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Finding his “Way” in Cambridge

Bill Rauch '84 PHOTO: Oregon Shakespeare Festival

When Bill Rauch ’84 talks about his Harvard years, you can hear the gratitude and affection in his voice, see it in his smile. While he was at the college, he found his career, his husband and his first company. And his passion for embedding theater artists and projects in communities. Back then, American Repertory Theater was just getting started, and theater was a heady experience at the college. You can see the origins of his theater philosophy in this Crimson interview from 1984, when he was about to launch his career.

Rauch opened a production of Robert Schenkkan‘s All the Way on Sept. 19 at A.R.T. The play is about the early days of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency and stars Bryan Cranston (of AMC Breaking Bad fame) as LBJ.

“When I started as a freshman at Harvard, Bill was kind of a legend,” says A.R.T. artistic director and producer Diane Paulus ’88. “When I started my first theater, I wrote to Bill, and he shared advice and encouragement. Now we have a very strong relationship as colleagues, as fellow artistic directors. It has been a dream of mine to bring him back to the A.R.T., back to his stomping grounds here at Harvard. We have been talking for years about various projects, and then the stars aligned with this bracing new play.”

Just shy of 30 years after graduation, Rauch, who is artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, sat with a handful of Harvard arts students at the Office for the Arts to talk about a life in the arts, his years on campus and All the Way. “When people wait for opportunities to come to them, it breaks my heart,” Rauch told the students. “I’m a really big believer in make the work. Just make the work. And don’t wait for people to hand you things. Don’t think they owe you anything. Get out there and do it. The secret is: Take whatever coal they dump on your head and feed it into the engine to make the work stronger. How are you going to make a difference? How are you doing to make the world a better place? Those are the big questions. So go for it. Follow your dreams.”

The week before the show opened, I met up with Rauch to talk about his time at Harvard — past and present.

How did you get your start at Harvard?
I came here wanting to be an actor. I acted in a play in the Loeb-Ex my freshman year, and I had a passion to direct. I applied for and got a slot for spring semester. And that was it. I joke that I’m going to spend the rest of my career trying to direct with the pure instincts I had that first time.

Can you still tap into that?

The cast of "All the Way." PHOTO: A.R.T./Evgenia Eliseeva

I viscerally remember it. At the very first performance, there was a very intense response from the audience. I went into the men’s room and hid out there for a few minutes because I was so overwhelmed. I realized in that moment that I was not an actor and that I should never act again, and that if I had anything to offer it was as a director. I had found my life’s work in that one moment.

You’ve said All the Way taps into anxieties about our lives. What are the anxieties in the play?
Like any great play, it’s ever relevant but it feels especially urgent right now. We went into rehearsal 10 days before the anniversary of the march on Washington. We will close just a few weeks before the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination with the Supreme Court striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. All the Way tracks how we inherited our modern political landscape. One of the most striking lines in the play is a southern Democrat saying with complete confidence that the Republican party will never be a friend to the south. It’s a reminder for people who lived through the era, and it’s new information to many younger people.

Do you think historical amnesia is an American phenomenon? Or maybe a human phenomenon?
Absolutely. It is a human phenomenon with a special brand in the United States of America.

Plus we have optimism.
And optimism can lead to amnesia. I agree with you.

Bryan Cranston as LBJ. PHOTO: A.R.T./Evgenia Eliseeva

What mood do you want the play to set for audiences?
Hopefully, it is as mercurial as LBJ himself was, and constantly shifting. Robert’s writing and our production interpretation have a lot of humor, deep pain and moments that are out-out-out-outrageous. The tone is constantly shifting. Also, the play chronicles the intersection of the public and the private. We tried to create a production that reinforces that thematically – on the literal level, people are being taped, but metaphorically, people are making decisions based on personal relationships with worldwide implications.

What do you want students to know about pursuing a life in the arts?
My Harvard years shaped my career and life as an artist. Being surrounded by incredibly smart people who are filled with passion at the faculty and student level, I was constantly inspired. It made me curious, hungry and eager to take risks and grow, and that has propelled me throughout my career. Harvard also opened doors. I’ve sat down with funders or a donor with the Harvard link, and that matters sometimes. The first thing I talked about is more important, but the latter is, too.

All the Way is sold out, but standing room for select sold-out shows will be sold on the day of each show, in person only and only 1 ticket per person, from A.R.T. Ticket Services. The Ticket Office opens at 12:00pm. There will be no standing room for the final performance.  Read more about Bill Rauch in the Harvard Gazette. Read more about Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of LBJ in The Boston Globe. Read Crimson archival reviews from the 1980s about Bill Rauch. Attend a panel discussion led by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

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