Executive director of OSF retiring

Paul Nicholson of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will leave the regional theater powerhouse after 17 years as its executive director in December 2012, the OSF announced Friday.

"You hit a point in your life when you say it's time," Nicholson said in an interview before the announcement. "For me it happened in the last year. I didn't want to someday retire and have people say, 'Thank God he's gone.'"

The OSF board has hired Stamford, Conn.-based Management Consultants for the Arts to begin the search for a new executive director.

"The Board of Directors is deeply appreciative of Paul's exemplary service to OSF," board President Rudd Johnson said in a statement released Friday by OSF. "His steady leadership and foresight have served the Festival well throughout the past 32 years of our 76-year history, and he has laid a solid foundation for continued growth and support of artistic excellence."

Nicholson ran the company during a time of heady artistic and commercial growth. He called the OSF "one of the premier theaters in the United States," but he said it was time to hand over the reins.

He said a key issue in the timing was that OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch has had time to get his feet solidly on the ground. He said the board wanted him to stay for at least Rauch's first three years, and he surpassed that.

"I am so fortunate that my first five years as artistic director have been in partnership with Paul Nicholson," Rauch said in a statement. "As one of the giants of the American theater, Paul is hugely responsible for the stability and growth of the Festival over the last three decades."

Among other things, OSF insiders credit Nicholson with ushering the festival into the computer age. At a recent gathering of theater critics from around the nation, Nicholson said he thought his computer skills were one reason he got the job.

Longtime OSF actor Shirley Patton said there's truth in that.

"Bill (Patton, the OSF's top executive for many years) was very impressed with Paul. Especially his background with computers. There was a generation gap there, but Bill knew it was the way the festival should go," she said.

Under Nicholson's tenure, the OSF grew from a pre-professional theater and a place where people could begin their careers to a professional theater where people could have a career and raise families, and once-itinerant actors who stick at OSF now have insurance and retirement plans and earn enough to buy homes.

Nicholson said that's been the biggest single change.

"When I first came, there were three of us that had families," he said. "Today there are 80 or 100, maybe more. That makes me feel good."

Nicholson saw the festival grow in membership from 2,000 to 18,000, expand its annual audience from 240,000 to 410,000 and increase the budget from $2.6 million to more than $30 million a year.

Beginning in 1980, he developed a benefits program for the company and spearheaded a series of strategic plans. In 1984, after collaborating with then-artistic and executive directors Jerry Turner and Bill Patton to convince the board it was a good idea, he worked with the Actors Equity Association to develop OSF's first Equity contract.

"He was very good at planning for the long range," Patton said.

Nicholson said if he could change anything, it would be to be more liberal as a company to employees.

"These last six or seven years have been tough from a budget point of view," he said. "We have not been able to grow salaries the way we'd like, and we had to cut back on the retirement match."

Going forward, he'd like the OSF to be able to somehow expand or replace the company's scene shop, where the OSF's elaborate sets are created. It's a cramped space. But he says the biggest challenge is "to take care of the people who work here."

"It's not just the graying of the audience, it's the graying of the company. The needs of a 40-year-old are different from those of a 20-year-old. It's about providing the support to do the best possible work."

He says he'd like to teach, do some consulting and keep a connection to the OSF, maybe something like that of former OSF Artistic Director Libby Appel, who has produced new Chekhov translations for OSF and returned as a guest director.

Nicholson served six years as president of the Oregon Cultural Advocacy Coalition. He served for seven years on the board of the Theatre Communications Group, the service organization for professional theater in the United States. He chaired Ashland Community Hospital's board of directors and was a member of the board of directors of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce.

"He was good at the long range," Patton said. "I'm very grateful he was able to be here all these years."

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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