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Oregon Shakespeare Festival delays season to September

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival on Friday announced it would remain dark for the next five months, laying off 80% of its staff and actors and sending a major shock through the already reeling Ashland economy.

The festival now is planning a reduced schedule of six plays, opening Sept. 8, if the virus has subsided by then. Many laid-off people would return for those plays.

OSF earlier shuttered until April 8, the earliest date when improvement might have initially been expected. The much-extended closure was critical for the health and safety of festival workers and their families — and for the liquidity and survival of OSF, said Artistic Director Nataki Garrett.

Garrett said OSF has the resources to afford to come back in the fall, and “the important part is to make sure Ashland and the region can stay alive. We live in an interdependent ecology in a small town that has built itself up because of this theater.”

Garrett said reports of COVID-19 deaths — 100 in New York in one day and 800 in Italy — drove home the point that “our response to the cash flow crunch had to be different. We had to look at how long until we ran out of money. In every theater, it’s about cash flow, not budgeting. For this theater to be open for our artists and audiences, we have to survive the cash crunch.”

Starting now, OSF will mount a $5 million Emergency Funding Campaign to address immediate cash flow problems from lost revenue, and to grow digital infrastructure and content. Fundraising will be done with supporters and donors, but also by engaging ticketholders in activities that can generate revenue, said CJ Martinez, OSF spokesman. The $5 million would help pay for the remaining activities of fiscal 2020, keeping the operation going, producing the fall season and preparing for next year’s plays.

Response to the action was immediate and dark, with hope for a brighter but much-altered future.

Ashland Mayor John Stromberg said, “The festival is going to have to reinvent itself, and that means we’ll have to reinvent ourselves too. It’s been central to our economy for many years. Our economy is not going to be viable with a short season like that. We’ve had a great run, and I hope OSF remains a viable part of our community.

“We want to continue in partnership with them, but this will be a milestone in our community — our identity, our economy, how the whole community works. They’ve got a big capital investment here in Ashland and the question is: How are they going to generate enough income to sustain it?”

Garrett made the layoff announcement Thursday “with a very heavy heart” to 474 workers on Zoom. Some will keep living in festival housing scattered throughout the community, and all will get two months of medical coverage, said an OSF statement.

The city, chamber of commerce and festival are working with state and congressional lawmakers to find stimulus funds.

“We have our lawyers and tax people working on it,” Garrett said. “We’re going to be first in line for access to emergency response funding and government unemployment insurance. We’re making sure our company makes arrangements for (workers) families.”

Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, said, “The festival will always be here, but the economy of Ashland and the U.S. will never be the same. We will rebuild, but it won’t look like it did, and it’s going to be a rocky road between now and then. However, there’s immense federal money coming in for business and employee relief. What the state is doing in concert with the federal government will relieve pain of small business — and OSF will qualify for really significant relief.”

Garrett and OSF staff have been “exploring how to save the season” since March 4, two days before opening and, being veterans of the 2018 smoke crisis, “they could see it coming. We analyzed every scenario over the last two weeks from 6 in the morning till 11 at night, and this one emerged as the best one for serving the organization and the people in the company,” she said in an interview.

Noting the big financial hit for the festival, the town and its restaurants, hotels and businesses, she said, “It’s important to be grounded in our compassion for one another” and see OSF return as soon as possible.”

From Sept. 8 through Nov. 1, OSF will present: “Bring Down the House,” parts I and II; “The Copper Children,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Peter and the Starcatcher,” with “The Tempest” opening in the festival’s outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre.

OSF canceled almost half of its plays, including “Confederates,” “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” “black odyssey,” “Everything That Never Happened,” and “Poor Yella Rednecks.” It said these might be resurrected in the future. It also scrubbed the Green Show for 2020.

The virus and festival shutdown was a torpedo to the business community, with Sandra Slattery, executive director of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, noting, “It will have a tremendous impact to many small businesses and is difficult to accept. The festival is facing a tremendous financial challenge. We haven’t experienced anything like this at OSF since World War II, when it skipped those years.

“This is all new territory for all of us. No one knows how long this is going to last and how quickly the festival can rebound. Everyone is looking for grants, all across the country. But we’ve got very creative people in this community and many other wonderful things to promote — outdoor activities, cultural amenities, wineries, culinary aspects and lots of incredible, independent retailers that don’t exist in other tourist areas.”

Longtime actor and festival icon Shirley Patton, long retired, said, “This is a sad, hard, unpredictable time for everyone,” but she feels the festival struggled for the best course, given that the future of the virus is unknown. “We’re all feeling vulnerable, so it’s important to be thoughtful in our speech and kind to each other. OSF has grown through 85 years of scary times and celebrations — and what a celebration there’ll be in September!”

Former Ashland mayor Alan DeBoer said the festival is a survivor of many challenges, though, “I’m disappointed in its board. It may be premature to make that call. It will damage the town. Restaurants depend on it and everyone downtown is struggling, deferring payments, losing jobs, which is traumatic. But one thing I know about America: everyone comes together. I just hope the politicians can — and don’t use this for their reelections.”

In its statement, OSF sent a digital signal about reinventing its platform, with “unique partnerships and new initiatives such as OSF Digital, that will explore a variety of platforms for continuing to deliver the transformative power of theater.”

COVID-19 is a game-changer, one that prompts talk of a “new paradigm” after it’s gone.

“There are so many unknowns in our country now,” Slattery said. “Changes are coming in how we travel and recreate. Fortunately, we have an incredibly beautiful place we love and that visitors love, above and beyond Shakespeare.

“We’re in the most challenging state of flux we’ve ever had. I’m confident we have very intelligent people who live and work here, and will shape the new paradigm, but it will be different. That’s the new focus. Our parents’ and grandparents’ generation lived through World War II and the Great Depression, but we haven’t had a challenge like that. We do now. As my mother always said, ‘It’s not for the faint of heart.’”

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has delayed its season opening to September in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Kim Budd