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OSF shutdown reverberates through Ashland

The box office and theaters remain closed as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival plans ahead, responding to changing conditions and recommendations related to COVID-19.

OSF administrators are shifting operational practices to allow them to provide customer service while also supporting social distancing by its staff.

“This is an extraordinary time for the theater industry across the country,” said CJ Martinez, media and public relations specialist for OSF.

“We’re seeing a lot of compassion and understanding for one another and throughout the Ashland community,” he said.

After opening its first play of the 85th season Feb. 28, the festival closed its theaters and canceled all performances, events and programs March 12 through April 8. There were no plans as of Monday to extend the closure of festival theaters past April 8.

“That may change,” Martinez said. “But we have not made those determinations yet.”

He says tapping the suite of technology now available to communicate remotely has been helpful.

The festival had continued uninterrupted since its debut performance in July of 1935, except for 1941-1946 when founder Angus Bowmer served in World War II.

Rehearsals are not taking place at this time, due to Centers for Disease Control and White House recommendations to avoid gatherings of 10 or more and maintain social distancing of 6 feet or more.

Martinez says OSF recognizes how important its operations are to the economies of Ashland and the Rogue Valley.

“OSF will take whatever steps are necessary to return to a regular season schedule as soon as this threat to health abates,” he said.

Holders of tickets to canceled performances can donate them or accept vouchers for future performances instead of requesting refunds.

“The festival appreciates this kind of support from its fans, considering what actors, creative teams and the organizations that hire them are going through to sustain themselves during these uncertain times,” Martinez said.

Many OSF members are expressing their concern and support.

Jerry Kenefick of Ashland, an OSF patron for 28 years, said he understands the need to close the theaters.

“It’s the right thing to do, but I miss the OSF activity,” he said. “I volunteer at OSF and have enjoyed that part of the festival scene.”

He cares about the health of people at OSF and in the community, but his biggest concern is the economic health of Ashland and the festival.

“Without the 400,000 visitors who usually come to Ashland, lots of people are going to be hurt.”

Elaine Sweet of Ashland became a supporter when she moved to Ashland 16 years ago and is now on the OSF board of directors. She and her husband, Dick, often entertain actors at their home. It’s still happening, but on a limited basis.

“Food is always good. And wine,” she said. “An actor showed up the other evening, invited by our adult children to share a charcuterie plate and a few bottles of wine. Single actors are out there all alone and don’t always know how to be alone.”

She said she hears stories of their worry about the future and tries to be supportive.

“OSF runs like a well-oiled machine,” Sweet said, “and right now that machine has been broken by outside forces and the engine is stalled.”

David and Carole Florian, who moved to Ashland 11 years ago, said they have been ardent supporters of OSF ever since. They characterized their reaction to the closure with one word: “Sadness.”

“OSF is a big part of our lives here — the reason, actually, that we moved to Ashland,” David Florian said. “We are worried what this disruption will do to the health of the organization.”

Carole Florian echoed her husband’s worries and expressed concern for OSF actors and company members.

“We’re reaching out to those we know at OSF to offer our support,” she said. “Our volunteer activities are naturally curtailed, but we want our OSF family to know we’re here for them.”

Festival regulars from out of town share the angst. Jim George of Wilsonville, who attended his first OSF performance in 1968, has been a member since the early 1970s.

“The closure was necessary and inevitable,” he said. “My concern is that this lasts through the fall when I am scheduled to attend. My hope is that it opens by at least June for the summer season.”

He said he renewed his membership and is willing to provide more support if asked.

For more information and frequent updates, see the festival website, osfashland.org.

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

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