The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which shut down most of this season and last due to COVID, has been slammed by wildfire smoke as it tries to bring audiences back with a live production in its outdoor theater.
In July, OSF opened Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer in the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre. The one-woman show about a real-life civil rights activist constitutes the Ashland festival’s entire 2021 season, if you don’t count It’s Christmas, Carol!, a holiday comedy written by three OSF actors set to open in late November.
Fannie, which replaced a reduced season of three shows previously announced for 2021, marks an attempt to keep OSF connected with audiences who hadn’t seen a play there since the pandemic closed OSF’s three stages in March 2020 and the festival laid off nearly 85 percent of its staff.
The financial news hasn’t improved. Choking smoke from climate-change induced fires in Oregon and California shut down all but two of 20 scheduled performances of Fannie in August. Similarly, the festival had booked four musical concerts in the outdoor theater on Wednesdays in August; only one actually made it to the stage.
“Sadly, this has been a very tough year for performance cancellations. We’ve had to cancel most of our August performances, which we knew would be a risk of programming during this time,” says an email from Laura Burgos, the festival’s marketing and communications director. She adds that OSF knew it was taking a financial risk on the show, which the festival had previously said would cost about $1 million to produce. “Though we have surpassed our (very conservative) financial goal, we were ready to take a loss on this production.”
Burgos says the festival has been holding “Smoke Team” meetings at 10 am each performance day to determine whether that evening’s show can go on, based on National Weather Service reports and fire information. That gives audiences half a day’s notice of any cancellations.
About half of the ticket holders to canceled August performances of Fannie elected to view a streamed performance offered instead, Burgos says. Twenty-eight percent asked for a voucher good for future productions, 15 percent exchanged their tickets for a future Fannie date and 7 percent donated their ticket price to OSF.
Burgos didn’t say how much money the festival lost on the canceled performances. “Our primary goal in making the decision to re-open this summer was for the sake of our community in Ashland, which is reliant on visitors coming to town,” she says.
Meanwhile, OSF — which on Aug. 31 named three associate artistic directors to help Artistic Director Nataki Garrett create programming with “artist-first, multidisciplinary, anti-racist, decolonial and sustainable practices” — is expected to announce its 2022 season at the end of September.
Burgos wouldn’t offer any details, but Executive Director David Schmitz told Eugene Weekly in May that the festival would need to cut its productions by about 25 percent. In recent years, before the pandemic, OSF had been mounting 11 shows in a season.
“I think folks will be excited to hear the lineup we’ve got coming,” Burgos says of the 2022 season. “And after everything we’ve been through since closing in March 2020, I think we’re all ready for the return of the repertory season.”
Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer is scheduled to run through Oct. 9 in OSF’s outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre. It’s Christmas, Carol! opens Nov. 23 and runs through Jan. 2 in the indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre. Tickets for both shows are available at OSFAshland.org.