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Donations, ticket sales give OSF a boost

Wildfire smoke crept into the Rogue Valley over the past week, temporarily prompting the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to go to Plan B for plays scheduled in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre, moving them from the classic outdoor venue to Ashland High School’s Mountain Avenue Theatre.

After weeks of smoky skies in 2018 that forced canceling or moving 26 performances and the ensuing loss of nearly $2 million in revenue, OSF was ready. The festival team developed a multifaceted plan that included advance scheduling of plays in the Mountain Avenue Theatre, added matinees in that venue, intensified fundraising, and a number of cost-saving measures.

The result is that OSF’s financial condition is improving, donations are up, and ticket sales are exceeding expectations.

That’s according to the festival’s acting executive director, Paul Christy, and director of development, Torrie Allen. They recently presented the festival’s 2018 annual report and a look at OSF’s future to a crowd of about 400 at the Angus Bowmer Theatre, one of the festival’s three venues.

Revenue took a hit last year not only from the affected outdoor performances, but also from a drop in ticket sales in July, August and the first part of September.

“We had to draw from our savings,” Christy said.

An injection of 3.9% of the organization’s $40 million endowment fund made up about three-fourths of the revenue shortfall.

Other cost-saving measures in 2018 included laying off some employees, reducing other employees’ hours, deferring some expenses, and canceling nearly two months of the festival’s free outdoor Green Shows. The shows are back in 2019, but for four nights a week instead of six.

The festival is also taking a look at operating efficiencies. “Do we have the right-sized company, can we save money on lighting, water, and energy?” Christy asked.

Supporters responded generously to “OSF Rising,” an emergency fundraising campaign launched last year to help offset losses, and donations are up overall, Allen said.

“We had a major donor give us $4.5 million,” Christy said. “It funds certain programs over multiple years. We’re trying to enhance that by raising matching funds.”

While 2018 earned revenue (from tickets, events, publications, etc.) was down about $1 million compared to 2017, contributed revenue (from memberships, gifts, grants and support groups) was up about the same amount. Endowment fund contributions were up nearly

$2.4 million over 2017.

Total income includes about 60% earned revenue and 40% contributed income.

“For most organizations in the U.S., the ratio is reversed,” Christy said. OSF’s goal is to move toward the typical ratio.

“Repertory theater is so expensive. We have to rely on gifts to keep ticket prices down,” he said.

Christy said air quality changes are a significant challenge, especially since they can’t be predicted. To meet the challenge, the festival scheduled this year’s outdoor plays at Mountain Avenue Theater from July 30 to Sept. 8, adding matinee performances to make more seats available.

The high school theater has a spacious lobby, a green room, makeup and dressing rooms, a control booth, a full fly system, and an orchestra pit. But at just over 400 seats, it has about a third of the capacity of the Elizabethan.

The festival’s plan is to move performances back to the Elizabethan with about three days’ notice when skies clear, releasing hundreds of extra seats. When that happens, the marketing department often offers “Starry Skies” specials to help fill the newly available seats.

Limiting ticket sales for the Elizabethan has an economic effect on local businesses as well.

Restaurants, hotels, tour operators, and retailers all have suffered. Some bed-and-breakfast operators reported August bookings this year that looked more like March.

Christy was asked about plans for retrofitting or replacing the Elizabethan to deal with air quality challenges. He said the festival has “entered into discussions” with Josh Dachs of the New York theater planning and design consultant Fisher Dachs Associates and has commissioned a feasibility study on the Elizabethan. Hacker Architects of Portland is the West Coast partner, working through Fisher Dachs.

The New York firm is one of the world’s leading theater planning and design consultants and has recently completed assignments in Canada, Tokyo, Singapore, Seoul, Cairo and Mexico City. It is currently working on projects in Moscow, Dubai, Colombia, Spain and London.

Possibilities include installing a retractable roof or building a new theater.

It is unclear at this stage whether the Elizabethan’s structure could support retrofitting. It will be about six months before the festival has more details and findings to share.

Asked about the effect artistic choices have on ticket sales, Christy reaffirmed the festival’s mission.

“If we put a musical on every stage for every performance, we probably would sell out,” Christy said, smiling. “But we have a strong commitment to performing Shakespeare, featuring current playwrights, and producing other successful productions from around the country — so that we have a true mix.”

If that means a few empty seats now and then, so be it, he said. The crowd expressed its approval with enthusiastic applause.

Jim Flint is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Open to the sky, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre seats 1,200 people. Featured in the photo is the 2017 set and ensemble in "The Merry Wives of Windsor." Photo by Kim Budd Photography