Front Rowe Center

As a sophomore in college, coming out of his first rehearsal for a play, Doug Rowe announced loudly, "This is what I'm going to do all my life!" — and so it has been for the 73-year-old veteran of many Oregon Shakespeare Festival plays and now artistic director of the Ashland New Plays Festival.

"It's been remarkable," Rowe says of his life. He just netted roles for next year in OSF's "All the Way" and "As You Like It" — and notes laughingly that he just filmed a piece where he played a long-bearded hermit, then cut his long hair and beard to play a psychiatrist in the same film.

Rowe, longtime artistic director of Laguna Playhouse starting in 1964, was drawn to Ashland in 1997 by "the role of my life" as Willie Loman in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." Rowe immediately noted the "remarkable cast for such a small town — right up there with anything in New York or Los Angeles — wonderful directors, fabulous sets, amazing production values and then a town like this — nestled between two mountain ranges — and an audience that's been going to plays all their lives."

It was the perfect setting for everything, theatrically speaking — about as good as it could get — "and that's why ANPF is thriving once again, with all this talent from the festival and so many playwrights — from here and all over the country and the world — able to see what their play is really like."

With skilled acting and "back talk" from an experienced audience, Rowe says, playwrights are readily able to see what needs reworking and can go to the task. They get more than 200 plays, which go to five groups of play readers; these are winnowed to a dozen, and Rowe picks the final four.

"It's very enriching for playwrights, such a natural happening for this to grow and grow ... with (OSF artistic director) Bill Rauch's help, opening the doors to us, with use of OSF's actors and advisory help," Rowe says.

"The playwright is the essence of our industry. It's not a play till it's produced."

A native of New Jersey and Massachusetts, Rowe made his creative home on the West Coast. In Laguna Beach, Calif., he met his wife of 31 years, Catherine, when they were in Woody Allen's "Play It Again, Sam." He cast an unknown Harrison Ford in the play "John Brown's Body," where Ford was discovered by Warner Bros., launched into a film career and became a lifelong pal of Rowe.

"Harry is a wonderfully generous guy. He was always a natural. When he read for me, I said, 'Oh, yeah' and cast him."

After five of his seasons at OSF — and with his wife as successful co-owner of Real Estate Depot in Ashland and their two sons, Bill and Jackson, doing well in film — Rowe thought he was retired, but then came the call from OSF to do roles next year.

"I'm a character actor! I'm 73," he laughs.

In his upcoming role in "All the Way," he plays crusty segregationist Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, an ardent opponent of President Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights Act.

The political play, which took place on the real-world stage in Rowe's mid-20s, has special meaning, as it saw Southerner LBJ, the "hero" of the story, drive a stake in the heart of Jim Crow segregation in America, knowing it would crush the base of his Democratic Party in Dixie.

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