Theater: Rocking the Boat

Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Bill Rauch mashes up Pirates, pop music, and Pagliacci.

Every year, some 125,000 people flock to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. In 1988 Bill Rauch was one of those people, never expecting that two decades later he would take over as artistic director. Under his guidance, the festival has continued its dedication to Shakespeare while expanding its commitment to world premieres, non-Western plays, and classic musicals. This March, Rauch directs Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston on Broadway in the OSF-commissioned All the Way [Ed. Note: The play received Tony nomination for Best Play and Best Actor, in addition to a slew of other award nominations.]. Then in May, he returns to restage 2011’s sold-out The Pirates of Penzance with the Portland Opera.

"My parents took me to see theater as a child, but a real turning point was in seventh grade on a school trip to see a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I got so excited by the production and also so frustrated that my classmates felt that Shakespeare’s language was too difficult. So with seventh-grade hubris, I rewrote the entire play into contemporary English. The next year, my teacher invited me to stage my version of the play with that year’s seventh graders.

The Pirates of Penzance
Keller Auditorium
May 9-17 

After graduating from college, I cofounded Cornerstone Theater. We toured small towns all over the country and put on plays with people who lived in those communities. It was life-changing work for everyone involved. Part of why I fell in love with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was it combined the natural beauty and rural setting of those early Cornerstone towns, the new work I was so passionate about, the classic plays I had studied in college, and the biggest acting company in the country. 

We try to find an OSF-specific way to reinvent a classic musical every season. Pirates of Penzance was suggested by a member of the company, and I listened and got swept away by the energy and joyful silliness. Gilbert and Sullivan were brilliant pastiche artists. In that spirit, we occasionally bend or interpolate a brief musical phrase. For instance, the Pirate King in his anthem briefly morphs into a Sinatra-esque big band sound and then snaps right back into the traditional G&S arrangement.

We are very much trying to capture the spirit of what we created in Ashland for Portland Opera audiences. Some of the “grace notes,” as we call the interpolated musical interludes, will be opera-based as opposed to pop culture–based. But none of the zaniness is getting dialed back, because of course Pirates is all about the zany!"

Shakespeare University

You don’t have to go to Ashland for Shakespeare. The Complete Works Project—an effort to produce every Shakespearean play in Portland over a two-year span—kicks off this season with works ranging from traditional to conceptual. 

  • King Lear: Northwest Classical Theatre Company—Feb 28–Mar 30
  • Lear (an adaptation): Bag&Baggage—Mar 6–23
  • Hamlet: Post5—Mar 28–May 4
  • Othello: Portland Center Stage Apr 5–May 11