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Quills & Queues: Taking up arms against a sea of smoke troubles

Oregon Shakespeare Festival — the crown jewel of the Southern Oregon tourist industry — has been hit harder than any year prior in 2018, with myriad cancellations and multi-million dollar losses due to heavy wildfire smoke. Even in a roaring economy, the company has been forced to lay off 16 employees and is in need of an infusion of patron support. I caught up with Julie Cortez, the longtime communications manager of the festival, to see how things were going.

JG: Julie, OSF has been hit hard by the wildfire smoke in the region for a number of years, but most intensely in 2018. Can you talk a little about that?

JC: Yes, this summer’s smoke definitely hit OSF, and the region, much harder than in past years. The context I share quite a bit is that we had to move or cancel more outdoor performances – 26 total – this summer than in the previous five seasons combined. The smoke also became an issue far earlier than in the past. For example, in 2017 our first cancellation of a show was Aug. 22 and our last was Sept. 7. This summer, our first cancellation was July 20. Luckily, by late July we were able to begin moving outdoor performances to Mountain Avenue Theatre at Ashland High School — though its capacity is under 400, compared to about 1,200 in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre. The final show we moved this season was Sept 6. Besides the financial impacts, all the uncertainty that goes along with wildfire smoke certainly took an emotional and physical toll on all of us — the OSF company, our patrons and the wider community.

JG: What efforts are being undertaken, both strategically and economically, to offset the issues?

JC: We’ve launched the OSF Rising campaign to provide immediate relief for some of our $2 million in smoke-related losses this season. Through it we are seeking donations and increased memberships, and encouraging folks to come see shows before the season ends and to support other local businesses as well.

There are a number of changes we’re making in 2019 to ensure that people can have a great experience with or without smoke. One major one is that we are already making preparations to move our outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre shows to an alternate indoor venue from July 30 to Sept. 8. A major bonus of this move is that we’ll be able to offer a few matinees of those shows every week during that time, opening up more opportunities for families with younger children in particular to experience “Alice in Wonderland,” for example.

JG: Where can patrons and lovers of theater look to be of support to the OSF community?

JC: Come see shows and bring your friends — an engaged audience is so essential to the live theatre experience. Our 2018 season continues through Oct. 28. Spread the word to your family, friends and social media networks. So many of our patrons gush about what life-alternating and heart-opening experience they’ve had here, and we want to share that experience with as many people as possible, locally and beyond.

And, of course, visit osfashland.org/Rising to learn more about OSF Rising.

JG: Can you touch on how OSF and the Ashland business community can best support one another in the face of this emerging climate issue?

JC: I think we need to keep talking to each other and spreading the word about what we have to offer here, and about our challenges. OSF may be a major economic engine here, but we know we’re one of many reasons that people come to our beautiful region. We’re all incredibly interconnected and we’ll need to work together to adapt to whatever may come our way.

Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.

Smoke obscures the view from the Allen Elizabethan Theatre of the hills above Ashland. (Photo courtesy of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival)