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The Toast of Ashland

Iris Dorbian • Feature • March 1, 2007

After 12 years as creative head at OSF and 40 years in American theatre, Libby Appel reflects on her wild ride.

In her nearly 12 years as artistic director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Libby Appel has made an indelible mark on the American theatre. Not only has she enhanced this Ashland-based classical repertory company’s profile both domestically and globally, she has attracted world-class theatre artists to its fold, such as Frank Galati, Robert Schenkkan, Ming Cho Lee and Don Holder.

She has also made some advances in the world of technical theatre by expanding the area of sound and composing as a major design element for OSF productions. A former educator with 20 years of experience, Appel can’t help but betray her roots. At OSF, she established the FAIR program (which includes the prestigious Phil Killian Directing Fellowship) as a way to educate the future generation of theatre artists.

Appel, who will be turning 70 this year, is stepping down from her post this November to concentrate on semi-retirement. Recently, Appel took time from her schedule to share some thoughts about her career with Stage Directions.

Stage Directions: How did you get started? What was your training?
Libby Appel: In the 5th century BC, I went to the University of Michigan, prior to them actually having a theatre major. I had to be a speech major — I actually had to take classes in elocution and speech defects. I had to take all that stuff, but I was able to concentrate on theatre.

Were you always interested in theatre?

Yes, I was. I’m a born New Yorker, and my parents — neither of them were artists in any way — loved to go to the theatre, so from the time I was very small they took me to Broadway. As soon as I earned babysitting money, I used to take the subway in from Brooklyn or Forest Hills when my family moved there and see shows. I was stagestruck. I did high school theatre and stuff like that.

Did you have any idea what particular area you wanted to go into?
I had an extraordinarily lucky situation. I, of course, was an actress in high school and college. That’s kind of where you start. I was a competitive, ambitious person, but I knew I wasn’t very good. I had an acting teacher in my junior year in college at Michigan who said to me, “Libby, you ought to take a directing class.” I took it the next semester, and it was as if I had fallen into exactly my right skin. I had found myself completely the minute I took the class. I remember the first thing I directed: a one act by Tennessee Williams called The Lady of Larkspur Lotion. It was quite successful, and my teachers were very supportive. Then, in my senior year, I concentrated on directing projects. I got married immediately after graduating — in those days you did — it was 1959, and I had children immediately. Then when I was 30, I went back to graduate school. But for eight years I wasn’t doing theatre or anything except taking care of babies.

What graduate school did you go to?
I went to Northwestern University.

For directing?
Yes. I graduated from there in 1969. The minute I went back to graduate school, I was very clear that my kids were now old enough — my daughter was in nursery school, and my son was in kindergarten — and that my life was now moving toward a career. I wasn’t going to abandon my family or home, but I knew I was set on a path.

What was your first professional job in theatre?
After Northwestern, I [spent a year] directing plays in Chicago. Then in 1970, my husband, who was a painter and working in the family business, told me he was going to stop working in the business and that I would have to earn a living. [I got lucky] and got a job teaching acting and directing in the Goodman Theatre and School of Drama in Chicago. I don’t know why they took a chance at me because I had no experience as a teacher. But they did. The dean of the theatre school liked me and said they needed someone. I taught there for six years. And I directed at the Goodman and the Court Theatre, also in Chicago. I did a lot of work in the area. Then I was asked to be the head of the acting program at Cal State Long Beach, and that’s what brought me out to the West Coast.

I was there for five years, and then I was appointed the dean of theatre at California Institute of the Arts. So I had 20 years of teaching. I was directing, but my primary career was teaching. Then in 1988, I came to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to guest direct a show because I was doing all the Shakespeare Festivals out in the West by then. I got here, did a show and came back from it and said to my husband, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m giving up the teaching.” I left my job as dean within a year and started freelancing. The rest is history.

Again, I got incredibly lucky. When I started to freelance, I was doing seven shows a year, and then I was appointed the artistic director of the Indiana Repertory Theatre in 1991.

Would you consider that to be the turning point in your career?
Frankly, I think the real turning point was when I went back to doing this show here in ’88 and said, “I’m done teaching. I can’t stay in this career anymore,” and took this huge chance. I was still the sole supporter of our family, and I was giving up benefits, a steady salary, a very high position in academia as the dean of theatre — I was taking a huge risk. It was definitely the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that turned it around for me.

I loved Indiana. I had a marvelous time there for four years, but as soon as this position [as artistic director of OSF] became available and they asked me in 1995 if I was interested, I couldn’t resist. This was my favorite place where I had worked in my life.

You’re leaving OSF — looking back on your tenure there, what do you consider to be the most challenging and rewarding aspects of what you do as an artistic director?
It’s got an enormous administrative responsibility — it’s a really hard job. But if you want to really run a theatre, I just don’t think there’s a better place on earth because here, you have a company of artists in residence and the most loyal audience in the world who really are intelligent and are interested in you doing groundbreaking work.

Why do you think they’re so responsive?
It’s actually been built into their genes. There are people who have been coming here for 50 years. These are people who have brought their children and their grandchildren and their great grandchildren. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me over the years, “You know, all I need is King John and Henry VIII to complete my canon.” (laughs). This year I finally did King John, so I did complete some people’s canon. We did it in a small theatre, and it was an extremely successful show artistically, and we had an audience of 94 percent attendance. Now you tell me where in the world there’s going to be a 94 percent attendance over six months of playing 100 performances of King John?

After you leave OSF this November, what are your future plans?
I plan at the moment to really retire. I’ve had a major career in theatre for over 40 years.

So you really want to retire?
I do. I mean I would never leave this job if I had still had the energy to keep that responsibility. I still want to direct, but not constantly. I certainly don’t want a freelance schedule again. One or two shows a year. I hope I’ll be asked to do them around the country. I have some writing projects. I’ve started to adapt Chekov’s plays from literal translations; I’m doing Cherry Orchard this season. But I really feel it’s time for someone younger to take over the reins. I really thought I would die in the saddle, but I can see I’m ready for more of an inner life.

Professionally, what are you most proud of?
I don’t know if others would agree, but I guess I’m most proud of my work as a director. My mother used to say the most important thing in life is to fulfill your potential, and I feel I’ve been on that road of fulfilling my potential for some time. Here at the Festival I’m extremely proud of the advances we’ve made: the new play work that we’ve done, the diversity of the company, the high level of productions that’s been happening the past 12 years since I’ve been added. There are a lot of things I’m proud of here, but I’ve got to say I’m most proud of having had a career in the theatre and probably affecting other people’s lives, particularly women.

What’s your advice to young women who want to tread a similar career path?
Stay true to what you believe and what’s in your heart. Don’t let anyone stop you.

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