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OSF eyes Elizabethan Theatre rebuild

Five years ago when Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor Bonnie Milligan should have been belting out songs in a production of “Head Over Heels,” she was forced to take a night off. The show was canceled and the Elizabethan was dark because of wildfire smoke in the air.

It had become apparent two years earlier, in 2013, that smoky summers might be the norm in the West. It was then that OSF put together a “smoke team” to assess air quality daily before each evening show began.

Since then it’s been a mixed bag, with air quality issues forcing OSF to cancel (or, in recent years, move) few if any shows some years and more than 20 in 2018. In addition to safety issues for cast, crews and audiences, there is the economic cost. Canceling a show can cost the festival in the tens of thousands of dollars in ticket refunds for a sold-out show. In 2018, that loss was estimated at about $2 million.

In 2020, OSF will cancel an outdoor performance if air quality requires it, but will not move any performances.

The Allen Elizabethan Theatre “problem” has been on the minds of OSF leaders for years. The 60-year-old facility is unique and admired, but patrons have less than ideal amenities in bathrooms and concessions, and production capabilities are not up to today’s standards.

In fact, in the 10-year plan adopted by OSF and announced in 2016, one section expressed the “urgent need” to rebuild it.

“The distance between actors and audience in our large outdoor space does not reflect the intimacy of the original Elizabethan theater spaces in which Shakespeare was first presented,” the report said.

Options being considered included building a new theater or retrofitting the existing structure and adding a retractable roof.

The plan noted that a new outdoor theater should be based on the actor-audience relationship of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, putting the actor at the center of the performance space, “celebrating the naked human voice reaching the naked audience ear.”

Building a new theater appears to be the favored option these days, with doubts expressed about whether the aging structure could support a retractable roof.

Nearly five years into the plan, OSF is close to making a decision.

“A feasibility study has been completed,” said C.J. Martinez, OSF media and public relations specialist, “including very approximate preliminary cost estimates.”

More planning and research are needed, he said. OSF hopes to embark on that over the upcoming season.

“Internal discussions and preparations are taking place which we hope will lead to a large-scale capital campaign in the near future,” he said.

Another part of the 10-year plan was to transform the old Black Swan space into a welcome and education center that could be used for workshops and other events. It could also include a small “black box” theater, a fourth OSF experimental performance space.

“It’s not off the table,” Martinez said. “But it requires significant planning and study, which OSF hopes to begin soon.”

A major goal of the plan is about to be realized: more OSF housing.

Plaza East, at the corner of Lithia Way and First Street, is on schedule for occupancy by the end of 2020. The mixed-use, 31,191-square-foot, three-story building has basement parking and ground floor commercial space.

“It includes 34 housing units,” Martinez said, “and offices which, at this time, we expect to be occupied by OSF’s company management department.”

The 10-year plan also included a goal of reducing energy usage on the OSF campus and at other festival facilities. In that vein, OSF is pursuing installation of solar arrays for the 71,544-square-foot production facility in Talent. That building is used for scenic and prop construction and painting, and for storage of props and costumes.

“The economics of solar are less favorable in Ashland,” Martinez said, “but OSF may also pursue additional arrays here eventually.”

OSF recently purchased an electric vehicle for company use and installed a charging station at one of its housing properties.

“This vehicle will be used primarily for local trips by company members and should reduce our carbon footprint in Ashland and the Rogue Valley,” Martinez said.

The 10-year plan announced in 2016 has dozens of additional goals. Among them are more use of digital platforms, the possibility of multi-year contracts for actors, increasing contributed income as a percentage of total revenue, and increased diversity in productions, audiences, board and company.

There has been progress on many of those fronts. With any multi-year plan, modifications are often made along the way as conditions change and new leadership emerges. OSF has a new artistic director in Nataki Garrett, whose impact on productions won’t be fully realized until the 2021 season. And a new executive director, expected to be hired in 2020, will have additional impact on the direction of OSF.

Meanwhile, OSF will open its 85th year Feb. 28 with a production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Bowmer Theatre, with productions of “The Copper Children,” “Bring Down the House” parts one and two, and “Peter and the Starcatcher” to follow.

Eleven productions will be presented in 2020, with performances at the Bowmer, Thomas Theatre, and, beginning May 26, the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre.

For information and tickets, see osfashland.org.

Jim Flint is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Associate stage operations manager Jason Jolly oversees load-in of the set for "Peter and the Starcatcher," debuting March 1 at the Bowmer Theatre. Scenic design by Regina Garcia. Kim Budd Photo.
Actor Rex Young participates in a movement workshop for "The Copper Children," with artistic associate Derek Kolluri at left. It debuts Feb. 29 in the Bowmer Theatre. Kim Budd photo.