Hanging on the office wall behind Bill Rauch's desk is a large photo that shouts the word "YES" in bright white on red through the muted...

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ASHLAND, Ore. — Hanging on the office wall behind Bill Rauch’s desk is a large photo that shouts the word “YES” in bright white on red through the muted reflections of a store window.

He bought it for his office after he took over in November as the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“It just grabbed my heart, and it didn’t let go,” said Rauch, 44.

As the fifth artistic director in the 73-year history of one of the nation’s oldest and largest Shakespeare festivals, Rauch is faced with how to keep a venerable institution fresh while preserving its traditions.

“Change is the air we breathe every day, all of us,” he said. “The stakes are higher in terms of change in an organization like this.”

The festival has become the centerpiece of this small town in the Siskiyou Mountains.

Founded in 1935 by Angus Bowmer as the entertainment between Fourth of July boxing matches, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has grown up and out, winning a 1983 Tony for regional theater and expanding to three theaters that offer 11 plays from February through October and draw about 130,000 playgoers who buy an average of three tickets each.

Rauch’s predecessor, retired artistic director Libby Appel, loves the way Rauch has put his own stamp on the festival.

“I think it is important for him to say, ‘Guess what, there is a new horizon now, a new way of looking at plays now,’ ” she said. “That’s a hard thing to do when you first begin. I can feel the difference. I think it is an exciting difference.”

Rauch has dived right in, saying “yes” to a shake-up of the Green Show. Once a free warmup show of Renaissance dancing in the plaza outside the theaters, it more recently was a modern dance troupe. Now it will offer 50 acts performing everything from Renaissance music to heavy metal.

A mixed mission

Rauch’s roster of plays includes a seemingly safe bet, Thornton Wilder’s classic “Our Town,” but in a risky venue, on the venerable Elizabethan Theatre outdoor stage, whose foundations were once a Chatauqua hall where the festival began. It is the first 20th-century play to be produced there. On the same stage will be a Wild West version of “The Comedy of Errors” in which director Penny Metropulos adapted Shakespeare’s script to include musical numbers and dancing in a kind of “Deadwood” meets the Sons of the Pioneers.

“The original texts we will always produce,” said Rauch. “But I think … it’s important for us in the country’s largest Shakespeare festival to experiment with adaptation as just one thread of the work we do.”

Appel said Rauch’s decision to make “The Clay Cart,” a 2,000-year-old Sanskrit play from India, one of the centerpiece plays running the whole season, was a big risk because it is not generally known.

Other works include “The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler,” playwright Jeff Whitty’s take on what happens when Ibsen’s title character wakes after shooting herself and accepts this chance at a new life, which Rauch also directed; the Wild West adaptation of “Comedy of Errors”; and a visually startling version of “Othello.”

They reflect Rauch’s attempt to attract a younger, more diverse audience — a problem with which the festival has struggled for years, though it has never had trouble filling its seats to near capacity.

“It was time for new thoughts, new ideas, new initiatives, and that is certainly happening with Bill,” said Paul Nicholson, the festival’s executive director. Playgoers are resoundingly positively, and tickets are selling at 90 percent of capacity, he said.

New plays to look back

The festival is raising the profile of new-play development — a difficult balancing act as research has shown young playgoers are more interested in Shakespeare than new plays, Nicholson added.

That job goes to Carey, who is overseeing the “American Revolutions: American History Cycle” series, new plays based on American history that are expected to start hitting the stage in 2010 with funding from the Collins Foundation and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Carey said they hope the plays will help Americans think about their own history and future.

Though festival research shows young people are most interested in seeing Shakespeare, rather than new plays, the history cycle still has potential to bring new people in.

Rauch’s 20 years with Cornerstone taught him people could change in ways they never believed possible.

“And I really believe in the power of art to change people’s lives,” he said.

“You just can’t dictate how it changes the world.”