It was 1986 when 11 young people set out to discover whether theater was dead in the small towns of America.

"We put a map of the United States on a table and said, 'Which state do we know the least about?' It turned out to be North Dakota," recalled Alison Carey.

That time was more than a decade ago, but it helped shape Carey and Bill Rauch's understanding of their own country. The two have since risen to top positions in the theater world.

Rauch took over as artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in August, replacing outgoing artistic director Libby Appel. He brought Carey in as director of the United States History Cycle, an ambitious new project to commission and stage plays that examine different aspects of the nation's past.

But back in the 1980s, Carey couldn't even get the mayor of a small North Dakota town to return her phone calls about the theater group's interest in coming there. It turned out that the mayor had been at a goat-breeding convention. The group finally made its way to the isolated state to enlist the townsfolk in a production of "Hamlet."

"We got out of the van and we told them, 'We're all going to do Shakespeare.' They said, 'No you're not. We're not going to get into tights.' We said, 'You can wear jeans,'" Carey said.

Some local residents questioned why the actors on stage should speak obsolete words that were meaningless to audience members. The young thespians, many with degrees from Harvard, confidently answered that the meaning of the words was explained in footnotes.

"They said, 'Is the audience going to have footnotes?' So we decided to change it," Carey said.

The phrase "but he's an errant knave" was transformed into "but he's a horse's rear," reflecting a common expression in the rural town.

Carey said that experience doesn't mean that Rauch will be changing William Shakespeare's words into modern slang at OSF. She said he respects audiences and knows that many people come to Ashland specifically to hear Shakespeare's language.

Some North Dakota pastors objected to their parishioners taking part in the play because it included dancing.

"But one pastor turned to Bill and said, 'This play is about really important things, isn't it?'" Carey said.

He understood that Shakespeare addressed fundamental issues affecting humans, she said.

For five more years, the theater group toured the nation, stopping for a few months at a time in Long Creek, Ore. and towns in Kansas, Texas, Maine, West Virginia and Florida. At the end, they brought together small-town residents from across the nation to perform together on a national tour.

Carey ""&

who has a degree in history from Harvard, reads the Constitution and Bill of Rights for fun and describes herself as a "raging liberal" &

said she learned much more from the people she met than she ever taught them.

"However people have executed the ideas of the country over time, there are really good ideas that are the basis of this country," she said. "The United States is a thing, an ideal and a dream. I suspected my dream would be different from the people I met, but that was not true. There are very basic values that a lot of people share. That's a very hopeful thing that's not reflected in the current discourse."

Carey has kept the attitude that other people have much to teach her as she embarks on her new undertaking at OSF. Although her office walls are bare and she is still settling in, she already has talked to hundreds of historians, playwrights, patrons and others about ideas for the cycle of plays.

Some of the basics are sketched out, but the project is an ambitious one. OSF will commission nearly 40 plays. Of those, 10 to 12 will make it to the stage, with the first premiering in 2010 and the final play performed in 2019. The budget for the project is still unknown.

OSF may partner with other theater companies to commission plays or stage some of the productions that don't appear here. But every commissioned play will have some type of life at OSF, whether in a full-fledged production, a workshop or a reading, Carey said.

She said OSF is the ideal theater company to take on such a massive, long-term project. Deeply rooted in Ashland, she said OSF is a company with a strong sense of place and history. It has a tradition of putting on period pieces, and most importantly, Shakespeare himself was a writer of plays based on history.

"Shakespeare wrote history plays to examine some of the central anxieties of his culture. We want to use United States history. Theater is part of the dialogue for how we define our society and make decisions for the future of our country," she said.

When asked, Carey said she tries to resist naming plays she thinks model the types of new plays she wants to see come out of the project. She is most fascinated by the Reconstruction period after the Civil War and Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal era &

times when the nature of what America would be was up for grabs. But she isn't going to tell playwrights what eras to write about.

Toward the end of the history cycle, if there are significant periods that have not been covered, OSF may nudge playwrights in those directions, she said.

"I don't have a specific agenda. The most important thing is that we create great pieces of art," she said.