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OSF plans for smoke

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is much more equipped to deal with wildfire smoke this year, according to new Acting Executive Director Paul Christy.

He, along with General Manager Ted DeLong, presented a multifaceted plan to Ashland City Council on Monday night, with a focus on having an alternative for performances in the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre when air quality deteriorates.

A lot of research has gone into the preparations, said DeLong, adding that OSF recognizes its role in the wider community.

“We believe really strongly that OSF and Ashland are quite intrinsically linked,” DeLong said.

The Elizabethan Theatre is scheduled to open a week earlier than usual. Previews will begin Tuesday, May 28, and the official opening weekend will begin June 7.

“We’re adding another week, hoping to capitalize on the outdoor theater,” DeLong said.

From May 28 to July 12, performances will run six days a week, and the full 1,200 seats of the Elizabethan will be offered for sale.

“If there does happen to be any air-quality issues, it would be a pure cancellation, because there is not another venue to go to, but we think there’s not a likeliness of that,” DeLong said.

If a show is canceled, there are various options for patrons, including refunds or tickets to a different show.

“We’re going to be as flexible as possible,” Christy said.

In the past six years, or since the summers have turned exceptionally smoky, the company has had to make daily decisions on whether to continue with outdoor performances or to cancel them, he said. These decisions are based on the air-quality rating from the monitor on top of the Ashland fire station, recommendations from the weather forecast office in Medford, as well as the health of the cast scheduled to perform that day.

DeLong said if cast members are particularly sensitive to smoke and the air quality is poor, the show is more likely to be moved.

This daily decision will be made from July 13 to July 29. If the decision is made that air quality is too poor to perform in the Elizabethan, the performance will move to the Ashland High School Mountain Avenue Theatre.

Between July 30 and Sept. 8, the performances will continue in the Elizabethan Theatre as long as possible, but if necessary, they would move to the high school theater.

During that period, if the performances move to the high school theater, they will remain there through Sept. 8, unless there is a clear indication that air quality will improve. The practice of deciding every day to switch locations is time consuming and ultimately not practical, DeLong said.

On top of alerting audience members of the change of location, it’s just as important to set the stage and dressing rooms for the actors, DeLong said.

“Being able to know where you’re going to do your job that night is important, and we want to offer our company that peace of mind,” DeLong said.

Once performances begin at the high school, only the 400 available seats will sell for that theater.

City Councilor Julie Akins asked whether other options had been explored.

DeLong said OSF looked at the Historic Ashland Armory, the Southern Oregon University theater and the concert hall, but none of those options would work as well as the high school theater.

The hope is that the smoke will disperse, and plays may return to the Elizabethan as soon as possible because the high school will need its theater back in early September.

DeLong said flexibility is key. He said people become very upset when they’ve driven a long way for a show and it gets canceled.

“Over the past six years, as we’ve had these issues related to smoke, the relationship with our audience has been really strained,” said DeLong, adding that a lot of research into ticket sale patterns went into the preparation.

The average number of seats sold per Elizabethan Theatre performance is 800, he said. Because the high school theater holds only 400, sales would be cut in half.

Looking at the year-over-year pattern from 2017-2018, he said, attendance decreased 10 percent in July and 25 percent in August.

In order to capitalize on the times when more people generally see shows, the season started Friday, March 1, this year, two weeks later than normal.

“This past weekend, we’ve had some nice fuller houses instead of half full," DeLong said.

Media coordinator CJ Martinez said historically there’s been less attendance in the first couple of weeks sometimes due to hazardous driving conditions due to February weather.

“There’s an ebb and flow as to when the season starts and when it begins,” Martinez said.

DeLong said in the past the first day of work began on the first business day of the year, which was “a nightmare.” He said having people fly in on New Year’s Day was always very hectic, and having the delayed start time kept everything more organized.

DeLong said the company has discussed possibly extending the season, but that will be a later conversation.

A feasibility study is scheduled for later this spring to determine the most efficient way to make this work and to look at more alternatives, DeLong said.

One of the next projects will be to look at the Elizabethan and determine the best way to update it with features such as a roof covering to enclose it in times of poor air quality, as well as to expand its size. He said it’s not as large as they would like it to be.

Christy noted that the indoor facilities have been updated to provide better air quality, such as new air filtration devices and changing air filters as much as necessary, sometimes twice a week.

There also has been an expansion of the number of indoor shows available.

Councilor Tonya Graham asked whether OSF had spoken with other local businesses about their ability to promise patrons a reprieve from the smoke in the downtown area while they are waiting for shows to start.

“We did do a fair amount of research,” said Christy, adding that OSF has worked closely with the Chamber of Commerce on this matter. “We learned to adapt. We know a lot more going into this season, and we’re sharing that knowledge with everyone.”

Councilor Dennis Slattery emphasized that the community relies on OSF.

“This community spins off of what you all do,” Slattery said. “There’s a lot of people who make their livelihood off of what you do. I think we’re all on pins and needles with the unknown of the smoke.”

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

The Elizabethan Stage seats 1,200 people for outdoor performances.