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In rural Oregon, regional theater sparks a creative revival

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, Actor: 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, Artistic Director, Oregon Shakespeare
Festival: 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, Ashland Chamber of Commerce:
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, Actor: 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, Actor: 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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