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OSF sets stage for resurgent 2021

Despite the uncertainty and sense of crisis that pervade many aspects of life during the pandemic, optimism can be found in the performing arts community, expressed by creative new ways to perform and hopeful plans for the future.

There’s a notion that all is going to turn out well.

That’s the feeling you get when you talk to leadership of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which marks its 85th year July 2. It’s rooted in more than eight decades of history and achievement, and in the ways OSF is meeting the challenge.

For 18 months, Paul Christy has been the acting executive director while the board has embarked on a search for a new director. Christy came to OSF after retiring as chief operating officer of the U.S. Small Business Administration, where he oversaw 3,000 employees in 300 locations. He brought four decades of management experience to the organization.

David Schmitz will come on board Sept. 1 as OSF’s fourth executive director. He has worked for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company for the past 15 years in a variety of roles, currently as executive director. He will focus on enhancing the role of philanthropy in the organization while overseeing all administrative functions.

Nataki Garrett was hired as OSF’s sixth artistic director in 2019, bringing directing, producing and management experience to the job, along with a passion for fostering and developing new work.

Backing these executives is an experienced, active board of directors chaired by Diane Yu. A lawyer, Yu works at New York University at the Manhattan and Abu Dhabi campuses. For 15 years she was chief of staff and deputy to the president of NYU, then was deputy president for three years.

An example of something new this year is OSF’s launch of O!, a digital engagement platform for information, documentaries, classes, conversations, and performances. While functioning as a connective bridge to OSF’s work during the pandemic, it is designed to become an ongoing part of the festival’s programmatic efforts.

O!’s new streaming service will begin offering full-length video recordings of festival plays, playable on most devices. Viewers can see “The Copper Children” July 2 through July 15 and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” July 9 through July 22. The on-demand ticket is priced at $15 and is good for 48 hours. Go to osfashland.org and click on “Streaming Online” for information and how to purchase tickets.

Yu says closure less than two weeks after opening was more than disappointing.

“It broke my heart because of the severe disruptions it caused in the lives of our company members and the entire region,” she said.

“Our leadership team has been working incredibly hard ever since. I am grateful to Nataki Garrett and Paul Christy for their relentless attention to OSF’s needs and future plans.”

She expressed confidence in Schmitz.

“He is a consummate professional,” she said. “He has impressive experience in all phases of theater management.”

Yu heads a diverse board composed of 16 women and 18 men — 10 among them who identify as Black or indigenous persons of color. She says the board is committed to a robust future for OSF. She joined the board in 2014.

OSF’s mission incorporates four major components: excellence, company, inclusion and stewardship.

“From the first time I saw plays when I was a Berkeley law student to the beginning of this year’s curtailed season, I knew that excellence was the touchstone,” she said.

She said she feels the energy of the company in the vigor of actors and backstage crews who bring the plays to life. She said she’s seen firsthand how inclusion is embodied in the culture of the festival, and in the way OSF values diversity, equity and access.

“And stewardship,” she said, “entails the fiduciary responsibility and oversight that the board has, and our support for the leadership who directly manage the artistic and operational people, processes and outcomes of the festival.”

To that end, members of the board have contributed their time, experience, expertise and encouragement, and have donated $1 million to OSF’s Dare to Dream fundraising project, a campaign that so far has raised more than $2.2 million.

“We are going broader and deeper,” she said, “involving the whole community in our development efforts.”

Dare to Dream, with a goal of raising $5 million, was launched in March. It has resulted in contributed income from 3,261 ticket donors (32,333 tickets donated), 3,171 relief fund donors, and 1,269 early renewed members. To participate, see osfashland.org and click on “donate.”

Shutting down the festival two weeks into the 2020 season resulted in a dramatic loss of revenue. The board is working with the staff to address options in terms of reopening the theaters, and to focus their work on the things that are crucial at a time of financial crisis.

“We are striving to be more nimble in our decision-making,” Yu said, “and more effective in our partnership with leadership. The difficulty is trying to plan in the midst of the unprecedented and unpredictable nature of the pandemic and the government and societal responses to it.”

Acting Executive Director Paul Christy noted some of the measures that have been taken to match expenses with reduced revenues.

“We have been prudent since following Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s executive orders on social distancing and occupancy limits back in March,” he said. “We reduced onboard staff by 80% that month, and we have shuttered our Ashland campus in order to minimize costs.”

OSF is now functioning with only the staff and services needed to maintain and secure its facilities while planning for resumption of activity next year.

“We’ll be watching closely for epidemiological reports on a ‘second wave’ and what that means for not only Southern Oregon but the entire West Coast,” Christy said. “We’re mindful that three-quarters of our patrons travel more than 100 miles to visit Ashland and OSF.”

Christy says leadership is upbeat about the ideas they are finalizing for live performances in 2021.

“We will ensure an exciting, lively lineup for patrons when we resume onstage,” he said. “We’re also taking the time now to review our back-office processes that can smooth the patron experience.”

OSF is re-engineering its website for fast access and ticketing, with the goal of being able to sell tickets as soon as shows are announced, rather than at preset sales “windows.”

“We’ve also been very pleased with the new types of social media fundraising that have arisen during this stay-at-home period,” Christy said. “We’ve adopted software that lets social media fans turn their circles of friends into circles of donors, aggregating small donation amounts into big contributions. Word-of-mouth is a powerful marketing tool.”

In addition to board members digging into their own pockets for contributions and pledges, they’re also participating directly in fundraising appeals. Yu sent out an email asking for donations. Other directors are making similar efforts.

“We are leaving no stone unturned,” Yu said. “We seek funds from individuals, foundations, state and national governmental entities, loan programs, corporations and other sources that become available.”

Those efforts to date have resulted in more than $500,000 in confirmed new foundation funding — $245,000 from the Shubert Foundation; $200,000, Oregon Community Foundation; $35,000, Jackson Foundation; and $25,000, Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust. OSF is in the application phase for an additional $2 million from other regional and national foundations.

The absence of productions this year translates to absence of earned income, but Yu is optimistic.

“I have no doubt that together the leadership team will be able to forge a pathway for OSF that will lead us on an upward trajectory in 2021 and beyond,” Yu said.

“Our friends should be prepared for some things to look different in the future, but the top quality and commitment to diversity and inclusion will still be there. We are here to stay,” she said.

An example of something new this year is OSF’s launch of O!, a digital platform for information, documentaries, classes, conversations and performances. Find it at osfashland.org/digital.

Christy notes that OSF has weathered disruption before — during World War II, during the engineering repair of the Bowmer Theatre, during smoky skies. “And we will always maintain our commitment to bring award-winning theater to audiences,” he said.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Bob Palermini photoOregon Shakespeare Festival Board of Directors Chair Diane Yu speaks at an Artistic Director's Circle event. ADC is composed of members who contribute $25,000 and above in support of OSF.