Thank you for your email of August 20. I appreciate your thoughtful comments and your respectful tone, and I am always grateful when someone cares enough about our theater to take the time to write us with their passionate concerns.
I share your belief that the naked human voice hitting the naked human ear is different from and can be more emotionally resonant than a voice that has been processed electronically. That is why I have taken seven years as artistic director to assess the situation before taking the step of reinforcing sound for all three productions in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre.
Simply put, the preponderance of complaints from patrons who could not hear the words had become overwhelming. We are a language-based theater, and hearing the words is the absolute foundation of our covenant with our audience. Ashland residents, Joel Axelrod and Judy Shih, believed whole-heartedly in the primacy of the audience’s experience and generously underwrote the costs of the sound amplification system provided at a significant discount by the renowned Meyer Sound. I’ve also noticed that many of those most opposed to amplification have been the people sitting in the best seats, closest to the stage and most centered; this issue also became one of access, a test of our commitment to making Shakespeare’s words accessible to people in every section of our house including those farthest away and most off to the sides based on how much they paid for their seats. The sound reinforcement system has democratized the audience experience in an essential way.
You are right that some actors share your sadness about what is lost, but many more actors have expressed to me their relief that patrons can actually hear the plays, and that most audience members quickly forget the reinforcement if they even notice it (obviously, this was not your experience). Attendance, which has been steadily eroding in the Elizabethan for years, has increased this year. All of this speaks to the success of the experiment.
As for the other big issue you raised, yes, we are indeed producing only three plays by Shakespeare in 2015, one in each theater. Interestingly, this is not the first time that OSF has done so nor is it the beginning of a new trend. During my predecessor Libby Appel’s tenure, there was a season with only three Shakespeare plays. And I can already guarantee that the 2016 season will once again have the number of Shakespeare plays that we have averaged per season for decades: four.
The primary reason that we are producing only three in 2015 is our commitment to producing the entire canon of 37 plays by Shakespeare over the course of a single decade, as I announced in March of this year. This is a serious and intensified commitment to our namesake playwright, producing the canon in the shortest window of time that it has ever been produced by OSF in our soon-to-be 80-year history. So it’s largely a question of math: if you divide 37 plays by 10 years, you end up with four plays per year for most years and three plays per year a handful of times. However, were we to repeat a few titles within the coming 10 years, it’s even less likely that we’ll have only three in one season again.
The other factor that has led to having only one Shakespeare play outdoors next season is my passionate commitment to changing venues to vary how we experience these dramatic masterpieces. For instance, "Much Ado About Nothing" has been produced by OSF a dozen times, but always on the Elizabethan Stage, never once indoors until our upcoming production. Audiences consistently praise the new insights they gain into Shakespeare’s plays when experienced in the intimacy of the Thomas as well as the relative intimacy of the Bowmer.
The Allen Elizabethan is our flagship venue and will continue to be a primary venue for Shakespeare. However, over the years more Shakespeare plays have been done outdoors more often than in any other venue. Therefore it is natural that as we seek to vary the venues to give the audience the most dynamic possible experiences, some seasons will have more indoor Shakespeare than in past seasons. I stand by this commitment to variety of venue; it’s in the best interest of our audience having the most dynamic relationship possible to the world’s most important body of dramatic literature.
Noah, I am truly glad that you plan to come back next season. I look forward to your continued feedback. I love working here in part because our audience cares enough to be in active dialogue with us; it is part of what makes the Festival’s audience the best in the world, as far as I’m concerned.
Bill Rauch is artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.