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OSF announces first combined digital, live season

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival will launch a combined digital and live season March 1, nearly a year after coronavirus restrictions darkened stages in Ashland and across the country.

Among the offerings for 2021 are streaming favorites from OSF’s archives, original works on digital platform O!, and four plays onstage at OSF’s Ashland campus in the fall and winter. Live performances will extend into January for the first time.

The Green Show stage will come back to life with free concerts, dance and community performances, outdoors in the festival courtyard. The schedule will be announced in the coming weeks.

All live performances will be subject to state and county guidelines and restrictions.

With 11 plays scheduled over eight months in 2020, OSF was forced to shut down only a few weeks into its season after Gov. Kate Brown banned large gatherings due to the pandemic.

“In 2020, OSF was catapulted into different ways of creating and supporting artists and art-making,” said Nataki Garrett, OSF artistic director.

“In launching our digital platform O! nearly a year ago, the initial goal was to provide an exploratory space to intersect theater with other forms of media,” she said.

The digital platform has featured OSF original digital storytelling, interactive conversations, online classes, documentaries, audio productions — podcasts and audio recordings of past OSF productions — and audio and video programming from the OSF archives dating back to 1952.

“Now O! has evolved into a marquee fourth stage where new and innovative projects will play alongside some of OSF’s most beloved and well-known productions,” Garrett said. OSF plans to continue developing new programming for the platform.

The 2021 on-demand streaming season begins March 1. It includes a limited-run schedule of favorites from the OSF archives, beginning with “Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare, “Manahatta” by Mary Kathryn Nagle, and “Snow in Midsummer” by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig. The plays were filmed onstage in 2017 and 2018. “Julius Caesar” is the only Shakespeare work on the calendar so far, but more could be added.

OSF began filming shows in recent years in order to build an archive of plays that could be digitized.

“They were captured with multiple cameras in high definition and with exceptional sound quality,” said CJ Martinez, director of communications for OSF.

Both video and sound are of a higher quality than the two 2020 shows OSF streamed last summer shortly after O! was launched. “Those were edited from internal videos of dress rehearsals and previews,” Martinez said.

Tickets are now available for all three productions at osfashland.org. More streaming productions from the digital archive will be announced in the coming months.

David Schmitz, OSF’s new executive director, said he is excited about the combination of digital and onstage programming.

“This unique, first-ever multiformat season reflects OSF’s commitment to innovation, agility and progress,” he said. “And we are eager to get back to creating live performances when the health authority allows us to do so.”

Onstage programming includes a repertory of four productions: August Wilson’s “How I Learned What I Learned,” the West Coast premiere of Mona Mansour’s “Unseen,” the American Revolutions world premiere of Dominique Morisseau’s “Confederates,” and OSF’s first winter special, “It’s Christmas, Carol!” by Mark Bedard, Brent Hinkley and John Tufts.

The plays — slated for a fall debut — are not yet in the production process.

Due to the pandemic and uncertainties associated with it, OSF will delay announcing specific dates and ticket sales for onstage productions until there is more clarity regarding gathering and social distancing guidelines. All onstage events are subject to change.

In another undertaking, OSF has invited artists from a range of disciplines to create a short piece of digital art in response to themes drawn from the COVID acronym: Community, Offering, Vitality, Identity and Determination. Under the umbrella “19,” these micro-commissions will start to bear fruit through 2021 on O!

Artists commissioned for “19” include Christina Anderson, Scenic G/Gabriel Barrera, Kit Yan and Melissa Yi, Erika Chong Shuch, Rowena Richie, and Ryan Tacata.

OSF also has created the Visual Sovereignty Project, a new digital series featuring Indigenous artists expressing their sovereignty — tribal and personal. The project hopes to capture a small cross-section of the diversity of Indigenous people in the way they choose to share their gifts with the world.

Ticket prices and availability and more information can be found at osfashland.org.

Meeting the challenge

When OSF closed its theaters March 12 because of the pandemic, it was only two weeks after the 2020 season opened. At the time, festival leadership hoped to reopen in late April. When that couldn’t happen, OSF set its sights on a fall reopening. In May, however, the season was canceled.

Faced with its biggest crisis ever, OSF made cuts in personnel, reduced operating expenses, initiated new rounds of fundraising, and launched O!.

In the first month of the shutdown, OSF reduced its onboard staff by 80% and shuttered its Ashland campus to minimize costs. It has continued to function with only the staff and services needed to maintain and secure its facilities.

One of the first actions taken by the board of directors was to launch Dare to Dream, a peer-to-peer campaign with a fundraising goal of $5 million. Accessing the campaign via the OSF website, participants help raise money in two ways — by starting their own fundraiser among friends and social media pals with their own page on the site, or contributing to one of the funds already hosted.

Board members donated $1 million to the project and a Dare to Dream online gala in the fall raised more than $600,000. Since the launch of the campaign, OSF has adopted software that lets social media fans turn their circles of friends into circles of donors, aggregating small donations into big contributions.

The OSF development team worked with its existing donors, securing augmented commitments from many of them. They also redoubled their efforts to secure grants from corporate and government sources. Those efforts resulted in more than $500,000 in new foundation funding, and a $4.7 million grant as part of a $50 million federal relief fund package that Oregon legislators directed to arts and cultural organizations.

Patrons helped, too, by donating purchased tickets rather than asking for refunds.

In addition to the two plays streamed from the 2020 season, the new digital platform produced revenue from ticket sales to joint projects with other theater organizations, such as a series of three “Women of Broadway” performances and a new play designed for digital presentation, performed live in real time for a month.

When OSF runs its normal eight-month season, its annual operating budget is about $40 million. The budget was reduced after closing, but expenses still outran revenue.

The adopted measures have helped OSF weather the pandemic storm, and directors hope the festival will be in sound financial shape when it resumes live performances.

“But I would say meeting the challenge of the pandemic is still very much ongoing and by no means resolved,” said Martinez.

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



Streaming on O!

“Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare, streaming March 1-27, is directed by Shana Cooper. This muscular 2017 production features the signature physical storytelling of director Cooper and choreographer Erika Chong Shuch.

Shakespeare’s political thriller shows what happens to powerbrokers, honorable and not, when their motives and means lead to unexpected consequences they cannot control.

“Manahatta” by Mary Kathryn Nagle, streaming March 29-April 24, is directed by Laurie Woolery. This 2018 world premiere by celebrated playwright, activist and lawyer Nagle illuminates the tragic consequences of commercial exploits, including the removal of the Lenape people and the attempted eradication of their culture that gave rise to the America of today. This production defiantly demonstrates that the Lenape are still here.

“Snow in Midsummer” by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, streaming May 3-29, is based on a Chinese drama by Guan Hanqing, and directed by Justin Audibert. This 2018 U.S. premiere production interweaves two stories — of a young woman who curses her city from beyond the grave, and of a wealthy businesswoman who must face the parched, locust-plagued city. This modern ghost story reimagines a classic myth and explores the legacy of trauma, the heart of injustice, and the lengths to which we go for love.

For tickets and pricing, go to osfashland.org.

On Stage at OSF

Performance dates and ticket sales for onstage productions will be announced after there is more clarity regarding reopening, gathering, and social distancing guidelines. See osfashland.org for updates.

“How I Learned What I Learned” by August Wilson, directed by Tim Bond, features Steven Anthony Jones. Originally performed by Wilson, this one-man show is a heartfelt theatrical memoir charting one man’s journey of self-discovery through adversity, and what it means to be a Black artist in America. Jones, known for his work in film, television and onstage, has performed this role before.

“Unseen” by Mona Mansour is a West Coast premiere, directed by Evren Odcikin. Mia, an American conflict photographer, wakes up at the site of a massacre in Syria, not sure how she got there. With her Turkish girlfriend, Derya, and her Californian mother, Jane, Mia must slowly and painfully piece together the details of her past to find out what happened. A showcase for three actresses, “Unseen” asks what it would mean for our souls — personally and as a nation — if we were to see the impact of our actions.

“Confederates” by Dominique Morisseau is a world premiere, an American Revolutions co-commission with Penumbra Theatre, directed by Nataki Garrett. Sara, an enslaved woman turned Union spy, and Sandra, a brilliant professor in a modern-day private university, face similar struggles, though they live more than a century apart. The play leaps through time to trace the identities of two Black American women and explore the reins that racial and gender bias still hold on American systems today.

“It’s Christmas, Carol!” by Mark Bedard, Brent Hinkley and John Tufts, is OSF’s first winter season production. The three writers, who acted together in the Marx Brothers comedies “Coconuts” and “Animal Crackers” at OSF, also will act in this production. On Christmas Eve, three ghosts take miserly theater producer Carol Scroogenhouse through time and space to reckon with how she’s abandoned artistry for hollow commerciality. Whisked to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, her cousin Fred’s swinging party, and a pandemic Zombie future, will Carol find her soul with the help of these apparitions? From the twisted minds of these favorite OSF clowns, the play promises to be a silly and uplifting way to mark the holidays and celebrate OSF’s return to live performance.

“Manahatta” is one of three shows streaming on OSF’s O! platform this spring. Pictured are Steven Flores and Tanis Parenteau. Photo by Jenny Graham