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Parting such sweet sorrow for director

July 13, 2007|Jeff Barnard | Associated Press

ASHLAND, ORE. — Libby Appel was walking up the steps of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Elizabethan Theatre, where the stark set for her farewell production of "The Tempest" was still on stage, when a voice came out of the shadows.

"Libby, thank you so much for all you have done," said the woman. "This was the best 'Tempest' ever!"

After 12 years as artistic director, Libby Appel is bowing out.

To say goodbye, she chose William Shakespeare's final play, in which Prospero creates a storm to achieve his goal of finding a husband for his daughter, lets go of his magic and frees his slaves. Appel also did her own translation of Anton Chekhov's last play, "The Cherry Orchard," which examines the passing of the feudal era in Russia.

"People don't like any change," Appel said. "People get scared of change. But, in fact, change was a very vibrant part of the landscape here right from the very beginning.

"The audience, I think, has made it possible for us," said Appel, who at 70 blends well with the theater's demographic. "Even when they don't like it, they have stayed with us, been willing to see it happen."

Appel created a storm of her own when she started in 1995 by firing a longtime and very popular director and weathered complaints over her determination to diversify the acting company -- featuring black actors in traditionally white roles.

Like Prospero, Appel is satisfied with what she has done and has yet to do.

During her partnership with executive director Paul Nicholson, the festival -- founded in 1935 as an intermission between outdoor boxing matches -- has seen its budget double to $24 million with the help of donors such as Microsoft Corp. co-founder and billionaire entrepreneur Paul Allen. It was named one of the top five regional theaters in the country by Time magazine and is now one of the nation's biggest repertory companies, with 774 performances of 11 plays and a company of 475, including 91 actors.

Appel has boosted the caliber of actors and directors, commissioned new plays from Tony Award winners, and taken original shows to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Barbican Theatre in London.

She plans to stay in Ashland and will direct Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge" next season for new artistic director Bill Rauch. Meanwhile, she's hoping someone will hire her to do another Chekhov translation. Not a Russian speaker, she works with a translator.

"I realized maybe I do have something to say about Chekhov, not only as a director, but through an interpretation of his language," Appel said. "That passion has come upon me like I've been hit with a bulldozer. All I want to do is do this."

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