The Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the rest of Ashland will feel a recession that could last beyond 2009, OSF Executive Director Paul Nicholson warned more than 150 people who attended a town hall meeting hosted by the festival Monday night.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the rest of Ashland will feel a recession that could last beyond 2009, OSF Executive Director Paul Nicholson warned more than 150 people who attended a town hall meeting hosted by the festival Monday night.

"This really is an immensely severe recession," said Nicholson, adding he has heard predictions it could take two to three years for the national economy to recover.

The economic downturn may be the most severe situation that people in today's work force have ever experienced, he said.

Despite the second-highest attendance rate in its history, OSF faces a $750,000 deficit for this year. People are buying cheaper tickets and returns on the nonprofit organization's investments and endowment fund are down because of the stock market slide, Nicholson said.

"That's far and away the worst deficit we've ever seen," he said.

Nicholson said OSF went through two recessions in the 1980s relatively unscathed, but this time is different.

OSF will cover the 2008 deficit with its reserves. The last plays of the season are scheduled for Sunday.

OSF officials announced last week they will cut $1 million from the 2009 budget, leaving a remaining budget of $25.5 million. No staff will be laid off at this time, but vacant positions will go unfilled and OSF is making other cuts as well.

OSF is raising the base price on tickets for 2009 by 3 to 4 percent, but will keep offering $20 seats in C sections of its theaters. It also plans a host of specials, especially for local residents, Nicholson said.

OSF already is selling tickets for next season and will have an idea of how sales may go for the year by the end of November. Historically, pre-sold tickets make up 65 percent of total ticket sales, he said.

Nicholson said OSF will share information about how ticket sales are going through press releases and information on its Web site at www.osfashland.org. He said he realizes how important ticket sales are to tourism-dependent businesses around town like bed and breakfast inns and restaurants.

Artistic Director Bill Rauch said audiences won't see a difference in the quality of the play sets and costumes. Only 2.5 percent of the budget is devoted to materials, with the bulk — 70 percent — going to pay people's salaries.

OSF is moving ahead with plans to stage Clifford Odets' "Paradise Lost," even though it has 24 characters. Set during the Depression, the play may have special resonance with audiences in 2009.

Rauch said more actors in the theater company have signed up to perform in three plays, rather than the more typical two.

"One of the contributions the acting company is making is they're working very hard next year," he said.

OSF will stage 11 plays, including four works by William Shakespeare, a play by Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka set in Africa and Meredith Willson's musical "The Music Man."

Audience members also asked about OSF's relationship with the city government.

"I wish the city would commit to supporting tourism and OSF," Nicholson said.

He said OSF gets only 5 percent of the revenues from the city's hotel tax even though the festival is a major destination for tourists.

The Ashland City Council and mayoral elections on Nov. 4 represent a "pivotal moment" for the city politically and for OSF. If elections go a certain way, that could have severe consequences for OSF, Nicholson said, but he declined to name which candidates he thinks would support OSF and tourism.

"You're going to have to read my mind on that," Nicholson said.

Several audience members asked what they could do to encourage a strong relationship between OSF and the city government. Nicholson responded that OSF needs to reach out more with activities like Monday night's town hall meeting so residents know the challenges and difficulties the festival faces.

Rauch said people need to focus on celebrating what Ashland has, such as great restaurants, inns, theater companies and galleries. He said the town has an extraordinary sense of community.

"We're all in this together," he said.

Vickie Aldous is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach her at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.