An interview with the Artists' Ensemble's Richard Raether

In a phone interview a few weeks ago, I spoke with Richard Raether. On his way to Southern Illinois University to audition actors for a production of Noises Off to be staged in January, he was continuing his trip to Dallas for a six-week workshop teaching movement classes. As the artistic director of Artists’ Ensemble, the highly successful company now showcasing its work at Rockford College, Raether continues a career begun in the early ’70s as a student at SIU.

He met his wife, Margaret, also a talented theater person who acts, writes and directs, and following their college years, they moved to Milwaukee, then to New York, where they worked for 10 years. Like so many, they returned to the Midwest after the birth of their second child and found work in a variety of venues. Raether’s interest in fight choreography began in Missouri at a summer theater, The Mule Barn. His expertise in the field makes him one of the outstanding teachers of this essential craft in so many productions. On their return to Rockford, the Raethers began their association with J. R. Sullivan and the then-emerging New American Theater. It was upstairs at the old synagogue where Charlotte’s Web was based that exciting new work was produced. Albee’s Zoo Story, Front Page, and Mamet’s American Buffalo attracted small, but enthusiastic audiences.

The urge to direct impelled Raether to convince Sullivan to allow him the opportunity, and in the black box theater downstairs on Main Street, he gave Gary Wingert his chance to act at NAT. The Diary of Anne Frank, among others, was a great success. The Town Players evolved, and a drama school that has become an integral part of NAT was founded.

Bill Gregg became artistic director when Sullivan left for the wider world, and Raether served as associate. On Gregg’s departure, Raether became artistic director and served in that capacity for three years. Change again gave him another chance to help found a new company, and Artists’ Ensemble became the latest company to enrich our cultural community.

Bringing together many of the original actors at NAT, it was much like a family reunion… Rod MacDonald, Linda Abronski and Stephen Vrtol III, Barry Nyquist, Pat and Ken Staaf, Jan Bacino, John Cobb and George Davis, and, of course, the Raethers enthusiastically began from scratch to create their dream.

Their first season at Rockford College was an unqualified success, and a permanent home there assured the company of stability. Raether’s comments reflect his values. “In playing to the masses, the focus becomes the lowest denominator. An audience wants to be intellectually stimulated, and the challenge is to do that and become financially stable. The association with Rockford College relieves us of an overhead bill, and we can focus on the kind of theater that is artistically fulfilling.”

The season opened with Albert Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Opening Dec. 2 in the Cheek Theatre at Rockford College is Tom Dudzick’s Greetings with Barry Nyquist and David Gingerich.

With people like Richard Raether, our rich theater experiences will continue.

From the Nov, 2-8, 2005, issue

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