The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is intensifying its efforts to develop strategies to cope with the “new reality” of smoky skies over Ashland nearly every summer.
The problem began about five years ago, with winds blowing smoke into the Rogue Valley from a growing number of forest fires in Oregon and California. Air pollution is a major problem for an open-air theater like the Allen Elizabethan Theatre on the OSF campus.
“The first time a play was canceled was in 2013,” said OSF Executive Director Cynthia Rider. “We had none canceled in 2016 and nine in 2017.”
This year was the worst, with OSF having to either move or cancel 26 performances of Elizabethan Theatre plays, resulting in nearly $2 million going up in smoke because of the loss of revenue and extra expenses incurred.
The health of the company and audiences is important to OSF, said Artistic Director Bill Rauch.
“Some individuals are more sensitive to poor air quality than others,” he said. “Company members have certainly had to pace themselves to keep up their strength.”
Moving between the outdoor stage and the indoor alternate venue put additional pressures on company members.
As crews nimbly handled shuffling some Elizabethan performances to the Mountain Avenue Theatre at Ashland High School and Green Shows to the Black Swan, OSF management and staff shifted planning efforts into high gear. Their focus is two-tiered: Developing ways to mitigate harm and enhance audience experiences in the short term; and looking at long-term solutions, such as reimagining the Elizabethan Theatre.
Gail Lopes, chair of the OSF board of directors, talked about the board’s work with management and staff.
“Within a few days of the first canceled performances, both the board’s executive committee and then the full board began regular special meetings with senior staff to help develop immediate responses to the smoke situation,” Lopes said. “The enormous outpouring of support from our patrons and community has been deeply inspiring and greatly appreciated.”
Rauch said unpredictability has been the most frustrating aspect.
“With our largest venue being outdoors, we used to have to worry about cold and rain in the late spring when we were doing technical rehearsals or in the fall as we approached closing,” Rauch said.
“Smoke has added a significant new complication to the heart of our summer season. Its intensity and how it has impacted our performances have been anything but regular. In 2014, for example, we canceled only one performance.”
They have learned that they can’t predict what conditions will be like one summer to the next.
“This new reality requires us to be prepared to move our outdoor shows indoors and to be nimble in our communications and flexible as a company,” he said.
So, what will be new for next season?
Rider said OSF is looking at finding a larger indoor space as an alternate venue for Elizabethan Theatre plays should smoke make that necessary.
“We’re examining possibilities throughout the Rogue Valley, but closer is better, of course,” Rider said.
Rauch said it’s important to avoid audience members not getting to experience a show for which they have purchased tickets.
“For this reason, for six weeks next season, from July 30 through Sept. 8, we are going to sell the number of tickets that our alternate indoor venue holds for the evening Elizabethan shows,” Rauch said. “Patrons will therefore be guaranteed seeing the show, whether indoors or outdoors.”
OSF is adding another new wrinkle to the Elizabethan Theatre schedule during that same six-week period, Rauch said.
“We are going to add select matinees in the alternate indoor space so that more people can experience these wonderful productions,” he said. “We want to assure audiences that they can see the work, no matter what happens with the weather.”
Rauch and Rider said they are especially excited about matinee performances giving families daytime opportunities to see “Alice in Wonderland.”
In addition, the three outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre shows will open one week earlier next year. And with changes to the Bowmer Theatre schedule in which plays will run until the end of the season after they open, patrons will have more opportunities to see the full lineup of main stage plays in one visit.
What about the Elizabethan Theatre itself? Does it need to be altered to reflect the new reality and assure audiences have a quality experience? It’s a fiscal consideration as well as an artistic one.
To that end, OSF is preparing to commission a feasibility study to determine whether it should it be covered or rebuilt from the ground up. A group of OSF board members made contributions to fund a preliminary first phase of the study.
Rauch said there are important aspects to consider in any reimagining of the Elizabethan Theatre.
“Much studying needs to be done about possible changes to the current Elizabethan or building a new Elizabethan some day,” he said.
“Even were a new space to be climate-controlled, it would be ideal to have some kind of relationship to the night sky, for instance through a glass-domed ceiling or a retractable roof.
“The Allen Elizabethan is 60 years old, and so even before the smoke situation had intensified, we have been in dialogue about the need to refine or re-create this space,” Rauch said.
A study will provide information about retrofitting or rebuilding on the present site, and address engineering concerns and costs.
“We want to maximize the intimacy of the Elizabethan experience. And as we move forward, we will involve the community,” Rider said.
Meanwhile, said Rider, OSF is encouraged by the outpouring of support from patrons and from private and public donors. OSF is committed to maintain and build on the quality of the work on stage people have come to expect, she said. And OSF continues to ask people to visit Ashland through its marketing efforts and support for tourism development.
With Rauch moving on to a new position in New York after next season, the search is underway for a replacement.
“Moving shows indoors to a smaller capacity has certainly impacted our financial health,” he said. “And this puts new pressures on whoever will become OSF’s next artist director.
“But OSF’s entire history is one of resilience and creativity, and I am confident in the company’s ability to adapt to these challenges,” he said.
OSF will continue to track audience attendance patterns next summer and into the future to study what long-term changes might be made to the performance calendar.
OSF needs people, both locals and tourists, to keep coming to see the work on its stages, Rauch said.
“OSF needs that, and our entire community needs the business that out-of-town audience members bring. We are in this together,” he said.
A fundraising effort, called “OSF Rising,” was launched recently to help cover losses experienced this season.
In facing the challenges head-on, the OSF community appears to have adopted the credo expressed in a line penned by a guy named Will in his play, “Julius Caesar”:
“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”
Jim Flint is a former newspaper publisher and editor now living in Ashland. Reach him at email@example.com.