Moscone, as seen from the perspective of his son.

Why 37 plays? Because that's the total number of plays Shakespeare is believed to have written. One would have to be a fool NOT to think that at least some of these 37 plays will be seen far-and-wide as the OSF tree grows limbs that shade the nation.

The presence of so many Chicago-linked artists--and the other artists I've named--is evidence that the OSF has become what the Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf and Chicago Shakespeare Theater have become over time: a national theater. The United States is much, much too big and varied to have a single, designated "National Theatre" as so many European nations do. Instead, we have many theaters that draw their creative blood from the entire American body politic and produce, in return, theater of national impact. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a worthy and impressive addition to our national theatrical register.