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Beyond Smoke: Deficits, High Turnover Challenge Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Jirawat Ouicharoen

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a really big deal, not just in Southern Oregon, but nationally.

Here’s what NBC Radio had to say about it back in 1966:

Currently listed in most calendars of international events, the Oregon Shakespearean Festival attracts audiences and performers from many parts of the world to its open air stage house located between the Cascades and Siskiyous in Southern Oregon.

Today, more than 300,000 people travel to Ashland to watch an OSF performance during its eight-month-long schedule. That’s a lot of foot traffic for a small city of about 22,000 people.

So when locals heard that the company suffered a $2-million hit last summer, they took notice. OSF pinned its losses on wildfire smoke, which filled the skies for weeks last summer. It subsequently laid off 16 employees.

Then its executive director announced she wouldn’t renew her contract, effectively quitting her position.

Artististic Director Bill Rauch has a term for what the nonprofit is going through.

"That’s growing pains of a vibrant and successful organization,” Rauch said.

This is Rauch’s last season with OSF after accepting a new position in New York City.  Rauch helped grow OSF to what it is today, performing modern versions of Shakespeare plays, introducing musicals, and hiring more employees of color.

During his tenure, OSF has also frequently spent more than it’s earned. It has had operational deficits in five of the last seven years.

When I asked Rauch about the deficits, he  explained that many nonprofits have deficit years. That’s just the nature of mission-driven work.

“The goals of a nonprofit organizations are different from a for profit organization,” Rauch said. “OSF does not exist to make money. OSF exists to change people's lives through the power of live performance.”

OSF is looking to fill its top two positions this year, including Rauch’s position. In fact, it’s seen a lot of leadership turnover in recent years, including its director of development, director of finance, chief financial officer, company manager, and director of human resources, to name a few.


When OSF stagehands returned to work to prepare this season, they arrived to low morale following last year’s layoffs and incessant smoke. OSF had to cancel a record 25 performances, and it moved many others from the outdoor Elizabethan theater to an indoor theater at the Ashland High School.

Stagehand Amanda Sager says that last summer her team awoke every morning not knowing where they would be that day, or how long they were going to work.

“For the crews who went into about two months of overtime and doubletime, it didn’t feel like we had management leading us through this,” Sager said. “It felt like we the crew were carrying this through.”

Sager is the president of the stagehands union, which she helped form in 2015 partly due to working conditions. While other employees were protected indoors, the stagehands had to work outside in the smoke.

“That was something that really hit us in a very real way, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally,” Sager said.

OSF administrators didn’t show much enthusiasm about its stagehands joining a union and held forums with employees to discuss alternatives. When I asked Rauch about that, an OSF spokesman monitoring the interview stepped in.

REPORTER: Do you know if OSF invested any money in preventing the union from forming? RAUCH: Wow, you’re just trying to be hard-hitting with your questions today, aren’t you? SPOKESMAN: Again, April, that’s more of a question from the executive director’s side of things.

OSF doesn’t have an executive director right now; it has an interim director, who has been on the job for less than a month.

Sager says all of this — the deficits, the high turnover, the chaotic smoky summers — are reflective of a company that needs a better plan.

“Removing the fire and smoke season conversations, yes that’s a big part of it, but there’s another part of it which is strategically planning your budget,” Sager said.

But board chair Gail Lopes says OSF has a better plan. It began outlining a new business model well before the layoffs.

“At the same time that we eliminated and consolidated some positions, going into the future, we’re going to actually be doing some new hiring, and we’re doing that particularly in the areas of a staff that are responsible for revenue generation,” Lopes said.

So, OSF will start focusing more on donations. Lopes says this just might strengthen its finances. With that and the new leadership, there’s no telling how these changes will affect what people see on stage, or how they will impact the economy of a small town that relies on its success. 


In the interest of full disclosure: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival provides underwriting funding to Jefferson Public Radio.

April Ehrlich is JPR content partner at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Prior to joining OPB, she was a regional reporter at Jefferson Public Radio where she won a National Edward R. Murrow Award.