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In rural Oregon, regional theater sparks a creative revival

A remote area of the Pacific Northwest might not sound like a top theater destination. But as Jeffrey Brown reports, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has sparked a wave of creative and economic growth in rural Ashland. One of the country’s most important regional theater companies, OSF is acclaimed for provocative show content, community engagement and unusually diverse casting.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, how Shakespeare has helped to define and build a community in the Pacific Northwest.

    Jeffrey Brown reports from Ashland, Oregon. It's part of our American Creators series.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A production of William Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," with a twist. Caesar was played by Vilma Silva, a Latina woman.

  • Vilma Silva:

    I was Caesar.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Vilma Silva:

    Lots of explaining, right?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Not obvious casting, yes.

  • Vilma Silva:

    No, it wasn't.

    The news spread pretty quickly in the town, and I was shopping in Bi-Mart, you know, one of our local shops here. And from down the aisle, I heard someone go, "Hail, Caesar!"

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Vilma Silva:

    And this has just been casting. I hadn't even started rehearsals. And I looked down the aisle, and there was this woman, and she was so excited.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's the kind of community engagement, high-quality production, and casting decisions that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has become known for, all taking place in the small town atmosphere of Ashland in a beautiful rural part of Southern Oregon.

  • Bill Rauch:

    Part of why I fell in love with this theater company was its location. I think it being in a relatively isolated, rural area, surrounded by all this incredible natural beauty, is part of what made my heart sing.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Bill Rauch has been artistic director here since 2007, helping grow it into one of the country's most important regional theater companies.

  • Bill Rauch:

    I'm here to do the best production of "The Winter's Tale."

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    He started his career in even smaller settings, touring communities of fewer than 2,000 around the country with a group called Cornerstone, dedicated to bringing theater to rural areas of America that rarely see productions.

  • Bill Rauch:

    When we were in college, a bunch of us who started Cornerstone together, we heard a really damning statistic,that only 2 percent of the American people went to professional theater on anything approaching a regular basis.

    And so we became determined to do theater for the other 98 percent.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For you, it was a kind of mission.

  • Bill Rauch:

    Absolutely. Absolutely, a passionate mission.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    At OSF, as it's known, Rauch inherited a company that dates to 1935 and began as a tiny three-day showcase of traditional Shakespeare productions.

    Today, the Bard remains a staple, but the festival has made a name for itself by commissioning new works.

  • Actor:

    We offer to take 50 percent pay cut.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Sometimes provocative ones, by contemporary playwrights. Its 10-year American Revolutions project of new plays on American life included Lynn Nottage's "Sweat," winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize.

    OSF now offers an eight-month season of numerous productions in three separate theaters, some 800 performances a year. It's helped make this town of 22,000 a destination for theater lovers and for creative entrepreneurs.

    Sandra Slattery heads the local Chamber of Commerce.

  • Sandra Slattery:

    It's built a community based in cultural appreciation. So not only does it bring in visitors and incredible productions every year that enhance our economy. It creates an environment that has spawned other businesses and industries.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Many of the actors live in town, and some, like 23-year-old Samantha Miller, enter the troop through a program with nearby Southern Oregon University, where OSF directors and actors teach.

  • Samantha Miller:

    And so, as we were being trained and going through our acting classes, movement classes, all kinds of classes in order to get here and get to the rest of our lives, we knew that once it's about time to get our degrees, we have the opportunity to audition for the biggest regional theater in the country.

    So that was definitely in the back of our minds.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In the back of your mind?

  • Samantha Miller:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It sounds like it was in the front of your mind.

  • Samantha Miller:

    It was in the front of our minds.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    To be honest. We were thinking about that every day as we were going to class.

    Miller also represents another defining aspect of OSF, the diversity of its casting. Since 2016, the majority of actors on stage have been nonwhite in every conceivable type of role.

    And one of this summer's hits, the musical "Oklahoma," has same-sex couples in the leading roles.

    Artistic director Bill Rauch.

  • Bill Rauch:

    We're in the business of telling stories that reflect the deepest and the widest array of human experiences that we can.

    So, we need the storytellers to reflect the breadth of diversity of the stories that we're telling. And we want everybody who comes to see themselves reflected on stage and also to open up their hearts and their minds to other kinds of human beings.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Actor Daniel Jose Molina came here because of the diversity.

  • Daniel Jose Molina:

    The first year I was asked to come here was to play Romeo set in Alta, California, in the 1840s, two Latin families, Spanish families feuding. Same exact story.

    But it was — it was mostly a Latino cast.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One of OSF's brightest lights, 29-year-old Molina, went on to perform many different roles, including a much-acclaimed current term as Henry V.

  • Daniel Jose Molina:

    I'm been incredibly lucky with the variety of work that I have been able to do here, whether that — my ethnicity needs to be even addressed or not, because that's the thing about diversity, is that even if it's not an aspect of the play, just the representation of me as a Latino playing Henry V, an English king, if I had seen it, that would have affected me, if I was in high school.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In fact, there's much more diversity on stage here than in the audience, and all involved know more work on that score needs to be done.

  • Vilma Silva:

    And I have seen some progress in that. But, yes, it's something that it's a continuing effort. Because of who — who is kind has grown up going to theater, who has the time to go to theater, who has the money to go to theater, there's always going to be those issues that we're addressing.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Even as new productions begin rehearsals, artistic director Bill Rauch has announced he's leaving after 12 years to head up the new performing arts venue at the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan.

    He will miss Ashland's small town atmosphere, he says, but he is confident the festival will continue to push boundaries and engage audiences.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

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