ASHLAND, ORE. — The princely title character in “Pericles” sails from country to country, meeting with shipwreck and human villainy, devastating loss and unexpected joy. The version of “Pericles” running at the Folger Theatre has done some significant traveling, too: Director Joseph Haj’s production comes to Washington from Ashland, Ore., a small city plush with bookstores and indie coffee outlets at the foot of the Cascade and Siskiyou mountain ranges.
Ashland is home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, an 80-year-old producing powerhouse. A recipient of the regional theater Tony Award in 1983, OSF mounts an annual 11 shows for an audience that, in 2014, numbered 397,743 in total attendance. The productions — including Shakespeare, other classics and new plays — run at two indoor venues and an outdoor theater billed as the oldest existing full-scale Elizabethan stage in the Western hemisphere. Wild deer have been known to wander through Ashland streets as theatergoers emerge from evening performances.
“Pericles” is not the only Ashland-forged show slated for Washington’s 2015-16 season. Starting in January, Arena Stage hosts OSF’s world-premiere production of “Sweat,” a play by Lynn Nottage (“Ruined”) about industrial decline in the United States. Arena commissioned the script with OSF, which debuted it this summer. (The D.C. iteration will feature a slightly different cast.)
As if that weren’t a strong-enough gush through the Ashland-to-D.C. pipeline, starting in April 2106, Arena will mount its own production of “All the Way,” Robert Schenkkan’s Tony-winning drama about Lyndon B. Johnson. The play premiered at OSF in 2012 and went on to Broadway, where it starred Bryan Cranston as LBJ. Actor Jack Willis, who played LBJ in Ashland, will reprise the role at Arena.
A gambler might bet that Washington will see more Ashland-forged fare in the future. Both “Sweat” and “All the Way” were created through “American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle,” an OSF program aimed at commissioning up to 37 new plays about “moments of change” in American history. This body of work, on often-sensitive topics that are critical to the country’s identity, could well appeal to theater folk in the nation’s capital. (A case in point might be Lisa Loomer’s “Roe,” a portrait of the individuals behind Roe v. Wade. “Roe” will debut in OSF’s 2016 season.)
Audiences are hungry for plays about American history, says OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch, who originally conceived of the “American Revolutions” project and directed “All the Way” in Ashland and on Broadway. In an interview in his office, not far from a plaza where drinking fountains still channel the strongly flavored mineral water that was once an Ashland attraction, Rauch speculated that the “American Revolutions” plays speak to “what feels like a real cultural crossroads in our country.”
“Politics have become so partisan — so bitterly divided,” he said. “And I think people long to make sense of our history. How did we get here? Were there moments when we were more effective?”
The “American Revolutions” initiative, launched in 2008, was a kind of conceptual riff on the company’s traditional forte: Shakespeare. Back in 1935, the shell of a building that had housed Chautauqua edu-tainments was repurposed to create an Elizabethan stage. Later, indoor venues opened nearby. The company produced just works by the Bard until 1960, when it began tackling other fare as well.
Now the repertoire is relatively broad: In 2015, the lineup included offerings as wildly different as Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”; the U.S. professional premiere of Stan Lai’s 1986 “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land,” hugely popular in Taiwan and China; and “Head Over Heels,” a new musical with songs by the Go-Go’s and a plot borrowed from Sir Philip Sidney’s 16th-century pastoral romance “The Arcadia.”
Rauch’s “American Revolutions” brainwave posited that a set of new plays, reflecting on America’s past, could serve the same function for modern U.S. audiences as Shakespeare’s works — his history plays, particularly — had served for his contemporaries.
“There was a lot of anxiety in Elizabethan England about who was going to replace the childless monarch Elizabeth, and Shakespeare addressed that anxiety by studying transferences of power in his country’s past,” Rauch says. “The idea of looking at our own age’s anxieties and hopes and fears — illuminating the past, and revealing moments of change in the past to better chart our future — that felt like a rich opportunity.”
To date, OSF has commissioned 24 “American Revolutions” plays, approaching dramatists on the basis of their prior work and allowing them to pick their historical topic. The most recently commissioned playwrights — Idris Goodwin, Dominique Morisseau and Dan O’Brien — are grappling with the story of the transcontinental railroad, the Civil War as experienced by African Americans, and the history of guns in U.S. culture.
Nottage says that she eagerly signed on to “American Revolutions” when OSF approached her, especially when she realized that the emphasis was, in her words, “to write big plays with big ideas.”
The offer “came at a time when I really felt things were shrinking in size,” Nottage recalls, with theaters across the country often staging intimate, small-cast plays for economic reasons. The prospect of working “with a really large template was really exciting,” she says. She spent time interviewing people in Reading, Pa., which had been ranked in 2011 as the poorest U.S. city. Those interviews informed “Sweat,” set in Reading in 2000 and 2008.
The leadership of OSF does not reserve its big ideas for the “American Revolutions” project. In September, the company sparked controversy over a plan to commission 36 contemporary playwrights to “translate” all of Shakespeare’s plays. The commissioned scribblers are tasked with finding modern English equivalents for lines that might, on their surface, seem opaque to a contemporary eye or ear.
Fear not, Folger ticketholders: “Pericles” is not part of the newfangled project. Haj’s production — the first “Pericles” to be staged at the Folger — retains the script’s original language.
Wren is a freelance writer.