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Ashland Braces For Economic Fallout From Extended Shakespeare Closure

Oregon Shakespeare Festival
A 2006 performance of the Importance of Being Earnest at OSF's Angus Bowmer Theatre.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced on Friday their 2020 season will be further postponed until the fall and they’ve laid off the majority of their staff. The decisions will have major effects on the town of Ashland, as well as the rest of Southern Oregon.

Amid the growing public health crisis and Oregon’s current shelter at home order banning gatherings, OSF Artistic Director Nataki Garrett acknowledged the decision to cancel their summer shows was a financial one.

“Part of the reason why we’re facing these layoffs and this closure is that we have to make sure that we have enough cash to extend us through to the fall season so that we can build to the spring season,” Garrett said in an interview on JPR’s Jefferson Exchange.

The theater company laid off approximately 80% of it’s 500 employees. An abbreviated season including six of their 11 plays is now planned to start on September 8th. It will include Bring Down the House, Parts I and II; The Copper Children; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Peter the Starcatcher and The Tempest. The remaining six productions are planned to run Sept. 8--Nov. 1.

OSF is one of the biggest economic drivers in Southern Oregon’s tourism-dependent economy. The closure will have impacts on a constellation of local industries that surround the world-famous festival.

“When Shakespeare doesn’t start until September, this whole year gets lost, and you could lose a lot of business in just that,” said Ashland Mayor, John Stromberg.

Ashland’s downtown main street is almost entirely made up of small, independent businesses, Stromberg says, most of which make the majority of their money in the summertime.

“They depend on Shakespeare drawing people here,” he said.

The declining tourism dollars will create economic ripple effects beyond the hospitality industry, including businesses that service hotels and restaurants from food suppliers to accountants according to Sandra Slattery, the executive director of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce.

“A lot of people think ‘Well, I’m not connected to business or I’m not connected to tourism.’ But really, they are,” Slattery said.

One example is the City of Ashland which gets significant revenue from the meals and lodging taxes paid in large part by tourists.

“We as a community rely on having a pretty well-supported infrastructure and that has to be paid for,” Slattery said. “If you don't have a business sector that’s paying for a lot of those costs, then that’s going to have to be shared by someone.”

Members of the Ashland theater community were also shocked by a shutdown unfolding across their entire industry.

“Every single one of us in a matter of hours or weeks has found ourselves unemployed,” said Amanda Sager, president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Local 154 and an audio engineer with OSF.

With uncertainty about the theater’s budget and federal financial relief programs, as well as a rapidly increasing global health crisis, Sager says there’s no guarantee that all theater staff will have their jobs in the fall. But she says her union’s goal is to bring back as many crew members as possible.

“Right now, I think people are trying to figure out what’s best for them while waiting for the stimulus packages to arrive,” Sager said.

OSF has begun asking patrons to convert pre-purchased tickets into donations to help them reduce financial losses. Along with the announcement of the summer closure, they also began a $5 million emergency funding campaign to help pay for operating and production costs of the 2020 season, develop new initiatives and prepare for next year.

According to Mayor Stromberg, Ashland relies on around 350,000 tourists coming to the town of 21,000 each year for the local budget to pencil out. The Shakespeare festival, he says, relies on a nearly year-round season of plays.

However, the festival and the industries and municipalities that depend on it were already weakened from several years of closures and cancellations due to wildfire smoke.

Shocks like these are signs that both the theater and the town need to rethink their models, Stromberg says.

“Shakespeare has to rethink it. We clearly have to rethink how our whole economy is going to work here.”

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.