​​The Arts Center at Ground Zero Is Finally Here. Can Bill Rauch Make It Work?

Bill Rauch became obsessed with the survival of theatre as an undergraduate at Harvard, in the early nineteen-eighties. He’d already decided that he wanted to be a stage director, and was spending much of his time putting on plays wherever he could: the basement of his dorm, the freshman dining hall, in a Volkswagen bug on the street that leads to Harvard Yard. Then he heard a professor describe theatre as “a dead art form” and assert an alarming statistic: just two per cent of Americans, apparently, were regularly going to the theatre. Rauch had been told that the three pinnacles of theatre as a popular art in the Western world were Greek tragedy, English Renaissance drama, and American musicals. As a senior, he founded his own theatre company, and mapped out a mashup of “Medea,” “Macbeth,” and “Cinderella”—one exemplar of each style—so that they could be performed simultaneously. It was a way of seeing what they had in common, and how theatre could return to its populist roots.

After he graduated, Rauch and a college friend, Alison Carey, concocted another plan for attracting people to the stage. Funding from the Virginia Commission for the Arts allowed them to teach workshops by day and direct community theatre at night, starting with “Our Town” in Newport News. After that production was over, Rauch, Carey and their friends, calling themselves the Cornerstone Theater Company, drove to North Dakota, where they recruited locals to put on “Hamlet” in an old vaudeville theatre. At one point, Carey took over pouring drinks in a bar so that the owners could perform. The locals they recruited worried that Shakespeare’s language was too arcane, so the company modernized it, converting “arrant knave” to “downright prick,” for instance. (They ultimately changed that one: “downright prick,” they were told, was something “smart-ass college kids” would say. A rancher suggested “horse’s rear,” and that went into the script instead.)

They repeated the process in months-long stays across the country, adapting classic plays to speak directly to the communities where they had set up shop. Rauch directed, Carey and others tailored the scripts, and another classmate, Christopher Liam Moore—now Rauch’s husband—often played leading roles, opposite nonprofessionals who lived nearby. In Miami Beach, they adapted W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s “The Dog Beneath the Skin” to address the AIDS crisis. In Port Gibson, a Mississippi town riven by racial segregation, they staged “Romeo and Juliet” with an integrated cast. In 1992, they moved to Los Angeles, where they continued to stage site-specific plays exploring timely subjects in collaboration with locals. “What Bill did with Cornerstone was a radical revolution in the model of the American theatre,” Diane Paulus, the artistic director of American Repertory Theatre, told me. “He’s been the leader in the field. Everyone looks to Bill.”

Rauch stayed in L.A. for fifteen years. He left in 2007 to become the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, one of the country’s oldest and largest repertory-theatre companies, in Ashland, a small town just north of the California border. Rauch promised to expand its repertoire to include non-Western classics and to diversify both the company and the staff. He also announced a project called American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle—thirty-seven new plays to be written by a diverse group of playwrights and loosely modelled on the scope of Shakespeare’s collected works. Within a decade, actors of color made up around seventy per cent of the company, and they were putting on adaptations of Indian, Chinese, and Latin American classics alongside their Shakespeare productions. Meanwhile, American Revolutions, overseen by Alison Carey, achieved wide renown. “All the Way,” written by Robert Schenkkan about Lyndon B. Johnson, transferred to Broadway, and won the Tony for Best Play. “Indecent,” Paula Vogel’s queer history of Yiddish theatre, became one of the most produced plays in the country. Lynn Nottage’s factory tragedy, “Sweat,” moved to the Public Theatre, in New York, and won the Pulitzer Prize. The head of the Public, Oskar Eustis, called Rauch “an astonishingly successful regional artistic director, the most impactful of my generation.”

Then, six years ago, Rauch decided to attempt something even more complicated, perhaps, than the cross-country community-theatre productions of his Cornerstone days or the history-spanning commissions at O.S.F. He accepted a position as the inaugural artistic director of the Perelman Performing Arts Center, now mostly referred to as PAC NYC, at the World Trade Center, just across from the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

The idea to include an arts institution near the museum—a hub for creativity and hope alongside the memory of devastation—emerged soon after September 11th, but, for years, it wasn’t clear what shape such an institution might take. A plan for an International Freedom Center was criticized as insufficiently patriotic; that proposal, which also included a drawing center, a dance space, and a resident theatre, was ultimately abandoned. The project got new life when the investor Ronald Perelman donated seventy-five million dollars, but it wasn’t enough; Michael Bloomberg ultimately contributed almost twice as much. Bloomberg also took over as chairman of the organization’s board, a position previously held by Barbra Streisand. Finally, this past fall, PAC NYC opened to the public in a gleaming five-hundred-million-dollar marble-clad cube perched above the memorial pools.

Although plenty of tourists visit the memorial and the museum by day, the financial district empties out at night; it’s hardly known as an arts destination. And, nationwide, audiences have been slow to return to live performance after the pandemic. Rauch, whom one playwright described to me as “the nicest man in show business,” told me that he sees his new position as a kind of third act, in which he will try “to bring the audience-focussed work of Cornerstone together with the scale of O.S.F.” But he’s still haunted by that statistic he heard in college, not to mention the new headwinds that theatre is facing now. “The question is,” he said, “who’s experiencing the work?”

I visited Rauch in Ashland about a year after he’d accepted the New York job. Behind his desk was a giant red photograph featuring one word in capital letters: “YES.” He’d bought it from an actor in his first days at O.S.F. “You can imagine how much I set myself up for anyone who wants to be cynical about me or my leadership,” he said. Trim, with neatly combed graying hair, Rauch has a broad face and eyes that crinkle shut when he smiles, which is often. O.S.F.’s former literary director, Lue Douthit, has described the time she advocated that the festival hire three dozen playwrights to translate Shakespeare’s plays into modern English verse. Rauch quickly approved the proposal, she explained, before correcting herself: “Actually, he said, ‘Hmm, interesting,’ which I translated to ‘yes.’ ” This year, O.S.F. will put on its first production from these commissions, Sean San José’s “Coriolanus.”

When I visited, Rauch, in his last season at the festival, was directing a new play, “Mother Road,” by Octavio Solis—a response to “The Grapes of Wrath,” imagining a Mexican descendant of the central family in Steinbeck’s novel. The play’s cast was simultaneously starring in “La Comedia of Errors,” a bilingual adaptation of the Shakespeare farce that grappled with immigration politics. Rauch, working with a modernization of Shakespeare’s text by the playwright Christina Anderson, partnered with the theatre artist Lydia G. Garcia to craft a Spanish-English version. “Bill surrounds himself with extremely bright and competent people of color who work to hold him accountable,” Darleen Ortega, a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals, whom Rauch recruited to serve on O.S.F.’s board, told me. The ninety-minute production was designed to travel to non-theatre locations—a library, a hospital, a community center—in southern Oregon, where there is a large Spanish-speaking population.

At a rehearsal for “La Comedia,” Rauch arrived in a bike helmet, wearing a blue fleece and jeans. “Hello, friends!” he beamed. He greeted me with a warm hug, as he seems to do to everyone. “It feels like Cornerstone again,” he said. “Adapting a classic, a bilingual script, going on the road.” As the actors took out their scripts, he asked, “Who’s excited for the van?”

Both Robert Schenkkan and Bryan Cranston, who won a Tony for playing Lyndon B. Johnson in Rauch’s production of “All the Way,” said that for all his obvious warmth Rauch could also be tough. Cranston related Rauch’s firing of an actor who wasn’t working out during the play’s out-of-town run in Cambridge. “If you sense something going sideways, you have to make a move, and he made the move,” Cranston said. “He’s not afraid.” Still, for others, including the playwright Sarah Ruhl, Rauch “is a model of a leader who leads with kindness, who leads with gentleness,” as Ruhl put it. (She described Rauch holding her infant daughter during rehearsals of her play “The Clean House,” which Rauch directed at Lincoln Center, so that she could jot down notes.) In interviews, Rauch was so solicitous of what was going on in my life that I often found it hard to turn the conversation back to him. “The joke about Bill was that anyone who happened to walk by, he would ask them their opinion,” a designer at Cornerstone, Lynn Jeffries, told me.

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