Dear Mr. Rauch,
In 1983, when I was 8, my mother took me on a pilgrimage to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The first thing I saw was Mark Murphey’s Hamlet. I was hooked. I have seen every OSF Shakespeare production since.
In my time I have seen many changes. Some are good: Actors no longer lob their voices at the Chautauqua walls. The immovable Black Swan concrete column has begotten the Lego-like Thomas Theatre. And today actors of color play key roles in every production.
Some changes I’m less sure of: You can no longer try on costumes in the Exhibit Center. The Green Show dancers no longer twist their swords into a star, held aloft to crumhorns. And someone adapted The Merry Wives of Windsor into The Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa.
Through it all, I have never complained. After all, a theater must experiment and fail in order to transcend and succeed. I have always looked forward to next season.
This year is different. This year, for the first time in over 30 years, I am leaving the festival disappointed and concerned. And I am writing to tell you why.
First, know that I honor OSF’s recent accomplishments. In many ways things are better than ever with you as artistic director. But two recent developments trouble me greatly, and I want you to hear my voice.
Indeed, the festival has always been about voices. I remember the first time I heard Dan Donohue’s gently nasal timbre vault into the Allen Pavilion balcony (he was on the back of a motorcycle, wearing a Burger King hat). I remember the saliva punctuating Derrick Lee Weeden’s resplendent growl just before his Coriolanus scaled the Elizabethan’s walls. I remember many, many others.
This year in the Elizabethan I did not hear these voices. I heard electric signals squeezed through a so-called “state-of-the-art speaker” system, hung gloweringly above my head.
“Now is the winter of our discontent,” the speakers shrilled, as Donohue brooded below. “Now is the summer of my discontent,” I thought. It got worse: Jarringly different microphone levels on different actors. Actors sounding tinny in one corner of the stage and muffled in another. And actors speaking from atop the voms who might as well have been lip-synching.
I have heard the arguments. The old folks can’t hear. (Isn’t that why you have infrared listening devices?) Today’s audiences need sensory stimuli thrown at them. (Today’s audiences no longer speak Elizabethan English, but OSF doesn’t bastardize iambic pentameter!) Acting schools don’t teach the necessary voice work anymore. (Take some of your budget and teach it yourself!) The new system is still a work in progress. (Mid-August and your top-of-the-line equipment still has fundamental flaws?)
Actors guiding backstage tours once shared the festival’s pride in not using microphones. They knew unaltered voices are theatrically sacred. This year, they know the festival is compromising itself. If you don’t believe me, read “Telling the Story,” newly available in the Tudor Guild gift shop, in which Mark Murphey worries about “dumbing down the plays and having to mike the actors,” Michael Elich says, “I fear that it’s only a matter of time before the outdoor stage will be fully miked,” and Anthony Heald argues, “We have to really resist the growing pressure to amplify.”
The remedy is simple: Stop miking the actors and address the problem another way. My idea? Put the wireless infrared headphones in the back of every seat so those who want to can use them easily and discreetly (the same way the Met uses back-of-seat subtitle screens).
The second development that troubles me: 2015 is the first time the Festival will produce only one Elizabethan-era play outside.
I’m sure “The Count of Monte Cristo” will be a crowd-pleaser, and the piano solo from The Go-Go’s’ “Head over Heels” is one of my favorite moments in ’80s pop. But next year I will see only three Shakespeare plays in Ashland, and only one outside. This seems a dramatic reimagining of the festival.
At a recent OSF post-play discussion someone said, “This is no longer the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — it’s the Oregon Plays Festival.”
“Careful!” the featured actor replied, clearly as worried as the patron. “If you say that too loudly, they might just change the name.”
Perhaps the new 2009 mission statement, which demotes Shakespeare from the old “our standard and inspiration” to something OSF is “inspired by,” set the stage for this. If so, I want a revised mission statement that reflects Shakespeare’s rightful place. As Kevin Kenerly says in Telling the Story, “(W)e are the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. …That’s where we live, and where I hope we will continue to live. Musicals, yeah, probably pay our bills. But … the Shakespeares should be the strongest. Period.”
The remedy here is simple, too: Stop this one-year Shakespeare demotion, and take measures to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
This letter is not meant to be melodramatic. I’m not finishing with “cancel my subscription!” I’ll be back next year. I also understand that miking actors is an experiment, and I don’t know if you plan to repay us for reducing the number of Shakespeare plays with an extra production or two in future years.
But this letter is meant to be worthy of your time. I’ve put over 30 years into OSF, and I hope you will put a few minutes of reflection into my thoughts.
Thank you for the difficult and important work you are doing. And see you next year.
Noah Bopp lives in Washington, D.C.