Puck (John Tufts) descends to the forest to spread the love potion given to him by Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. This year’s production, with overtones of 1980s disco and other contemporary periods, was directed by Mark Rucker.

Much ado about Shakespeare: Is there a 'traditional' tradition?

ASHLAND — Bill Rauch said Wednesday he once got a letter after a performance of "Romeo and Juliet" from a disgusted theatergoer asking if he wanted "hooting and hollering" from high school students in the audience.

"That is an incredible triumph," said the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The point of the story, told during a Wednesday panel discussion OSF officials called "Shakespeare, Period: How We Make Production Choices," seemed to be that the teens had become passionately involved in the world of Shakespeare's star-crossed young lovers.

The noontime gabfest played to a full house at the OSF's Carpenter Hall in Ashland, with Alan Armstrong, director of Shakespeare Studies at Southern Oregon University, moderating. Armstrong explained the event was dedicated to debunking myths about Shakespeare, the first of which was, "The best approach is to contemporize Shakespeare."

OSF Head of Voice and Text Scott Kaiser said Shakespeare can be contemporized by speaking his lines differently, or by substituting altogether new words for old ones, and that there is a big difference.

The second myth was the opposite of the first: "The best way to approach Shakespeare is traditionally."

Actor G. Valmont Thomas pointed out that any time a woman appears in a Shakespeare play it's nontraditional, and that as a black actor, there were only a handful of roles in the canon he could have traditionally played.

"If we're straightjacketed, we miss a lot," he said.

Rauch said OSF Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy Lue Morgan Douthit has been badgering him to abandon altogether the use of the word "traditional" for all things Shakespearean. Douthit is the author of a new article tracing practices in staging Shakespeare over the years in which she writes that the Shakespeare performance "tradition" is always changing.

Rauch said 90 percent of his mail is about period settings. He said "traditional" is often taken to mean "dresses that touch the floor," but he noted that the practice of doing the plays in Elizabethan costumes didn't become popular until the 1700s. He acknowledged, however, that OSF founder Angus Bowmer favored Elizabethan costumes and language OSF audiences came to expect.

"That tradition has a lot of weight," he said.

The OSF has done modern-dress productions for half its existence, he added.

"Don't mess with the history plays!" came a voice from the audience.

But a woman said it would be horrible if you had to see exactly the same production your whole life.

"I can't imagine," she said.

"What makes a Shakespeare play?" somebody ventured, sparking oohs and aahs and chuckles. Breadth and depth, Rauch said. Uncanny familiarity, Thomas said.

Kaiser said it is meaningless to demand that Shakespeare's plays be performed "as written," since there are no definitive versions, what with folio and quarto versions and thousands of differences based on fair and foul papers and actors' memories and printers' interpretations.

Sometimes a production features just a touch of contemporaneity, like a much-noticed, modern handbag a female actor carries in this year's "The Clay Cart," a 2,000-year-old Sanskrit play. Rauch credited Resident Costume Designer Deborah M. Dryden for that one.

"The director has to take all the blame but none of the credit," he said to laughs.

Rauch said a young man recently complimented him on a Shakespeare play as being particularly lucid, then asked, "Could you tell me who translated it?"

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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