Bill Rauch, who last February was appointed the first artistic director of the performing arts center at the World Trade Center in New York, was sitting in a theater near his home some 3,000 miles away in Ashland, Oregon last October watching the final performance of a play in his penultimate season as artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
In the play, “Manahatta,” a character was warning about the horrors of living in New York:
“Let me tell you something about Manhattan. When you’re not from here, when you’re from somewhere else, this place can be hell. It’ll eat you up….There will be days when you think everyone is against you.”
A few days later, sitting in his office on the OSF campus, I recited the line back to him. Bill Rauch laughed. He’s not worried about being eaten up. “I’ve always loved New York. I’m excited about having my family live there,” he said, in front of a framed “YES” hanging on his wall.
Next month — next week! — marks the beginning of his final season in Ashland, a season that, as usual, will feature 11 plays (see below), including two plays that he will direct, one of them in both Spanish and English. The season will be marked by the twin concerns, innovation and outreach, that have characterized his entire time at OSF, where he became the fifth artistic director in June, 2007.
After that, in August of this year, he will move to New York to begin working full-time planning the Ronald O. Perelman Performance Arts Center, which will open at the World Trade Center in September, 2021 – the twentieth anniversary of 9/11.
In the meantime, “I come on average once a month to New York. I meet people – members of the Board, leaders of arts organizations, community organizations.
It’s really a lovely time for me to be able to learn, absorb and to dream. I know there will come a time when there will be a locking down for the first season. I’m trying to live in the joy and the freedom of just being able to explore.”
Aptly, the play “Manahatta” was set within walking distance of the planned center, taking place alternately in 1626 and 2008, both of which are significant – and shameful — dates in New York City’s history, the second the year Wall Street bankers caused the financial crisis, the first the year the Dutch West India Company “purchased” Manhattan from the Lenape (who had no concept of land ownership), .
“The Dutch didn’t think the Lenape spoke because they didn’t speak English,” Rauch said. “The exploitation was conducted by Christians and capitalists hand in hand.”
“Manahatta” playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle was only the second Native American to be produced at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in its 83 years (the first was in the 2017 season; the third will be in the 2019 season.) It was the kind of play that has marked Rauch’s tenure at Ashland.
But such work is unlikely to characterize the programming at the Perelman Center, named after Ronald O. Perelman, the billionaire investor and philanthropist whose $75 million donation in 2016 got the long-delayed project back on track. For one thing, “the Perelman Center will be multidisciplinary.” Its three venues (which are being constructed with the flexibility to combine into two or even one large space) will be home not just for theater, but dance, contemporary chamber opera, music and film (a venue for the Tribeca Film Festival.)
While the Oregon Shakespeare Festival dominates its region without much competition, the Perelman will join a growing number of venues for the performing arts in New York competing for attention.
For Rauch, the change sounds…radical. “I’m very aware that New York has a different energy. Some of the most talented artists in the world, both celebrated and early career, are in New York.”
On the other hand, the city is hardly foreign territory to him, and not just because Rauch was the director of “All The Way” both in Ashland and on Broadway, where it won the 2014 Tony Award for best play. (The Broadway shows “Head Over Heels” and “Indecent” – which is being revived in Ashland this season — also originated at OSF during Rauch’s time there.)
Rauch was born in Red Bank, New Jersey (“home of Two River Theater,” he says) and started going to theater in New York at the age of 12 – first, “Shenandoah,” “A Chorus Line,” “The Wiz,” then the Wooster Group and Charles Ludlum. At 13, when his family moved to Westport, Connecticut, he volunteered as an usher at the Westport Country Playhouse, working up to a job as head usher and janitor by the age of 16. “I was obsessed with theater,” he said. “I became a director because I saw the shows there over and over, like The Master Builder by Ibsen with Jane Alexander and Richard Kiley.” Vincent Price, while performing at Westport, helped cement Rauch’s choice of career. “He made me take my parents backstage and gave them a lecture: ‘There is no profession that requires more of your mind and your heart and your body.’”
His senior year at Harvard, “I invited people to be part of a company with me.” That soon segued into Cornerstone Theater, where he served as artistic director for 20 years, until he was hired to lead OSF. Founded as a traveling ensemble adapting classic works to tell the stories of both rural and urban communities, Cornerstone is now based in Los Angeles, but in its early years it had its office on West 23rd Street (“now a bed and breakfast”) and performed extensively in the city.
Rauch, then living in L.A., was scheduled to be in New York City on September 11, 2001. “I was supposed to fly to New York that day, to attend the Leadership for a Changing World at Ford Foundation. My husband and I had an argument. I wanted to go.”
How much, I ask, will 9/11 inform the Perelman Center?
“There’s no way you can start up on that sacred ground, and not have it inform every choice,” Rauch answered. “That doesn’t mean it will be relentless 9/11 art. The whole notion is a response to 9/11. It’s about building community and building hope, and bringing people together. It’s about creating work that contributes to the discourse as a society. It’s about expanding what we mean by world trade. That’s the point. And that’s certainly what attracted me to the job.
“I want Perelman to be a local resource for Lower Manhattan – I had no idea how residential Lower Manhattan has become – as well as for all five boroughs of New York. I also want people from all over the world to go to the World Trade Center. I’m excited by the possibility of doing work that’s local and domestic and international, professional and community based; work that interfaces with community will be important to me. That blend will make it unique.”
Bill Rauch’s Last Season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Meanwhile, Rauch planned 2019 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, he said, “under the weight of knowing it was my final season. It was going to be different.”
Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2019 season includes
An encore of Paula Vogel’s Indecent, which began at OSF and went on to win two Tonys on Broadway in 2017.
Three plays by Shakespeare
Eva Le Gallienne’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland
A revival of the musical “Hairspray”
“Between Two Knees,” a comic retelling of Native American history created by the 1491s, a comedy sketch group made up of a “gaggle of Indians” (the third-authored play at OSF)
“How to Catch Creation,” Christina Anderson’s exploration of the universal act of creation through the experiences of a black, queer, feminist writer
“Cambodian Rock Band,” Lauren Yee’s remarkable play that combines a rock concert with a tale of reconciliation and genocide.
It also features two plays that Rauch will direct himself, which share the same cast. “Mother Road” by Octavio Solis, which opens March 10th, is inspired by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, now celebrating its 80th anniversary. “The Joad family descendents go back from California to Oklahoma. “
He will also direct La Comedia of Errors, a bilingual adaptation on which he collaborated with Lydia G. Garcia (“My Spanish is above intermediate and below fluent.”). “La Comedia will be touring – a way of reaching low-income communities”—yet more innovation and outreach from Bill Rauch.