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OSF actors cope with the pandemic

Like anybody whose job has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, Oregon Shakespeare Festival actors have had to be resourceful, creative and willing to accept help when offered.

It’s been a time of stress, financial pain and uncertainty. A time of doubt, loss and vulnerability. But a time, also, of appreciating the little things that nurture and sustain, and a time to be grateful for the kindness and generosity of others.

We checked in on some of the OSF actors who make Ashland their home to see how they’re coping with the effects of the pandemic. They miss the theater profoundly, but are generally upbeat and optimistic about the future.

Participating in the conversation were Kate Mulligan, Amy Lizardo, Jonathan Luke Stevens, Miriam Laube and Christopher Salazar.

Q: What was the biggest challenge for you when OSF shut down?

Lizardo: The first was the loss of a job. I was so looking forward to being a part of the Lizzie (Elizabethan) season. I have yet to appear on the Lizzie stage. Second was the fear of loss of housing. But thanks to wonderful outreach, my side hustle, and unemployment benefits, I have been able to spend the last few months here.

Stevens: When we knew OSF was not returning in the fall, we very quickly realized that would mean a lot of displaced actors and artists would be struggling for the indefinite future. But as we all individually reached out to each other, we realized we could come together and do something about it.

Mulligan: My biggest challenge was coming back to Ashland. I had chosen not to return for the 2020 season. With my son in college and the support of my wonderful husband, OSF actor Brent Hinkley, I was in the midst of pursuing my dream of living in New York. Great timing, right?

Laube: Grief was a challenge. Lots of sadness at the loss — not just of OSF, but of theater as an industry. The other incredibly huge challenge is the loss of community. I miss my fellow actors and artisans tremendously, seeing everyone on a daily basis. I also miss our incredible audiences. For the last eight years, my husband, Rex, and I hosted a program we called “The Coffees” where we interviewed members of the company. On average, we had a community of 75 local donors attend each program.

Salazar: Many of us have experienced delays of several months in receiving unemployment benefits, and food scarcity was of growing concern. Both were challenging.

Q: In what ways did you cope with losing your job?

Laube: We are surviving on unemployment and savings, the odd Zoom theater project, and some socially distant, very small live concerts. Losing the $600 per week from the original CARES Act is a huge deal for us. When I wake up at 4 in the morning, I think about how Rex and I chose this life and have tried to live happily and responsibly within our means and save when we can. But the thought that we could lose all we worked so hard for, that we might have to sell our house, is heartbreaking.

Lizardo: Soon after filing for unemployment, I reconnected with my colleagues in the Bay Area and started to teach remotely. I was offered a short-term gig to teach from Arena Stage in Washington D.C. Now I am back on unemployment while trying to find as many one-off singing, acting and assistant directing gigs as I can.

Salazar: A chance invitation to volunteer with friends at the Ashland Emergency Food Bank provided a great model to emulate. A group discussion about how we can help each other soon followed, and the idea of an OSF food pantry was floated. Then came the first donation, an amazingly generous midsize sedan’s backseat full of food and household goods from OSF actor Danforth Comins and his wife, Shannon Park, who is a licensed clinical social worker in the Rogue Valley. The goods were placed in the room that eventually became the food pantry. No one in our community has to go without.

Mulligan: I cope with my stress and disappointment with a lot of physical activity and the gratitude that I had somewhere safe to land. We have an acre of land, so I’ve been clearing out a lot of blackberries. Most days find me covered in scratches and blackberry stain. I run for miles in these beautiful hills to keep my anxiety in check. And I read and listen, to better educate myself to be a voice against racial disparity in our country. I work part-time recording audiobooks, and when not working, I rely on unemployment insurance.

Q: Do you and other actors get together socially or artistically during the pandemic?

Laube: Yes. Like Shakespeare’s company, we live and work together. Danforth Comins and his wife, Shannon Park, are our neighbors. We share dinners and adventures, fears and love, tears and joys. Al Espinosa and Kate Hurster are also close by. So too are Amy Waschke and Moses Villarama. We have a large backyard where we have socially distant cocktails once a week. I also have worked with Matt Goodrich, Michal Palzewicz, Royer Bockus and Cedric Lamar on some music. We’ve done a few small private outdoor socially distant concerts. I have been on many walks with Vilma Silva. And Eddie Lopez is my go-to for most any kind of video, hiking or food adventure.

Lizardo: I am so fortunate to live in actor housing. My germ pod consists of all the people who live in The Avalon in Ashland. We are able to barbecue, play games and socialize without fear.

Mulligan: I see very few people. My family takes this pandemic extremely seriously. We want to get back to our lives of education and employment, but we have to keep the COVID curve down, listen to the scientists, wear a mask in public, and stay home.

Stevens: Some of us get together. Safely, of course. We’re family. People have started bands, picked up art projects, done Zoom play readings. A few of us have even gone into Lithia Park and played around, running scenes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” while scrambling through the trees.

Q: What do you miss the most with the theaters closed?

Stevens: I miss the community — the people and the company. I miss seeing Ashland alive with energy. I miss the after-show tradition of gathering at Martino’s across the bricks and decompressing with laughter, food and drink.

Mulligan: I miss the deep bonds of friendship and family that are formed in a rehearsal room and in running a show. We go through a lot together. We love, we argue, we uplift, we disagree. But we come together as a company with a shared vision of bringing our best selves to work every day.

Lizardo: I miss creating art with people in person. It really is a magical realm we get to live in.

Laube: I miss standing on the Elizabethan stage and feeling a cool breeze sweep through the theater. I miss the daily dressing room chats, the place where we discuss everything, the sacred and the profane. I miss the smell of the Bowmer green room, hearing a show over the speakers, seeing the crowded bricks at 7:30 p.m. on a weeknight full of people going to the theater.

Q: What has given you the most consolation during COVID-19 times?

Lizardo: As a teaching artist, the most gratifying experience has been to continue cultivating young minds and creating lovers of theater.

Salazar: It is heartening to see how we can care for each other, and it’s encouraging to see the food pantry help so many in need.

Stevens: Seeing the way everyone has stepped up to help out in any way they can is a prime example of the power of company and community.

Mulligan: Seeing how far one person will go to help another has been the most beautiful part of the shutdown. People I know and love have shared their homes, their bank accounts and their resources. It gives me hope.

Laube: Three things have kept me going during these times. Our garden, which hadn’t been used much since we spent most of our summer time at the theater, has become our oasis. It gives us space to breathe and create, to grow and share. Secondly, I have finally had the time to explore and enjoy the incredible hiking trails in the Rogue Valley, and have found a new appreciation for the beauty of this place. And, finally, making music gives me a place to pour my energies. It suffuses me with hope and strength. And it reminds me of the power of art to transform fear into courage, anger into love, and ideas into action.

You can reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Jonathan Luke Stevens, a furloughed OSF actor, found work at Irvine & Roberts Vineyards. Preparing to start the day, he opens a bottle of Chardonnay for tastings. Nicole Gullixson photo.
Christopher Salazar shows off an eggplant harvested from the community garden. The actor helped establish the food pantry. Both are lifelines for furloughed OSF employees. Sarah McKenney photo.