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Doug Rowe is retiring from the Ashland New Plays Festival. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

Rowe's final curtain

Doug Rowe, the creative guru of the Ashland New Plays Festival for many years, is stepping down as artistic director. The festival brings playwrights from around the country to stage readings of their plays. Rowe said the festival is in good shape.

"The houses were huge, and there's money in the bank," he said.

For ANPF's 2014 season, staged readings of new works by New York playwrights Michael Edan and Jack Karp, Los Angeles playwright James Harmon Brown and New Jersey's Bob Clyman were held Oct. 22-26 at the Unitarian Fellowship in Ashland. Performers taking part included current and former Oregon Shakespeare Festival actors and directors Kenneth Albers, Catherine E. Coulson, Catherine Lynn Davis, Tony DeBruno, Dee Maaske, John Pribyl, Vilma Silva, U. Jonathan Toppo and others.

Rowe said longtime comrades are leaving the group's board, so the timing is right.

"Fred and Norma (Wright, longtime ANPF organizers) are retiring, and a couple of the others, and I just figured it's time," he said.

The festival is expanding its mission beyond play readings to include talks with theater veterans and projects with Southern Oregon University, he added, and he prefers to focus on readings.

"The board should decide which way the organization goes. Right now they're kind of widening their approach. It's not something I'm totally behind," he said.

"I'm not saying it's a bad thing. But I've made a living off playwrights and screenwriters for my whole life. So this has been a way of repaying them. ... It's time for the board to get someone younger and more in tune."

ANPF President James Pagliasotti said Rowe had a "tremendous impact on the festival."

"His will be large shoes to fill."

Pagliasotti said a search for a new artistic director will begin immediately after Rowe performs his one-man show, "Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol," Dec. 15 at Camelot.

Pagliasotti said the theater talks are an experiment to serve the ANPF audience.

"We serve a unique niche," he said. "The theater talks seem to fit with our mission."

Rowe, who has a long list of movie and TV credits in addition to his stage work, was artistic director of the Laguna Playhouse in Southern California, where he hired young actors such as Harrison Ford and Mike Farrell, for many years. He came to Southern Oregon in 1997 when he won the part of Willie Lohman in the OSF production of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." He stayed on at OSF for five seasons and has since acted in movies and done stage work while providing the artistic leadership for ANPF.

The festival re-started several years ago after a long hiatus. Each year it puts out a call for new plays and receives as many as 200 or more scripts, which are read by teams of volunteers and go through a selection process in which the top 10 or so scripts are given to the artistic director, who selects four plays to be given staged readings.

Rowe says the best part of the process was developing a relationship with OSF and casting skilled actors in the plays.

"The writers are able to see their work done by professionals," he says. "They can get a true reading of what they have."

He also cites enthusiastic audiences, many members of which stay after performances for "talk back" discussions with visiting playwrights. 

These days, Rowe is sporting a full beard he says helped get him roles in a couple of movies over the past year. He had a role in Barbed Wire Films' "Besetment," a thriller shot in Bend starring Marlyn Mason of Medford. Rowe played a preacher who is a plumber in his day job.

He also had a role in Gary and Anne Lundgren's "The Black Road," a neo-noir about a cyborg risking his life to protect a woman. He plays a grandfather in that picture. The Lundgrens are the Ashland couple who made the indie films "Calvin Marshall" (2009) and "Redwood Highway" (2014).

Rowe is performing "Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol," by Tom Mula, for the third year in a row. Performances are set for Thursday at Temple Emek Shalom in Ashland and on Dec. 15 at Camelot in Talent.

Rowe says changes at ANPF could be a good thing.

"But it's just a lot of extra work," he says. "And it's a healthy thing to find a new artistic director."

Reach Medford freelance writer Bill Varble by email at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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