In Search of Bill Rauch’s Guts

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RauchCharles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times has penned a particularly superlative example of critical reporting.

He recently spent some time at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, located in what everyone tells me is the visually breathtakingly town of Ashland. It is there that Bill Rauch, co-founder of the Cornerstone Theatre Company in L.A., now heads up a dynamic, brimming theatrical enterprise with a $24 million budget and “the largest resident company in the country,” with “82 actors and 10 acting interns.”

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That’s…oh my gosh — three or four productions of Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You? How Mike Daisey’s heart must swell. Seriously.

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But McNulty laces his admiration for OSF with concerns about its aesthetic and structure. He has always been a very fine writer — and, quite frankly, he never really received his due, in my opinion, during his years at the Village Voice. In terms of his ability to plant narrative seeds that sprout later in the story, his piece is a masterwork of farming:

…Like everyone else in Obama’s America, Rauch is grappling with change and the resistance to change. On the plus side, new play development is percolating impressively with the commissioning of playwrights for a 37-play, 10-year series exploring epochal shifts in American life. (Alison Carey, who co-founded Cornerstone with Rauch, is the director of the project, “American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle.”)

…No one could argue that this three-stage theatrical behemoth with an annual operating budget of more than $24 million isn’t gleaming with renewed purpose. But a two-day splurge of theater, which in addition to Cain’s drama included “Henry VIII,” “The Music Man” and “Paradise Lost,” exposed an area of weakness that OSF will need to address to advance its place in the hierarchy of major nonprofit theaters — a midlevel acting company that could use a substantial overhaul….

…What I gleaned from my conversation with theatergoers (some of the friendliest and most voluble I’ve ever encountered) is that these folks would rather be spellbound by narratives than hypnotized by auteurs or even dazzled by superstars.

But the acting standard was disappointing. Now, there are undoubtedly many able performers in the sizable resident company, but some bad habits appeared fairly widespread. For example, whenever the action grew more intense, the performers tended to become louder — with crisis points being delivered in shrieks. There was also a good deal of “indicating” or over-illustrating of characters’ situations, often with generic emotions. And most annoying of all was the bazaar of eye-bulging, brow-clenching, fist-raising theatrics, nervously ensuring that we never miss a crucial point.

…Although I’m not sure I entirely agree with the stranger at my hotel who diagnosed the fundamental OSF problem as directorial, even though Rauch got better performances out of some of the same actors that I had issues with the previous day. Rotating repertory gives everyone a number of chances to shine, yet a few of these performers would have had trouble if Peter Brook had been summoned for the Shakespeares and Stanislavsky had been brought back from the dead as an on-hand acting coach.

Critics don’t write about actors as well or nearly as substantively as they could or should. It’s all too easy, I fear, to be seduced by “the bazaar of eye-bulging, brow-clenching, fist-raising theatrics,” to be bedazzled by the Ashland setting, to be hoodwinked, albeit benignly, by the atmosphere, the relative riches, the ambitiousness, the theatrical ascent. I’ll let you — and I’ll encourage you to — read McNulty’s take on the imperative to overhaul the OSF acting aesthetic.

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For my part, I would like to add that there’s another kind of overhaul that might be considered at OSF, and it relates to the United States History Cycle and some of the artists commissioned to participate in it.

True confession: this is not the first time I’ve heard of Rauch’s idea for an epic festival exploring those “epochal” shifts in the American experience. Several years ago, when Rauch was staging/restaging Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean Housefor Lincoln Center Theater (his New York directorial debut), I received a phone call one day from a publicist I otherwise rarely heard from. Rauch was hip-deep in the play, of course, as one would expect him to be. But I was told he very much wished to reach out to certain people in New York and basically meet for coffee. This was not a PR junket, not on the record, not anything to do with promoting The Clean House, Sarah Ruhl or even, er, Bill Rauch. He just wanted to meet people — playwrights and directors, yes, but critics and dramaturgs, producers, I don’t know who all else. The appointment was set for a diner near Lincoln Center. I didn’t realize until I arrived that Rauch had essentially set up a series of hourlong appointments, theatrical daisy-chains pitted back to back to back. I arrived as Nilo Cruz was leaving — and I didn’t know Nilo, I’d never met him. Such wonderful, charming ease in the way Rauch provided introductions. Moments later, Cruz took his leave and Bill and I sat down to talk theater.

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I don’t want to reveal too much of what we talked about, and certainly not a lot about Rauch said. Off the record is off the record. I also have written about Rauch before on the Clyde Fitch Report, and I strongly suspect that he wasn’t too happy with me then — though then, too, I didn’t break whatever minor confidences he might have placed in me at the time. I was deeply moved by how forthcoming he was, and was specifically intrigued with the whole Clyde Fitch thing. (I get that a lot.) If you look at the About page on this site, my essay on Fitch is a much longer version of my standard Fitch 101, which I gratefully provided. Today, because of the United States History Cycle is obviously well on its way, I don’t mind revealing that Rauch did discuss his idea for some kind of history cycle in general terms — I don’t think it had a name or even a shape but his gig at OSF was very much in the works even then, and this was to be, he said, the first of many grand, perhaps visionary ideas and gestures. Bravo, thought I. How wonderful, out there in the relatively remote enclave of Ashland, to offer a commitment to a theatrical project saluting and exploring the nation’s history. We talked at length, and I do mean at length, about America’s long theatrical history; I was impressed not so much by Rauch’s knowledge of 19th century theater, per se, but by the wisps of knowledge Rauch had acquired about all of our nation’s theatrical history over the years, and, as a result of those acquisitions, his intense desire to synthesize them into something innovative and actionable. Rauch directly led me to believe he might offer his audience a Fitch play or two. More than that — and more important than that — he led me to believe that he saw the American theatrical canon as worth a significant, sustained, serious exploration. It would take guts, I thought to myself, to put together such a project. But if anyone had those guts, perhaps it might be Bill Rauch.

I feel the need at this point to clarify something. If the goal of the Clyde Fitch Report was just to promote the plays of Clyde Fitch, I could save myself a lot of time and agony and do just that. I’d also have a much smaller, more skeptical, more dismissive audience. The fact that that is not what this site is all about doesn’t diminish the importance of Fitch within his time and context, and my belief that Fitch deserves a renewed a place of importance or significance within the American theatrical canon. Boys and girls, the American theater did not begin with Eugene O’Neill. And it didn’t begin with Eugene O’Neill or, for that matter, Clyde Fitch. And so this, in a sense, became a part of my pitch to Rauch — a pitch I didn’t even know I was there to develop, a pitch I didn’t even realize until later that I phrasing on the inspired fly. It was the idea of the OSF not just revisiting Fitch, but, indeed, all of our great native playwrights, now overlooked, now dusty, of the pre-O’Neill period — and maybe, in addition, all those dramatists who were contemporaneous to the early O’Neill era: the David Belascos and the William Gillettes, the Bronson Howards and the James A. Hernes, the Dion Boucicaults and the Edward Sheldons, the Eugene Walters and the Owen Davises, the Augustus Thomases and the Channing Pollocks, the George Broadhursts and the Booth Tarkingtons, the Winchell Smiths and the Avery Hopwoods, the Langdon Mitchells and the George Ades, the William Vaughn Moodys and the Augustin Dalys, the Charles Hale Hoyts and the Charles Kleins, the Steele Mackayes and the Percy Mackayes, the Rachel Crotherses and the Sophie Treadwells, the Susan Glaspells and the Alice Gerstenbergs.

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And that’s just late 19th and early 20th century. Rauch knows perfectly well that the splendid history of American theater is covered in umpteen books, and he certainly has the wherewithal to put people into place to do the research, to craft the proposals, to imagine what is largely unimaginable in terms of re-exploring this neglected storehouse, this canon begging for reuse. (For political context of the earliest years of the American theater, I once again recommend Heather S. Nathans’ Early American Theatre from the Revolution to Thomas Jefferson: Into the Hands of the People.)

Understand: I’m neither upset with nor angry at Rauch for going the route of commissioning all new works examining pivotal moments and critical epochs in American history. I’m neither upset nor angry at Alison Carey, a Cornerstone co-founder along with Rauch and who is heading up the United States History Project. What I am is disappointed that Rauch is deliberately and rather inexplicably opting to overlook American history itself. If the audiences at OSF are as “voluble” as McNulty claims they are, if its acting company needs the overhaul he says it needs, if the OSF is a place of monumentally dramatic dreams that actually have a shot of coming true, one way to begin the reexamination process could be to revisit the old, the tired, the poor, the huddled dramaturgical masses yearning to breathe free once more. To do so while also fostering the creation of the new was be brilliant. So far, we know that Rauch only has enough guts to go for the latter. Is the United States History Cycle bold? Of course, no question. Is it, however, as gutsy as what he outlined for me? Nope, not at all. Oh, well. Perhaps half guts is better than no guts at all.

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