Magazine article Variety

Bard Town Is Broadway Kingmaker

Magazine article Variety

Bard Town Is Broadway Kingmaker

Article excerpt

THE SMALL TOWN OF ASHLAND, ORE., lies just over the California border in the forested foothills of the Siskiyou and Cascade mountain ranges. It has a population of 20,000, a bustling restaurant scene and great hiking trails. It also has a largescale nonprofit theater that has spawned two current Tony-nominated plays and one recent Tony winner.

For most of its 82-year existence, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been something of an insider secret, best known among the West Coast theater fans who flock there to catch shows during its nine-month annual season. But as its robust commissioning programs have yielded new plays that have gone on to runs around the country - along with a string of recent successes on the theater awards circuit - OSF is fast becoming an important incubator of new stage work beyond the New York City limits.

“I used to think of them as a place that did second, third or fourth productions of plays, not a place that was generating new writing,” says Lynn Nottage, whose OSF commission, “Sweat,” won the Pulitzer in April and is in the running for the best play Tony. “But now they’ve commissioned a cross-section of playwrights who touch every single region of the country and who are wonderfully diverse across gender and ethnic lines, and I think that the fact that they’re so inclusive is being rewarded because the work feels fresh and immediate and in conversation with our time.”

“Sweat,” which chronicles the pressures that pull apart a group of friends in the dying factory town of Reading, Penn., is one of the plays that grew out of American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle, OSF’s ambitious initiative to commission 37 works that dramatize moments of change in America’s past.

Paula Vogel’s Tony contender “Indecent,” a backstage drama about a Yiddish theater production that touches on censorship, homophobia and anti-immigration sentiment, also was a product of the program, as was Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way” - the historical drama that went on to star Bryan Cranston on Broadway, win best actor and best play Tonys and inspire an HBO movie adaptation.

Neither “Sweat” nor “Indecent” is tipped to win the Tony on June 11 - the front-runner is “Oslo,” with “A Doll’s House, Part 2” the dark horse - but the awards attention nonetheless points to the scope, ambition and reach of new plays coming out of Ashland since director Bill Rauch (“All the Way”) took the reins as artistic director in 2007. The theater group’s higher profile has also attracted new interest from the audiences, creatives and donors that sustain the nonprofit.

“It all creates a kind of momentum, and everyone just starts paying attention a little differently,” notes OSF executive director Cynthia Rider.

With a $40 million annual operating budget and three stages - a 1,200-seat outdoor venue, a 600-seat modified thrust and a flexible black box that ranges from 270 to 360 seats - and a nine-month season of 11 plays, OSF’s level of activity is on par with major New York nonprofits like the Public Theater and the Roundabout. Some 125,000 annual visitors, 88% of whom come from more than 125 miles away, account for ticket sales that approach 400,000 per season. (The theater’s estimated statewide economic impact rings in at more than $250 million a year.)

Among the 600 professionals annually employed by OSF are the 100 actors who make up its repertory acting company - the largest repertory troupe in the country, ranging from new faces to actors who are 20-year veterans. …

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