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OSF, Britt seasons uncertain as state yet to address concerns

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival says it is still waiting to hear from the state to clarify social distancing guidelines. [Photo by T. Charles Erickson]
Elizabethan may open this summer if stars align

Four weeks after asking for clarity and parity, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is still waiting to hear from the state regarding concerns about COVID-19 attendance guidelines.

“We’ve heard nothing,” OSF Executive Director David Schmitz said Thursday.

While time is running out for OSF to organize its proposed schedule of live theater productions beginning this fall, the festival hopes to present something in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre this summer.

“It all depends on social distancing requirements,” Schmitz said.

If guidelines for physical distancing and sitting in family or group pods permit operating the open-air Elizabethan in an economically viable way, OSF is optimistic about being able to offer some programming there this summer.

“We are committed to trying to figure that out,” he said.

However, with regard to the fall and winter schedule, if OSF doesn’t hear from the state within the next 30 days, all bets are off.

What does OSF need from the state?

“We need clear guidelines for the future, and current guidelines don’t give us a path forward,” Schmitz said.

“We can’t open the Bowmer at 50%, which is what we’d be allowed at the ‘low risk’ level. We’d need to operate at least up to 75%,” he said.

And therein lies the rub. While entertainment venues like OSF are maxed out at 50% at that risk level, faith-based organizations are allowed up to 75% of capacity.

Event planners are asking for fair and equitable treatment. And they want a clearer definition of what a low-risk level is and what happens beyond that.

At a webinar with representatives of the governor’s office and the Oregon Health Authority March 31, Oregon events producers like OSF and the Britt Music Festival hoped to get their concerns addressed.

Participating in the online presentation were Leah Horner of the governor’s office and Dean Sidelinger, an epidemiologist with OHA.

Although they weren’t asked to provide input, event representatives were allowed to submit questions at the end of the meeting, “questions that were largely left unanswered,” said Crista Munro, executive director of the Sisters Folk Festival.

In the interim, Schmitz has tried back channels and other methods of trying to ascertain the state’s intentions, to no avail.

“There was a dialogue (with state officials) last summer,” Schmitz said, “and it was suggested there would be another. But I guess they would say that was the wrong assumption.”

Schmitz said nobody is asking for a date certain. What they want to know is what circumstances will allow them to reopen so they can do some planning.

Donna Briggs, president and CEO of the Britt Festival, echoed Schmitz’s concerns, calling the existing rules “unworkable.”

“At current capacity guidelines for operating at the low-risk level, the Britt would be able to sell only 50% of its capacity. That’s not adequate for us,” she said.

“Even with current social distancing rules, we would be able to accommodate only 605 of our capacity of 2,200. We need to sell a minimum of 1,500 tickets.”

She also sees an “apples and oranges” problem.

“We want to avoid having the state treating a 10,000-acre outdoor venue the same as a 5,000-square-foot indoor auditorium.” At one risk level, the state would restrict capacity for both venues to 250 people instead of a percentage of capacity.

Briggs says the Britt won’t be able to open in 2021 without workable guidelines by mid-summer.

The governor’s office, OHA, and the state press office did not respond to phone calls or emails for this story.

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