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Community rallies to support furloughed OSF employees

When the pandemic hit, Oregon Shakespeare Festival actors found themselves in a bind. Repertory theater does not offer a work-from-home option.

With the coronavirus outbreak disrupting the arts and entertainment business around the world, there was little to no work available anywhere — on stage, in the movies or on television. That was true for support staff as well — from stage managers and lighting technicians to costume and scene shop workers.

Early on, support took root in two ways. The actors rallied together to help each other. And there was support from the community — from OSF itself to patrons and friends who contributed to a GoFundMe page, organized benefit events, and supported a food pantry, community garden and jobs bank.

Elaine Sweet, a member of the OSF board, was painfully aware of the difficulties faced by those in the arts community affected by the shutdown.

“Many of our beloved actors were furloughed from their positions at OSF and filed for unemployment,” she said, “but some were waitlisted.” Sweet and her husband, Dick, tried to help by donating to a relief fund and hiring an actor to help with yard work.

The actors expected to have a full-time salary and housing through October, but about two weeks into the season, the festival was forced to shut down.

“OSF generously allowed actors to stay in company housing from March through June,” Sweet said, “even though they were no longer working for the company.”

Some long-time company members have bought homes in Ashland, but many live in company housing or rentals during the season.

A GoFundMe page was set up, asking for donations toward actor relocation and housing expenses. At this writing, more than $37,000 has been raised toward a goal of $50,000. The page is at gofundme.com/f/bgr99-help-house-an-artist.

Staying in Ashland is the most viable option for many. Some don’t have homes elsewhere. Others decided to shelter in place rather than return to cities suffering from the ongoing health crisis and related problems.

Early supporters decided to help by hosting a benefit to raise money for the cause.

After seeing the GoFundMe page, OSF patrons Kathleen Quinn and Bill Saltzstein approached OSF actor and friend Miriam Laube about working together to put on a show to raise money.

“We asked Dionne and Doug Irvine if they would loan us their space (Irvine & Roberts Vineyards) and they said, ‘When do you want it?’ and ‘How can we help?’” Laube said.

She gathered nine actors, had rehearsals in her garden with masks, music and sanitizer, and put on a benefit concert July 24 at the winery for a small and socially distant but enthusiastic crowd.

Laube and her husband, OSF actor Rex Young, have been Ashland homeowners since 2007. This was the 17th season for Laube and the 22nd for Young.

“The GoFundMe page benefits 19 households of actors and their families in Ashland,” Laube said. “Rex and I are not part of this cohort, but wanted to find a way to contribute to help our friends remain in Ashland.”

OSF SafetyNet

OSF SafetyNet is a mutual aid group composed of former OSF employees laid off due to COVID-19. It has a private Facebook group of more than 240 members and a separate email group for those not on Facebook.

“It was developed to share resources, mutual aid and information,” said Gwen Turos, SafetyNet administrator.

In addition to serving as an information hub about food, housing, transportation, health care and insurance, it’s designed to be a place where members can express their insecurities and find ways to help each other.

In early June, after hearing about pockets of resources and information, Turos was frustrated with the challenge of communicating with laid-off OSF workers.

“We were used to seeing each other on campus and using work emails (no longer available),” she said.

“So, one night I got on Facebook and launched a private group. I texted a few former co-workers and asked them to add people to the group. Having their help was crucial in establishing SafetyNet.”

SafetyNet is a collective, not an organization. It’s based on mutual aid and is run by volunteers, with administrators specializing in coordinating information on food, housing, work, transportation and maintaining the email list.

A jobs board is part of the SafetyNet service. It’s a place where people and businesses can offer temp and remote jobs, and where members can post their skills as landscapers, handypeople, tutors, etc.

People who have jobs available can email that information to OSFSafteyNet2020@gmail.com. (Note: the misspelling of Saftey in the address is intentional.)

The networking and aid effort began in earnest in May when OSF announced that the entire season was canceled.

“Some employees who had been laid off in March hadn’t yet received unemployment compensation from the state,” Turos said. “Imagine going two and a half months with no income.”

Jonathan Luke Stevens, one of about a dozen company members who came together to meet the challenge, says they have been grateful for the outpouring of support.

“The community really has stepped up to support us,” he said. “It has been inspiring and beautiful.”

Stevens found work at Irvine & Roberts. He’s thankful for that, but misses the OSF experience — the company, the energy, interacting with the audiences.

SafetyNet does not have a financial relief fund, “but we are working to put one together,” Stevens said.

The food pantry

One of the first pieces of mutual aid was a food pantry set up by Christopher Salazar and a group of fellow actors living in The Avalon, apartments serving as OSF company housing.

Sarah McKenney, a lighting technician, and Salazar run the pantry. McKenney says all members of OSF who find themselves unemployed are welcome. Besides actors, that includes stage managers, costume and scene shop workers, stagehands, concession workers, front-of-house staff, plant staff, custodial, box office — everybody.

“We are able to inform these people about the pantry through our Facebook and email groups,” she said. They have a no-contact rule, and there are never more than two people in the pantry at once. They also deliver food to people who are unable to make it to the pantry on their own.

The pantry stocks pastas, sauces, soups, snacks, frozen vegetables, tea, coffee, apple sauce, fresh fruit and produce, nuts, tuna, rice, beans, cereal, sanitary supplies — even pet food.

“Food Angels provides bruised fruits and veggies which can’t go to the food bank,” she said. “I process them, to be canned or pickled, so they can be handed out in the pantry.” Ashland Food Angels is a grassroots volunteer organization serving low-income people in the Rogue Valley.

OSF actor Daniel Parker donated a fridge for storing perishable foods. Kimberley Jean Barry, a retired veteran OSF director and stage manager, donated a freezer.

Many individuals and businesses have donated to the pantry. One of SafetyNet’s admins, concessions manager Tiffany Maude, used her contacts with OSF suppliers to acquire donations.

“We recently received a huge stock of coffee beans from GoodBean Coffee, which is what we usually served at concessions,” McKenney said.

“One of the hardest things was to convince people to take as well as give,” she said. “As soon as the program surfaced, the shelves were full of donated food. We had to remind people that it is OK to accept help.”

Community garden

A community garden space, first established on OSF property a few years ago but languishing because of people’s busy schedules (and hungry deer), was finally fully realized a few months into the pandemic.

Quy Ton, Griffin Harwood and Ray Gonzalez got permission to take over the space for a garden to benefit laid-off OSF employees who were still in town. Ton and Gonzalez are assistant stage managers, and Harwood is a lighting technician.

“It was in the midst of the George Floyd protests,” Ton said. “We each really felt the need to do something for our local community, despite the pull of the protests in bigger cities. We wanted a project we could throw ourselves into.”

It was a two-pronged effort. They wanted to provide fresh produce to help ease food insecurity for those affected by the pandemic. They also wanted to provide green space for those who wanted to garden but didn’t have the space at home.

When the word got out, donations started rolling in: plant starts, garden hoses, soil, mulch, trellises, cinderblocks and bricks.

“Some friends donated money to help with costs,” Ton said. “We used it to pay for bulk soil, a rolling composter, compost, and a timer for an irrigation system.”

It was a big shift for the trio. They suddenly went from not working to putting in six- to 10-hour shifts every day for about two weeks to get the garden going — prepping soil, constructing beds, planting, weeding.

They relied on their quarantine pod for manual labor. “It was the easiest way to organize for long days of work with the least risk for us and others,” she said.

The garden operates on a first-come, first-served basis, free for former OSF employees. Currently the garden is producing corn, squashes, melons, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, sun chokes, okra, eggplant, bell peppers, tomatillos, herbs, kale, chard, onions, broccoli and lettuce.

“Griffin and Ray have more garden experience than I have,” she said. “But I watched a lot of YouTube videos and consulted my dad on the Vietnamese herbs I was growing.”

When the garden has bumper crops and there isn’t enough demand for all the fresh produce, Sarah McKenney puts her canning and pickling skills to work, stocking food pantry shelves with sealed jars of the bounty.

These are challenging times for former OSF employees, and there still is no certainty about the future. Meanwhile, SafetyNet, by helping people connect and assist each other, has provided comfort and solace as well as sustenance.

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

Quy Ton waters plants at the community garden, a space on OSF property used to grow fresh produce for furloughed OSF employees experiencing food insecurity. Ton, an assistant stage manager, maintains the garden with others in her quarantine pod. Sarah McKenney photo.
Sarah McKenney stocks shelves at the food pantry that serves out-of-work OSF employees. A lighting technician, McKenney helps organize and manage the pantry, located at The Avalon, OSF company housing. Quy Ton photo.