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Dispatch from Oregon: Angelenos in Ashland

August 17, 2010 | 12:41 pm

Americannight ASHLAND, Ore. -- Theater artists working in Los Angeles can expect scant rewards: nominal pay, minimal recognition, and every now and then another gig because someone liked their work onstage. Typically, though, that new job is another low-paying theater assignment.

That is, until one of your colleagues takes over one of the largest professional theaters in the country, with a budget of more than $25 million and hundreds of roles to fill onstage and behind the scenes. This is exactly what happened in 2007, when Bill Rauch left downtown-L.A.-based Cornerstone Theater Company to become artistic director of the venerable Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Rauch promptly began to make changes to diversify the acting company and the audience, to commission new work on contemporary themes  — and to bring in some of his favorite colleagues from the L.A. trenches.

Indeed, on a recent week in the sleepy, sunny southern Oregon town of Ashland (pop. 21,000), you couldn't turn around without running into a familiar face from the L.A. theater world.

Tracy Young, the savvy writer-director who generated some of the best work at the Actors’ Gang in the 1990s and early aughts ("Hysteria," "Euphoria," "Dreamplay"), was in town to direct early readings of "The Imaginary Invalid," which will bow next season in a commedia adaptation by herself and Oded Gross; the pair had a hit here last year with their irreverent take on "The Servant of Two Masters." Ken Roht, director-choreographer of the annual 99-Cents holiday show at the Bootleg Theatre, was in town to lend his dance-making skills to Young’s work, as he has to several shows in Ashland, including the currently running "American Night: The Ballad of Juan José."

That last play, which Reed Johnson wrote about in the Monday Calendar section, is written by and features members of the L.A.-based Chicano comedy trio Culture Clash (and it was hard to miss the sight of bearded, long-haired, heavily tattooed Clash member Richard Montoya around this mostly white town).

Also appearing in "American Night" is another former Actors’ Gangster: the actress Kate Mulligan, one of Young’s longtime muses, first hired in Ashland in 2007 along with her husband, actor Brent Hinkley.

Mulligan and Hinkley have been offered long acting contracts ever since (they’re both in OSF’s production of "August: Osage County" next year), and they plan to stay as long as the contracts keep coming — and maybe even if not, since their 10-year-old son, Declan, is in school here.

“The first time we came here, we pulled up into the company housing, and there were deer in the front yard,” Mulligan recalled over lunch with Young, Hinkley and Daniel Parker, another former Gang member who joins the OSF company next season. “Then Declan met a little boy whose family has some land on the other side of the 5 Freeway, and Declan came home with elk bones. He was so excited.”

Flora and fauna aside, it’s OSF’s three-venue, 11-show nearly year-round theater trade — and the unique culture that’s sprung up around it — that keeps these former L.A. theater folks coming back.

“The audience base is so passionate about theater, just as much as the artists who make it,” said Hinkley, who co-founded the Gang in the mid-1980s with Tim Robbins. “You walk down the street and you hear folks at a table at Starbucks talking about Chekhov. It’s a huge difference from doing plays in L.A.”

“The audiences here also feel quite an ownership,” Mulligan adds. “People who’ve been coming here for a long time will come right up and tell you, ‘I did not like you in that show last night.’ And you’re like, ‘Can I finish my soup?’ ”

Servantosf Mulligan and Young — assisted by Gang-affiliated colleague Daniel Passer, now a Cirque du Soleil clown — introduced the OSF company and audience to “the Style,” a fast-and-furious variant of commedia that’s still the basis of the Actors’ Gang’s work and accordingly developed a following, on both sides of the footlights, that looks forward to the next Young show.

Although Mulligan won’t be in "Invalid," she was a key part of the "Servant" workshops and cast. She recalls “private rehearsals” that she and Young would hold to work on her “physicality and voice. And we’d sort of stop and go, ‘Look where we are! Look how far we’ve come together. We’re still together, just up here.’ ”

Another reunion will occur when OSF stages "Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella," in which three iconic stories of royalty, marriage and destiny play out on the same stage at the same time. A pet project of Rauch’s from his mid-1980s days at Harvard (a young Amy Brenneman played Cinderella in the original version), M/M/C was re-envisioned in a co-production with Young at the Actors’ Gang in 1998, then at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2002. Young and Rauch are slated to reprise it at OSF in the spring of 2012.


-- Rob Weinert-Kendt

Above: Top, actress Kate Mulligan in "American Night" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Below, Mulligan in the festival's 2009 production of "The Servant of Two Masters." Credit: Both by Jenny Graham.

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