Hours after Oregon Shakespeare Festival workers discovered that the main support beam in the Angus Bowmer Theatre was threatening to collapse Saturday, they joined with actors, stagehands and executives to form a human chain to pass costumes from the theater to a safe location.

Hours after Oregon Shakespeare Festival workers discovered that the main support beam in the Angus Bowmer Theatre was threatening to collapse Saturday, they joined with actors, stagehands and executives to form a human chain to pass costumes from the theater to a safe location.

Actors needed the outfits that night for a production of "The Pirates of Penzance" in the Elizabethan Theatre — which connects to dressing rooms underneath the Bowmer stage.

With the dressing rooms deemed unsafe, employees set up makeshift changing spaces in the festival's costume shop.

For the next two nights, actors had to rush off the Elizabethan Stage and across the festival's campus to change for their next scene.

That they pulled it off is not only a small miracle — it's an example of the heroic efforts the festival's 550 employees and 600 volunteers have made in the face of the biggest crisis in OSF's 76-year history, Executive Director Paul Nicholson said Tuesday.

"We've got a major challenge on our hands — no question — but we're doing what needs to be done," he said. "Despite everything, spirits are remarkably high and there's a sense of connection within the company and with the audience."

The crisis comes at the festival's busiest time of year — the start of summer, when thousands of tourists flock to Ashland to see plays at what is widely regarded as one of the top regional theaters in the country.

"It's horrific," Nicholson said. "We're already the busiest and most complex theater in the United States — we do more performances and plays than any other theater in the country — and this is a particularly busy time."

This month the festival is running between 24 and 28 performances per week, and is preparing to open another play, "Ghost Light," in the New Theatre July 2. In three weeks, "The African Company Presents Richard III" is scheduled to open in the Bowmer Theater, but the play may in fact premiere at another location.

Officials are still working with engineers to determine what repairs are necessary in the Bowmer and how long they will take to complete, Nicholson said.

Nicholson, Artistic Director Bill Rauch and the festival's 11 other leaders have been working virtually nonstop since they got the call Saturday morning that the Bowmer was unsafe for performances.

Nicholson, Rauch and four other members of the leadership team were in Los Angeles at a Theatre Communications Group conference when their cellphones started ringing at about 11 a.m. Saturday. Dropping their schedules for the day, they convened in a conference room and began making decisions — all while trying desperately to get on the earliest flight to Medford, Nicholson said.

"We tried to get back sooner, but all the flights were full," he said.

Several of the team members, including Nicholson, were scheduled to fly back that night. In the meantime, they worked on the crisis from 700 miles away.

"All of us had cellphones, fortunately," Nicholson said. "It's hard to imagine how this would have been handled 10 years ago."

The executives directed festival employees in Ashland to contact a city engineer, a private structural engineer and Adroit Construction to assess the sagging beam and begin stabilizing it.

Nicholson returned to Ashland at 11 p.m. Saturday and met with engineers and construction workers at 8 a.m. Sunday. Adroit immediately began installing scaffolding to hold up the 70-foot wooden beam, which was sagging so much that it had indented the top of the "Measure for Measure" set on the stage, Nicholson said.

By Sunday, Adroit had built two stabilizing columns from the edge of the stage to the center of the cracked beam, preventing it from slipping further.

Meanwhile, Nicholson and the other leaders were scrambling to decide what to do with the hundreds of tourists coming to town with tickets to the Bowmer in their hands.

"We've got hundreds and hundreds of people coming here to see shows, and how do we give them a theater experience when we don't have a theater?" he said.

OSF discovered it could rent the Historic Ashland Armory through Thursday, so actors began holding sparse recreations of the plays there. Festival receptionists, accountants and volunteers donned red aprons and formed a line down Pioneer Street to direct theatergoers to the concert hall a few blocks away.

Box office employees also have been swamped this week, as they field "hundreds and hundreds of emails and calls" from people with questions about the Bowmer closure, Nicholson said.

Although some problems have been solved, when and if the Bowmer will reopen this season remains an open question. Because engineers are still assessing the building, festival executives haven't yet had a chance to make a comprehensive plan.

"We meet every morning at 9 a.m. to debrief and find out what has happened over the last 24 hours," Nicholson said. "There are more ways that this has created stress than you can ever imagine."

As Nicholson works with engineers to identify next steps, he's also trying to sort out insurance issues and find alternative theater venues, should they be necessary.

"This is on top of our already busy lives," he said. "It's going to be a long summer."

Reach reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-776-4459 or email hguzik@mailtribune.com.