The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland has been having a rough time in the pandemic. In March 2020, after shutting down all three of its theaters, the nationally recognized festival laid off nearly 85 percent of its 500 staffers. Except for a few virtual performances, its stages have been dark ever since.
In February, though, the festival announced it would re-open this fall with three shows: August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned, directed by Tim Bond; Mona Mansour’s unseen, directed by OSF Associate Artistic Director Evren Odcikin; and Dominique Morisseau’s Confederates, directed by OSF Artistic Director Nataki Garrett. Those three shows would be followed by a December spoof on A Christmas Carol, the first time the festival has mounted a holiday show.
No dates were ever set for the performances, though, and in early May that season announcement quietly disappeared from the festival website.
On Thursday, May 27, OSF announced the three fall shows are now postponed to some future season, all to be replaced by a one-woman show making a pre-premiere run in the festival’s outdoor Elizabethan Theatre starting July 1: Cheryl L. West’s Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer. A creation of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and Seattle Repertory Theatre, the play tells the story of the Mississippi-born civil and voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. Fannie will run at OSF through Oct. 9 and have a formal premiere at the Goodman later in October.
In a phone interview with Eugene Weekly, OSF Executive Director David Schmitz notes that Fannie marks a return, of sorts, to the festival’s roots. “Here we are in our 86th season opening a play outdoors on the Fourth of July weekend,” he says. OSF began on July 2, 1935, with outdoor performances of Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice.
Schmitz cites four main reasons for postponing this fall’s three plays, which were to have run in the festival’s indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre.
First, he says, is the timing was simply too soon. Even without the complications of a pandemic, it takes a full year to pull together a production at OSF.
Smoke from wildfires is the second reason. During the pandemic, producing a play indoors would require strong ventilation bringing in outdoor air to the theater; wildfires, though, could mean closing the theater ventilation completely off from the outdoors.
Third, he says, union requirements for pandemic safety have not relaxed as quickly as state and federal guidelines have. Current union restrictions, he says, require everyone, from audience members to cast and crew, be masked, though actors on stage could perform mask free so long as they remain at least six feet apart.
Finally, Schmitz says it’s been difficult to hire enough people to replace those laid off last year in time for fall shows.
“That’s the biggest challenge,” he says. “The volume of hires that need to be made. A great many people have moved on with their lives. And everyone else around the country is hiring, too.”
Schmitz, who previously worked as executive director of Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, accepted his job as OSF executive director in March 2020 and started work in Ashland that August. He says he found himself running a $40 million arts organization that had been on shaky financial ground for years, going back as far as 2011, when the fracture of a large wooden support beam shut down the Bowmer Theatre in the middle of a summer season. That was followed in 2017 by the late summer wildfires, which devastated OSF box office receipts for several years before anyone had even heard of COVID-19.
Despite the many challenges the festival faces, Schmitz is upbeat about its future. He cites an aphorism often attributed to Winston Churchill — “Never let a good crisis go to waste” — when talking about the opportunity OSF now has to rebuild itself from the ground up.
“We have to rethink a model that wasn’t working,” he says. “The pandemic has put us in a place where” — and here he apologizes for lapsing into corporate jargon — “we have a more defensible core.”
The new OSF will be more stripped down than it was in the past, Schmitz says. He foresees an organization that is 25 percent smaller than it was before the pandemic hit. The festival will probably stage fewer performances during smoke season. And he expects to produce fewer shows each year. “We were doing 11 plays in a year,” Schmitz says. “That was too much.”
Meanwhile, he says, OSF has been successful at raising money in the past year from both government and private sources and is on the way to a more secure financial footing. That means the festival is in “full-on planning mode” for 2022, trying to answer yet another question about the future: “How do we create a season that’s our comeback season?”