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Next Act: OSF & Ashland Face Unprecedented Challenges

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Laney D’Aquino at Illustrated Sandwich
The Bricks Courtyard is quiet at a time when theater patrons would normally be lining up for a matinee at the Angus Bowmer Theater.

It’s Friday night in downtown Ashland. There’s a slight scrim of haze from wildfires to the east and west, but compared to the last few years, the skies are blessedly clear.

The Plaza is bedecked with tables and chairs, giving it an airy, European feel. Couples and small groups cluster on the sidewalks. But the atmosphere is hardly typical of a weekend in late July. Gone are the throngs of theatergoers, rushing to make their dinner reservations before the plays start at 8:30. The lawn that normally hosts the Green Show is nearly empty. Most people are wearing masks.

This is the first summer without the Oregon Shakespeare Festival since World War II. The Festival, with its three theaters and eight-month season, is not only a beloved cultural tradition, but the keystone of Ashland’s tourist economy. As with so much else, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned typical upside down.

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Juliet Grable
Even with expanded outdoor dining, without the usual influx of summer tourists, many Ashland restaurants are operating well below capacity. Credit: Juliet Grable

OSF opened its 2020 season on February 28 with a preview of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That same day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the second domestic non-travel related case of COVID-19 in Washington State. On March 8, Governor Kate Brown declared a state of emergency for Oregon.

“Cast and crew were told to gather backstage after what turned out to be our last performance of Bring Down the House,” recalls Betsy Schwartz, an actor who had started her first season with OSF in January. “Our stage manager told us to stay home for the rest of the week.” Thus began what Schwarz describes as “death by a thousand paper cuts.”

This is the first summer without the Oregon Shakespeare Festival since World War II.

On March 27, OSF announced it was shrinking its season to two months starting in least September. Five productions were cut altogether.

On May 8, artistic director Nataki Garrett announced that the 2020 season was canceled. The reverberations were felt, painfully, across the community.

“When you lay off nearly 500 people in a town as small as this, you’re affecting the lives and the livelihoods of 5,000 people in the town and at least 20,000 people in the region,” says Garrett.

This year was already going to be pivotal for OSF, even without a global pandemic. The hiring of Garrett in 2019 signaled a continued commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, a course solidified during Bill Rauch’s tenure. A new executive director, David Schmitz, was coming on board. OSF was coming out of a financial crisis brought on in part by two smoky summers.

The stage had been set for a new act.

OSF Online

In a video posted on OSF’s Facebook page on July 16, actor William Thomas Hodgson sits on his back patio—physically distanced—with his neighbor, Elizabeth Fairchild, an active OSF member. They talk about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Hodgson played Demetrius, but also about the pros and cons of online theater.

“For people who want their imaginations stimulated, live theater is it,” says Fairchild. “There’s an energy there.”

True, Hodgson agrees, but notes that some of his friends balk at the financial and time commitment of live theater.

“This adventure—putting theater online—could give us more access,” says Hodgson, who is 32.

The video—and Hodgson’s “takeover” of OSF’s page—is part of O!, the Festival’s “immersive” digital platform. It includes hyperactive social media pages, an archive of video interviews, and social justice resources. (For now, there are pages for Black Liberation and LGBTQIA+ resources, with more to come.) For a time, people all over the world could stream videos of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Copper Children, two productions from the truncated 2020 season.

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Juliet Grable
OSF’s leadership hopes theatergoers will say engaged through the Festival’s online platform.

According to Garrett, the platform was first conceived with physical accessibility in mind, recognizing that some older patrons might appreciate the choice of opting out of a live play and watching it on a screen in the comfort of their lodging.

Now, the platform has taken on new relevance and urgency—a way to keep OSF on people’s radar, but also to attract new fans.

O!’s Facebook page has a clippy, casual vibe. During Out Week, a flurry of video posts celebrated Pride. For several days in July, Michael Maag, OSF’s Resident Lighting Designer and Pyrotechnician, who uses a wheelchair, took over the feed, posting photos in celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disability Act.

Typically, OSF patrons are older, wealthy, highly educated people from the Bay Area or Seattle. According to the Ashland Chamber, 64% of ticket buyers enjoyed annual household incomes greater than $100,000.

If OSF is to survive, that will have to change.

“We’re hearing that something like 50% of what they like to call the “status quo” theater audience is not coming back,” says Garrett. Older patrons who are at higher risk for COVID-19 may not feel safe about being in a theater with hundreds of other audience members, if and when live theatre returns to Ashland.

In Garrett’s view, OSF’s future rests on cultivating a new audience.

“If I think about the greatest divide in the American theater, it’s age diversity,” says Garrett. “If I can break the age diversity divide, I can break every other diversity divide, because the generations outside the status quo generation are diverse in every way you can imagine.”

She believes part of the problem is how organizations like OSF connect with potential patrons. Unlike OSF’s established audience, younger people generally don’t care about membership and subscriptions. “They just want to come and see the work,” Garrett says.

The key is helping this newer, younger, more diverse audience feel they have a place, and convincing older, seasoned OSF patrons they have a role to play in helping newcomers feel welcome.

Then there are the plays. This year’s lineup, chosen by Garrett’s predecessor, Bill Rauch, illustrates a commitment to diverse and underrepresented voices, with productions like black odyssey and The Confederates, which Garrett was slated to direct, and Bring Down the House, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays featuring an all-female (and female-presenting) cast.

The fate of the 2020 productions remains to be seen, but the O! platform is here to stay.

“It’s a way for people to connect to us, to see some of the work on our stages, to fall back in love with our beloved acting company, and maybe, to have a moment of grace,” Garrett says.

For better or worse, online is how we gather—for now, and for the indefinite future.

Pivoting

Patina Soul, a women’s boutique tucked into a small building on East Main, is stocked with casual styles selected to appeal to Ashland moms and college students. Owner Catherine Wallner opened Patina in 2009, just as Oregon was starting to emerge from the depths of the Recession. She made some smart business decisions early on, targeting locals and choosing a less expensive space off of Main Street.

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Juliet Grable
Businesses like Patina Soul have implemented measures to keep their staff and customers safe.

Even so, Wallner says two smoke-filled summers and a leaky roof which forced her to close for a few weeks last year left little in reserve when the pandemic hit.

“The two months starting in mid-March were the most stressful period of my life,” says Wallner. She navigated the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster loan process, not knowing when or if she was going to be able to re-open or whether she would have to let her staff of five go.

The PPP, along with two months of abated rent from her landlord, has kept her business afloat. Most local business and restaurant owners are in the same boat and feeling the same collective nausea, which has fostered a “we’re all in this together” mentality—for now.

Sandra Slattery, Executive Director for the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, has logged dozens of hours on Zoom calls with local, regional, and state-wide groups, sharing information, advocating for Ashland’s business community, and hammering out plans for each new phase of reopening.

“We had to pivot 180 degrees in an instant,” says Slattery. She describes keeping up with and disseminating the latest information “like trying to grab Jell-O.”

Landlords lowered rents. Restaurants retooled. Locals ordered take-out—lots of it. But will the collaborative spirit fade once the benefits that have been propping up local businesses and household budgets throttle back, or disappear?

If there’s consensus about anything, it’s the need to diversify beyond a business model that relies on hordes of tourists descending on Ashland during the summer months.

“We have seen the flash of lightning, but we’re only just starting to hear the thunder,” says Stephen Sloan, founder of the Humane Leadership Institute. Since March, he has been meeting with a group of people, including business owners, non-profit leaders, and representatives from Southern Oregon University (SOU) and the Chamber every Thursday to brainstorm ways to soften the blow from the coming economic and social crisis.

If there’s consensus about anything, it’s the need to diversify beyond a business model that relies on hordes of tourists descending on Ashland during the summer months.

OSF and Ashland’s economy have been inexorably linked for decades. According to the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, Ashland sees 350,000 visitors every year. A good third of them are here for the OSF. The Festival, in turn, supports a spectrum of local businesses—restaurants, bed and breakfast inns, motels, boutiques, but also wineries and rafting outfitters.

And yet, outdoor and culinary attractions draw as many tourists as the Festival. Southern Oregon University (SOU), the City of Ashland, and Asante Ashland Community Hospital employ many, and light manufacturing, film, and technology are growing sectors.

Steve Rice, who closed the Outdoor Store after two bad snow years and two smoky summers, says landlords are about to face a rude awakening. Four large retail spaces are currently vacant downtown, and more attrition seems inevitable.

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Credit: Juliet Grable
Steve Rice closed the Outdoor Store in 2019 after two years of dampened sales due to wildfire smoke and poor snow.

Rice, who is part of Sloan’s Thursday group, speculates that landlords will have to lower rents permanently. If that happens, professionals might be lured back, which could add a welcome dose of normalcy to a downtown that has for some become too precious.

If the pandemic has done anything, it’s to demonstrate that more work can take place virtually than was conceivable. According to Sloan, businesses that have fared well, like Websters, Fun Again Games, and the Ashland Fly Shop, are those with a storefront but that also do plenty of sales “out the back door” through online platforms.

While launching short-term efforts to create economic vitality—the hope behind the cordoned-off plaza and outdoor dining—the Chamber has also applied for a grant with City of Ashland and SOU to develop a long-term economic development strategy based on the changing demographics of people visiting and moving to Ashland.

“Without the Festival, we’re seeing a different customer; a younger, more active individual,” says Slattery. These visitors are more focused on the outdoors and culinary experiences, but they’re also attracted to small-town living. The Chamber is seeing a significant uptick in people wanting to relocate from large metro areas, and not just from long-time OSF attendees looking to retire. “Now we’re seeing people who can telecommunicate from somewhere like the Bay area looking around and saying, I could live anywhere,” says Slattery.

Just as people can move to Ashland for the quality of life and bring their jobs with them, local companies can consider hiring outside the talent pool of Ashland or the greater Rogue Valley. But while $500,000 homes might be attractive to tech transplants, what about those who don’t command Silicon Valley salaries?

In Sloan’s view, a critical key to building resilience is circulating dollars more locally and creating living-wage jobs here.

“For the last 20 years, we’ve focused on globalization,” he says. “Now there’s a motion for re-localization.” One of the projects Sloan is working on in partnership with SOU and others is Ashland Works Innovation Lab, an incubator centered around an internship program and curriculum that cultivates leaders. Students can work with existing businesses or help launch new ones; the goal is to create new living-wage jobs while meeting “unmet essential needs” in the local community.

As welcome as all of these efforts are, there’s no denying the current reality. In 2019, OSF had a statewide impact of $40 million. Ashland retailers, restaurateurs, and innkeepers are collectively holding their breath, waiting to see how the pandemic trends, knowing Ashland’s short-term economic fate hinges on OSF’s.

Toward a more sustainable OSF

For Muriel Mangual, who works as First Hand in OSF’s costume shop, housing has been an issue since she first received her offer letter three years ago.

“I was warned to start looking right away,” she says, recalling the stress of apartment searching from thousands of miles away. She secured an apartment at a “college complex” near SOU; today, she lives in a trailer park.

Mangual, who is Afro-Latina, admits to culture shock upon moving to Ashland from the ethnically diverse East Coast. For her, the job represented stability after years of dues paying: working short-term summer stock contracts with no health insurance, moving frequently, and crashing with her mom between gigs.

Master Stitcher Jeanne Legrand, who has been with OSF for 28 years, is happy to have witnessed changes that are making her chosen career more sustainable, especially for her younger coworkers. Costuming and sewing was and is still seen as women’s work, Legrand explains.

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Lito-John Hechanova Demetita
First Hand Muriel Mangual (left) and Master Stitcher Jeanne Legrand are colleagues in OSF’s costume shop.

“When I first arrived there, I was so happy to have a job,” she recalls. “But a lot of us also felt like, why aren’t we making as much as the scenic carpenters?”

Talk of unionizing the costume department has come up three separate times since the 1990s. Each time, wages improved. Legrand says she and her colleagues also enjoy competitive health and retirement benefits.

Still, “I’ve always wanted a union here,” says Legrand. “I think it lends a lot of organization and fairness to the department.” Because the costume department was split on whether or not to unionize, they did not participate in the most recent vote, in June of 2015, which created International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 154. This union represents about 75 OSF employees in five stagecraft departments: wigs, wardrobe, lighting, sound, and stage operations. These technicians are also known as the “run crew.”

Local 154 President Amanda Sager, who is also an audio engineer for OSF’s Sound department, says the union contract helps protect employees who work physically demanding jobs and ensures their benefits don’t evaporate during budget crises.

“Rotating rep is great for visitors wanting to see several plays over a long weekend, but the schedule is intensely challenging for the actors, directors, and people behind the scenes,” Sager says.

Sager became involved in the unionizing process six years ago. As people in different departments started talking with each other, they learned of disparities in how people in one department were treated compared to another. This new awareness led to a sense of solidarity.

After a lengthy but transparent process, Local 154’s contract with OSF was finalized in June of 2016.

“I’m 33 and my partner in crime, Courtney Cunningham, who is our business agent, is probably 35,” says Sager. “We’re young women who did this thing together along with a rowdy bunch of stage hands.”

The union has made things more equitable for employees—especially women in the early stages of their careers.

Like Legrand, Sager says that there is too often a tacit expectation that you should be grateful just to have a job, especially in male-dominated arenas such as lighting and sound. The union can advocate for them and make sure they receive the pay and benefits commensurate with their experience.

Local 154 was in the process of bargaining their first successor agreement with OSF when COVID hit. They have taken a hiatus from bargaining; however, they were able to negotiate a letter of agreement that guaranteed benefits as they were laid off, including two additional months of health insurance and access to OSF’s employee assistance program. The letter also includes guarantees on benefits and working conditions when they return to work. Union members will have their sick time bank and vacation accrual rates reinstated upon being rehired; they will also have the first right to their jobs before someone outside the union can be recruited. Relocation expenses for some will be covered.

Meanwhile, many company members are living in limbo. Most qualified for the extra $600 a week in federal aid through the CARES Act; however, that benefit ended July 31.

Contracted actors, who are usually provided housing for the season, saw their housing benefits extended through June 1 after the season was cancelled. Some, like Schwartz, have entered short-term rental contracts with OSF.

She and her husband Peter rented out their Seattle home when they moved to Ashland in January.

“We don’t have a house to go back to,” Schwartz explains. “Besides, Ashland is quite lovely.” Though still getting used to the nonchalant wildlife, they are relishing the small-town vibe—and the relatively low COVID numbers. She is pursuing voice work while Peter work carpentry jobs.

Mangual is also hunkered down, with no plans to leave Ashland. No one in her industry is hiring, and her mother has told her not to come home.

“That may sound harsh, but the numbers in New Jersey are not good and I would be going back to an area that’s more densely populated,” she explains.

Like everyone else, she’s trying to stay safe, and waiting.

Leading the way

Let’s pan back. Here we are, during an election year, at the intersection of a global pandemic, the #MeToo movement, and Black Lives Matter, with an Oregon Shakespeare Festival under new leadership determined to steer the ship on a sustainable course in an Ashland that had already begun to think about diversifying beyond its anchor attraction.

The question on everyone’s mind, of course, is the fate of the 2021 season.

According to CJ Martinez, OSF’s Communications Director, a live season is contingent upon the availability of a successfully produced and distributed vaccine and manageable and available treatment for COVID-19. Any decision to reopen will be informed by the federal government and health authorities and Governor Brown’s mandates for Oregon.

Garrett feels the weight of this responsibility, not only to help save OSF, but to do so on behalf of the greater ecosystem in which OSF resides.

Otherwise, she says, “Where are people going to sleep and where are they going to eat and where are they going to enjoy themselves when they’re not in a theater?”

Garrett will not have to do this work alone. As I write this, David Schmitz and his family are likely en route to Ashland from Chicago. Schmitz is leaving his post as Executive Director of Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago to take the reins as Executive Director at OSF. While Garrett is responsible for the artistic programming at OSF, Schmitz’ purview is finance and operations, including fundraising and marketing.

OSF has had its share of financial woes in recent years. The Festival lost nearly $6 million and in 2017 and 2018 and laid off staff both years, in large part because of dampened tourism from wildfire smoke. In 2018, the smoke forced OSF to cancel and/or move 26 performances from the Elizabethan Theater. The next year, they were ready with contingency plans for smoky days and a trimmed operating budget.

Now, revenues have plummeted to essentially nothing. Shortly after the shutdown in March, OSF launched the Dare to Dream campaign to help the organization survive and plan for 2021 and beyond. (People can donate directly or host campaigns on behalf of OSF. As of this writing, the campaign has raised close to half of the $5 million goal.) On July 14, the Oregon legislators agreed to funnel $50 million in federal coronavirus relief to arts and cultural organizations across the state. OSF received $4.7 million.

Schmitz will have his work cut out for him. His first task? A lot of listening.

“I’m really interested in understanding how OSF supports the community and how the community supports OSF, and how we can turn all of that up to benefit both sides,” he says.

Even before the pandemic, Garrett had tagged Schmitz as the person who could help the organization transform. Now, that charge has only become more urgent.

“I’m looking at, how do I create a container for OSF that allows it to be viable and necessary 85 years from now?” says Garrett. She believes that together, she and Schmitz can begin to shape this concept into something solid.

I remember the profound sadness I felt upon hearing the news, back in March, that OSF’s 2020 season was going to be postponed. I’ve lived in the area for over 20 years and have always considered OSF to be the heart of Ashland. But as so often happens, I had begun taking that heart for granted.

Writing this story gave me the chance to contemplate what richness the Oregon Shakespeare Festival brings to Ashland—not only the Green Shows, live performances, and tourist income, but the social richness it cultivates through the actors, directors, technicians, and artisans who create the work; the volunteers and visitors who support it, the students it educates, and the many businesses and industries it helps sustain.

I was struck by the sense of optimism I felt from Garrett, Schmitz, and nearly everyone else I spoke with. And yet, I don’t want to downplay the fear, the anxiety, and inevitable fallout from the pandemic and lost live season—and hopefully it’s just one.

Like any ecosystem, OSF and Ashland will thrive because of the diversity and interrelationships that make it resilient; but like any ecosystem, it must evolve, responding to the shocks and challenges that come its way.

I would not presume to speculate how this drama will unfold. All I can say is I’m invested in the characters, and I’m looking forward to the next act.

Juliet Grable is a freelance writer who has lived in the Ashland area for 20 years. She currently lives in the Greensprings with her husband Brint and menagerie of animals.