Henry Woronicz is all wet. Literally. He’s sitting in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s open-air theatre in the middle of a summer thunderstorm, getting drenched, watching a dozen soggy actors slosh through the opening scenes of As You Like It. It is opening night and the seats around him are full; the heavy drone of raindrops falling on hundreds of plastic ponchos drowns out the sound of the actors’ voices. A decision has to be made: To cancel or not to cancel?
This is just one of the hundreds of decisions Woronicz will make this day, a not atypical day at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oreg. As the organization’s new artistic director, Woronicz oversees more than 400 employees, nearly 1,000 volunteers, four theatres in two cities (an eight-month repertory season in Ashland, a six-month season in Portland) and an annual budget of over $11 million. You might think he would have to be a veteran administrator or numbers-cruncher to handle this load, but he’s neither. Instead he is an actor–an actor carefully refashioning himself into a new breed of actor-manager.Order now
If the actor-manager model can thrive anywhere in the American theatre today it should be at the OSF, which has a long history of performers at its helm. Angus Bowmer, who established the festival in 1935, was a noted Shakespearean, as was his successor, Jerry Turner, before he gave up acting to direct. Turner stepped down last year, after 20 years as producing and then artistic director. Enter Woronicz with 15 solid years of classical acting experience under his belt, and no intent to retire soon. He is currently considering taking another crack at the role of Hamlet in the summer of 1994–probably his last, as he nears his 40s.
Woronicz looks more like his actor-half than his manager-half: casual in his customary jeans and white sneakers, bearded, with a profile worthy of the noblest of Shakespeare’s kings. Sitting in his office just above the Ashland green, he relates the story of his professional life with actorly eloquence.
After graduating from a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts in the mid-’70s, Woronicz spent two years with an itinerant, seat-of-its-pants children’s theatre, writing scripts, making costumes, arranging bookings–and trotting the boards up to three times a day. Then he hooked up with the Boston Shakespeare Company, volunteering at first, but soon working for (minimal) pay. He stayed six years, gaining his first extended exposure to Shakespeare.
“I did something in the neighborhood of 20 Shakespeare plays with the company,” Woronicz says. “By the time I was 30, I had played Hamlet, Richard III, Petruchio, Leontes, Benedick, Banquo, Romeo … a wide, wide variety of roles. We were doing 42 weeks of Shakespeare, six nights a week. That’s where I slowly evolved into a classical actor.”
Boston Shakespeare was in effect a graduate school for Woronicz, who had bypassed traditional actor-training programs. To this day, hands-on experience remains his preferred mode of learning. As he puts it, “I learn best by doing. That’s really been the case with this job. Being an artistic director–there’s no book for it, no school. You just kind of dive in.”
Winning over his critics
Woronicz couldn’t have known he would make such a big splash when he first arrived at OSF in 1984. That season he played Henry VIII and Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale to critical acclaim, but soon left to pursue opportunities at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. In 1986 he returned to OSF to act and to direct, signaling a career change that would be of momentous long-term importance to the institution.
When then-artistic director Turner announced his intent to step down, some members of OSF’s board were reluctant to consider Woronicz for the job. He candidly admitted at the time that he had had “minimal administrative experience,” but eventually won over his critics with his enthusiasm and his commitment to the festival’s traditions. “I told them I was not interested in coming in and tearing apart the model. I think I represented change at a certain pace, within the structure that Angus Bowmer had created.”
As one might expect from an actor-manager, Woronicz envisions the OSF of the future as an artist-friendly place. “The festival should be more than just a play factory,” he insists. “It should provide creative time for artists and artisans outside the rehearsal process. The models are the RSC, the Royal National, Theatre du Soleil, the Berliner Ensemble–companies that invest the time to really work on their art.” To that end he has supported the establishment of numerous actors’ studios, where company members can work with professionals on voice, movement, Shakespearean technique and so forth.
Anything but boring
Despite these advances, the selection of Woronicz as artistic director has been characterized by some in the profession as a conservative move by a board more interested in stability than in artistic risk taking. This interpretation has been fueled by the perception that OSF’s critical reputation has lagged behind its popular success in recent years. As the Oregonian’s Bob Hicks told the Seattle Times, the OSF is “one of the rare theatres that can wind up being too successful, pulling in big audiences but lacking that artistic edge that makes great drama.” He added, “Henry is well-liked and respected for what he’s trying to do. But he’s green as an artistic director, so we’ll all just have to wait and see what happens.”
Many of Woronicz’s colleagues are confident that the wait will be worthwhile. David Ira Goldstein, freshman artistic director at the Arizona Theatre Company in Tucson and Phoenix, says, “What I find encouraging about Henry is that he is trying to empower actors. He’s dedicated to actor training, and has brought a spirit to the company that’s delightful to see.”
Thus far, at least, no one can complain that Woronicz’s brief reign has been boring. This past spring, he instigated a controversial shakeup of the festival’s satellite theatre in Portland, bringing it more tightly under his control. And in June, he presided over the much ballyhooed opening of a $7.6-million addition to the festival’s outdoor theatre–the institution’s biggest capital project in 23 years.
The newly renovated theatre was inaugurated on June 26, with a generally well-received production of Othello staged by Jerry Turner. The infamous “underwater” version of As You Like It flooded the stage the following Sunday. That night, Woronicz could be seen through the downpour conferring with people seated to his right and his left. Finally he rose and splashed up the aisle, signaling to actors and staff that the show would not go on. That was the last major decision he had to make that day. Worries about saturated costumes and ticket refunds would wait until the next morning.
The OSF’s new artistic director may be one of the last true Renaissance men in the American theatre–he acts; he directs; he manages one of the biggest theatrical institutions in the country. But even Henry Woronicz can’t stop the rain.