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Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune

Paul Nicholson outside his Ashland home.

A life of purpose

Editor’s Note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Paul Nicholson, retired executive director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Q: As the past executive director at OSF, how did you see the theater evolve?

Paul: You can see the evolution in both numerical and non-numerical terms. In numerical terms, it grew during my time from an annual budget of about $2 million to $32 million. We grew from season audiences of about 200,000 to 400,000. It grew in terms of the number of equity actors from about 3 to 90. There are a lot of measurements like that.

From a non-numerical view, OSF has received remarkable recognition from within the American theater community. When I started we were really a second- or maybe even a third-tier theater, and now we are recognized by every measure as one of the top two or three theaters in the country.

Q: How did you increase the quality of OSF?

Paul: In 1980 the standard process was for actors and the production people to come in for a “scholarship,” and we paid them a small stipend. They came for a year. Some stayed for two years and a few for three years. Then the actors had to leave to work in a fully professional theater. In 1983 and ‘84 we made the decision to do away with the scholarship system, and as Jerry Turner, our artistic director, put it, “We want adults to work at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and adults pay taxes,” so we upped the stipends, converted everyone into a salary structure and did away with the need to leave after two or three years. And then we steadily and intentionally grew the number of equity actors and stage managers. We created a highly desirable place to work for actors, production people and staff. And people stayed.

Q: How have these permanent employees contributed to the betterment of the community and the region?

Paul: One of the great joys of my life and career was to see the way our company ended up becoming part of the community. We’ve had people in the company staying for 10, 12, 15, 20, sometimes 30 or more years. When you stay in a community for that length of time, you start having children, then those children start going to school and you start connecting with other parents. We’ve had company members join boards, committees, city council and various commissions. When you put down roots, you gain a sense of ownership in the community.

Q: Looking back, what are you most proud of not just you, but all the accomplishments of the theater?

Paul: We were very conscious and intentional about how we grew the organization. Growth wasn’t just about more butts in seats; it was very much about growing quality. It has been satisfying seeing the way that the organization grew in terms of reputation, financial strength, facilities, quality of the board and the people who work there. All of those things were not the result of coincidence. They were the result of making decisions about where we wanted to go and then putting in place the actions we needed to make that happen. As a result, the organization has developed and grown over the years and reached five million patrons.

The second thing that I’m most proud of is developing from being a company where people could begin a career in theater to where people could have a career in theater. That’s very rare. That longevity gives the organization critical strength, a connection to the community, and enables the creation of trust and support for each other.

Q: What is the power of the arts?

Paul: From the pure entertainment value, it’s valuable to go and have a great laugh or a great cry. But the real power of the arts is enabling us to feel despair or sympathy or anger or delight. It’s about feeling. In our society we often ignore the feelings that we have, but the arts sort of push us into that state of feeling. When I was in New Zealand and we were doing a production of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” I remember sitting with the director during the dress rehearsal and saying, “Well, I didn’t realize that ‘Three Sisters’ was so funny.” That was in the first half; and the director said, “Well, before you can make them cry you have to make them laugh.” That’s the beauty of the theater. It enables us to get in touch with our feelings and, hopefully, once we’re in touch with our feelings then the other side of it is how do we act on them.

Q: What are your dreams for the future of OSF and Southern Oregon?

Paul: I would love to see OSF more recognized within our region. One of the ironies is that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival pays far more in state taxes than it receives from the state of Oregon. And OSF contributes about $175 million a year to the local economy. That is significant. Some people think that we’re just a small operation down in Southern Oregon, and here we are one of the two or three largest theaters in the country.

Q: How did you arrive in Southern Oregon? What was your journey?

Paul: I’m a New Zealander. I completed the New Zealand equivalent of an MBA, and had always been involved in the theater and always loved it, but as I was going through university, the theater wasn’t an option as a career. There were basically no real professional theaters in New Zealand, so I went into the corporate world. I worked about 10 years in the corporate world and was doing very well, but ultimately decided that it wasn’t something I wanted to do all my life. I wasn’t interested in making a lot of money. I wanted to do some good in the world and make a difference. By that time there were a handful of professional theaters in New Zealand, and one was looking for somebody to manage it. I said, “Yes, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.” I ran that theater for six years and then was ready for something more. I married an American woman and we decided to come to the States. That was in 1980.

I applied to a lot of theater organizations. Bill Patton, who was then the executive director, told me later that he’d gotten my letter and was going to send me the “sorry, but” letter. However, at one stage in my career, I’d been a systems analyst and programmer. The festival had no computers, Bill knew that computers were getting closer, and he didn’t know anything about them. He thought, “well, here’s this guy who knows computers, and he could handle that part.” I laugh because that was probably the clincher rather than my theater and management background.

Q: What do you think would make Southern Oregon better?

Paul: Having people who are in decision-making power at the political level understand the value of the arts and support that value through funding. One of the crucial things that’s been lost in our communities today is the level of civic engagement. If the arts could be embraced for the value that this brings, that would be remarkable.

Perhaps the single biggest challenge within the valley is the issue of housing. I’m a trustee of the Carpenter Foundation and I’ve seen presentations relating to housing and the homeless. I’m also on the board of La Clinica, and as a federally funded community health center we have to have at least one person who is involved in homelessness and housing issues. Many people believe that people are homeless by choice and that they are living off the community, taking advantage of the community. My perception is exactly the opposite. The vast majority of people who are homeless are not there by choice. ... There are some wonderful people who are involved in homelessness housing issues in our community, but rules and regulations get in the way. We need to bring more compassion and more understanding to that issue.

Q: At this point in your life, what’s become clearer to you?

Paul: Oh, I’m very clear about that. When I look back on my career, I’m blessed to have had a career in theater and the arts, but that wasn’t coincidence. When I was 28 I was working in strategic planning in the corporate world. I was pretty dissatisfied with the work I was doing, so I did a strategic plan on myself. I looked at what were my strengths and weaknesses, what were the opportunities out there? What did I want? What did I not want to do? That led to my becoming involved in the theater in New Zealand and ultimately to coming to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. After I retired I was consulting in strategic planning. Suddenly I realized that I needed to step back again and do another strategic plan on myself, which I did about a year ago.

What has solidified for me is a realization that I have a responsibility to use the gifts, the talents and the experience I have to help make this world a better place. It’s simple really. It’s living a life of purpose. It is to be very conscious of my purpose on Earth. What am I trying to do? How am I going to use the time and expertise that I’ve been fortunate enough to gather over the years to help this world?

Q: So how are you going to use your time and expertise?

Paul: I’m involved in a range of different opportunities to live a life of purpose. One of those is Rotary. I’ve been involved in Rotary now for 25 years. People sometimes think of Rotary as just a bunch of old men sitting around having lunch and writing checks. Well, our Rotary Club is over 40 percent women. We raise hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for local and global causes. We have built about 150 houses in rural Guanajuato. We’re bringing water to rural villages where formerly women had to walk up to three-quarters of a mile every day to get fresh water. We’ve given out hundreds of books to first-graders. It’s very gratifying to see what Rotary is doing. That’s become a very important part of my life.

Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.

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Paul Nicholson bio

A native of New Zealand, Paul Nicholson worked for 33 years with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the last 17 as executive director, retiring at the end of 2012.

He has been a guest lecturer at many universities, is a frequent speaker at regional and national arts conferences and has consulted with many U.S. arts organizations.

Nicholson has served or serves on many local and state boards, including La Clinica, Ashland Community Hospital, Ashland Chamber of Commerce, Southern Oregon University and Oregon’s Cultural Advocacy Coalition. He works closely with the Arts Committee of the Oregon Community Foundation and serves as an assistant district governor for Rotary.

He is a trustee of the Carpenter Foundation, was on the Theatre Communications Group national board for seven years, and is the recipient of many awards, including the Vero Nihil Verius Award from Concordia University, the Burbage Award from the American Shakespeare Center and the Sumner Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Institute of Outdoor Drama.

He is a recipient of SOU’s President’s Medal and was recognized as one of Oregon’s 50 Great Leaders by Oregon Business Magazine.

Nicholson is married to a gardener and watercolorist, has two daughters and a son, and five grandchildren.

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