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DramaWatch: Shakespeare Fest’s $2.5 million plea signals instability along tricky tightrope 

The venerable Ashland festival’s effort to save the 2023 season follows years of wildfires, pandemic shutdowns, and staff turnover. Plus, openings, closings, and this weekend's shows.

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Brent Hinkley (from left), John Tufts, Christiana Clark, and Mark Bedard appear in Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2022 production of "It's Christmas, Carol." A fresh version of the holiday season special, which had been scheduled to close the 2023 season, has been canceled because of the festival's budget crisis. Photo by: Joe Sofranko
Brent Hinkley (from left), John Tufts, Christiana Clark, and Mark Bedard appear in Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2022 production of “It’s Christmas, Carol.” A fresh version of the holiday season special, which had been scheduled to close the 2023 season, has been canceled because of the festival’s budget crisis. Photo by: Joe Sofranko

In 2019, Nataki Garrett grabbed a plum.

That is, she landed one of the great jobs in American theater, as artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a celebrated, long-running institution, by some measures the largest nonprofit theater in the country.

These days, one might imagine that Garrett feels like she stumbled into a vast patch of two-leaf clover.

Over the past few years, the venerable festival has been beset by troubles – major disruptions to its operations and income due to wildfire smoke and the COVID-19 pandemic, unprecedented staff turnover, even death threats made against Garrett, the company’s first Black artistic director.

The latest misfortune came to light this week when The Oregonian reported that the theater needs to raise $2.5 million, with more than half that amount needed by June in order for the 2023 season – due to start with previews April 18 – to be completed. One production, the holiday comedy It’s Christmas, Carol, has been canceled. And the board relieved Garrett of the interim executive director role that she’d taken on just a few months ago, following the departure of David Schmitz.

Altogether, it’s another sign of decline – or at least instability – at what’s long been the most significant and successful cultural institution in the Northwest. Before this came January’s reshuffling of leadership roles and another set of layoffs. Which of course followed a series of show cancellations, layoffs, reconfigurations of staff and schedule, and so on. 

From its founding in 1935, the festival was a model of stability and consistency. Founder Angus Bowmer ran the artistic side of things until retiring in 1971. His successor, Jerry Turner, spent 20 years at the helm; Garrett is only the fourth artistic director since he left 32 years ago. On the business side, William Patton and then his protege Paul Nicholson kept a steady hand on the growing company for 60 years. Conversely, Nicholson’s successor, Cynthia Rider, spent five years as executive director but left more than a year before Schmitz was hired.

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Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s plans had included replacing the aging and limited Allen Elizabethan Theatre. Photo by: Jenny Graham

Steady, stable leadership and a habit of long deliberation toward bold decisions helped the festival reach, arguably, a peak in the era of artistic director Bill Rauch. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, when other theaters were facing cutbacks, the festival was setting attendance and revenue records. The company built a large new production facility in the nearby town of Talent and had ambitious future plans, including a new “Welcome and Education Center” and even a new outdoor theater to replace the venerable but aging and limited Elizabethan stage.

To now have to launch an emergency “The Show Must Go On” fundraising campaign is a shocking contrast.

It’s important to note that not all of this woe, perhaps very little of it, should be viewed as Garrett’s fault. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is hardly the only arts organization that’s been battered recently by the twin terrors of climate change and COVID. Yet some of the features that have made the festival such a unique success story have made it especially vulnerable to tumultuous times such as these. Its tourism-dependent business model, its distance from large metro areas, its relatively old core-audience, its reliance on large crowds – all these became major problems in a pandemic or even post-pandemic world.

And even under ideal conditions, the Ashland operation is a hard ship to steer. With three stages, a large resident ensemble, high production values and a large support staff (“It is important to remember that for every actor on stage, there are five people behind the scenes ensuring that the show goes on,” read a company document from 2015), any adjustment to its operations has complex ramifications. Nimbleness just isn’t in the nature of the beast.

Even more than for the theater industry as a whole, the festival has a tricky tightrope to walk between, on one hand, an established audience founded on tradition and (if we’re honest) stolidly 20th-century cultural norms and values, and on the other, a desperate need to broaden that audience demographically, reaching younger and more diverse customers in order to survive. The company long has been making adjustments to its choices of plays and its interpretations and presentations of them, but that’s still part of the essential tension that seems to underlie the backlash that Garrett has faced. (Though it’s worth noting that Rauch faced little such pushback, even when presenting Oklahoma! with same-sex couples at the fore.)

For now, the festival’s newest crisis and its latest Big Ask leave us wondering about some of the details. Why was such a dire budgetary shortfall not foreseen earlier? (Slower-than-expected ticket sales? Market downturn hurting investments? Poor results from previous fundraising?) How long standing are the accounting issues that The Oregonian alluded to in its report? What happened so quickly, between just January and April, that made the board rethink having Garrett as a unitary administrator? 

And of course – most importantly – what’s the path out of this growing bad patch?

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THE FLATTENED STAGE

Not so long ago, when times were good…

OPENING

Kevin Canty’s 1997 novel Into the Great Wide Open presents the story of a smart but jaded slacker boy and a troubled, black-clad girl as they pitch headlong into the exhilarating, confusing intensity of adolescent love, amid the rock ’n’ roll miasm of early-1990s suburbia.  Hmmm… smells like teen spirit.

But like that famous ‘90s anthem, there’s much more to it than just adrenaline and other hormones. According to Jessica Wallenfels, who’s written Great Wide Open, the stage adaptation that opens this weekend at Portland Playhouse, “No matter how much love makes us want to believe that anything is possible, the forces exerted by familial wealth and status are so strong, they overwhelm the romantic survival of a young couple, which mirrors the brokenness of the American dream.”

So, in that sense, teen angst is national angst. That might stink, but it’s what we’ve got to work with.

In any case, this adaptation – a co-production of the Playhouse and Wallenfels’ Many Hats Productions – is a promising proposition. Wallenfels already has had a long career, starting as a teen dancer and actor (including a small role on TV’s Twin Peaks) and continuing as one of the region’s leading theatrical choreographers, bringing vivid motion to shows at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Portland Center Stage, and elsewhere. In recent years, she’s begun to distinguish herself as a director in works as divergent as Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ racially thorny Appropriate and the kiddie romp Dragons Love Tacos.

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Her knack for presenting energy, motion, and emotion bodes well for this show, for which she’s collaborated on devised and choreographic elements with co-director Charles Grant and a cast that includes Anthony Michael Shepard, Leiana Petlewski, Lane Barbour, Beth Thompson, and (ArtsWatch contributor) Bobby Bermea.

Anthony Michael appears in “Great Wide Open” opening Friday at Portland Playhouse. Photo by: Ela Roman.
Anthony Michael Shepard appears in “Great Wide Open” opening Friday at Portland Playhouse. Photo by: Ela Roman.

WEEKENDERS

One of the hoariest of cocktail-party conversation starters (or celebrity-profile shortcuts) is the question of what figures from throughout history you’d most want to have at a dinner party. Not that anyone’s asked me, but the first name on my list would be Winston Churchill. (Yeah, yeah, he was an imperialist, but he also saved the western world from Hitler.) 

Of course, he’s dead and therefore not available for social engagements. But the actor/writer David Payne might sate some of the appetite of Churchill fans by appearing in a solo performance as the great British statesman – much as he previously has performed as the late fantasy author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.

The premise of Payne’s show, titled simply Churchill, is that on the occasion of being awarded honorary U.S. citizenship (this would place the action in 1963), the former prime minister addresses the American-Oxford Society, reminiscing about his storied career in war and politics. Payne will perform three shows at the Winningstad Theatre, where he can’t smoke cigars like the great man would, but perhaps can sip some watered whisky or a tumbler of brandy.

 ***

Lakewood Theatre Company continues its Lost Treasures Collection series – “obscure and rarely performed musicals presented in concert/cabaret versions for one weekend only on our Side Door stage” – with Celebration, a 1969 work by writer Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt, the team better known for The Fantasticks.  

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***

Folks in Astoria doubtless know something about wanting to escape a rainy climate, so that town’s Ten Fifteen Theater seems the right spot for a staged reading of Matthew Barber’s Enchanted April. Based on a 1920s novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, the story concerns a clutch of London women who rent an Italian villa for an April getaway, offering what the website StageAgent.com calls “a gentle and romantic comedy of manners” and a “balm of sunshine and renewal.”

CLOSING

This weekend sees the end of The Actors Conservatory spring showcase, a production of Steven Levenson’s Core Values featuring the school’s advanced students in their new downtown Portland headquarters, as well as the fantastical John August/Andrew Lippa musical Big Fish being staged at Forest Grove’s Theatre in the Grove.

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Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon

THE BEST LINE I READ THIS WEEK

“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.” 

– W.E.B. Du Bois, quoted by The New York Times columnist John McWhorter in a newsletter about race and representation in media, interrogating the notion that it’s important for audiences to “see themselves.” “Today, I sit with Succession, Steely Dan and Saul Bellow and they wince not,” McWhorter writes. “I live with me. I watch TV to see somebody else.” (Though, speaking of wincing, in another recent newsletter McWhorter confessed to liking Family Guy. Yeesh!)

***

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better next time.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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8 Responses

  1. It has been disheartening to see OSF struggle and I plan to make a donation. I’m sure that everyone has favorite OSF show(s), and for us, they were the two Marx Brothers shows presented two years apart, and “It’s Christmas, Carol!” which is too hilarious, creative and beautifully-produced to be believed. Its 2023 cancellation is a huge loss, but I also assume that holiday shows may be difficult to attract an audience when people have other priorities during that time period, making a trek to Ashland challenging for those of us who are far away. Is there any chance of a Portland-based theatre company being able to present it here? I don’t know the intricacies of such things, but I hate to see this brilliance drift into the ether.

  2. This article is, I think, too quick to let the theatre’s leadership — whether current or immediately past — off the hook for the institution’s current woes. There were reports of 15k inaccurate financial entries because of an outdated system; that sounds to me like malfeasance or gross negligence, but it’s impossible to know because OSF has refused to address this issue openly. Yes, the pandemic and fires have created massive challenges, but OSF has received millions upon millions of dollars in government aid and private donations. And now they need $2.5 million more to “save” the current season opening later this week? Their financial need strikes me as a bottomless pit into which I’d rather not throw good money after bad. The current season includes approx. five shows? Start doing the math. Each production is costing many millions of dollars even before ticket revenue factors in. I agree with the artistic director’s comments about the possible need to shrink the size of the operation.

  3. Can we also consider how OSF insults its audience with its absurd Content Warnings. The one for Romeo and Juliet says “Romeo and Juliet contains coarse sexual humor, a parent threatening a child, and stage violence, including a gun, that results in a death. The play ends in a double suicide.” See link for hilarious yet sad full list: https://www.osfashland.org/en/engage-and-learn/play-suitability-suggestions-and-guides/content-warning.aspx?fbclid=IwAR2HjcTPpDGHKwuYrhff4xnY6Ez-nxmABA_keCmDlktA6ossrM97E2Oe3jw#:~:text=There%20is%20frequent%20profanity%20and,,%20poison,%20and%20sword%20fight.

    1. Steven Davis, to you, the Content Warnings are insulting and absurd, but these days, some parents want to know what’s in a play. The same is true of some adults. I see the Content Warnings as a way for OSF to let people know what’s in the plays ahead of time. Of course, some people won’t bother to read the warnings.

      1. If someone wants to know, are they too lazy to find a review and read it? The “warning” on Romeo & Juliet is beyond ridiculous!

        By the way, OSF doesn’t want my business because I am 65 years old? Fine. I won’t go where I am not welcome. Good luck, OSF. You need us a lot more than we need you. Not that you care, when you can just run to the state government instead of having to stoop to catering to audiences. Your laziness and arrogance is on display.

        1. I don’t think anything in Marty Hughley’s report suggests that OSF doesn’t want the business of people 65 and over. What he said is that the festival wants to boost attendance by younger and more diverse audiences — adding to, rather than replacing, a currently older and relatively well-off core audience. This isn’t an issue that OSF is facing alone. Most professional theater companies, ballet companies, symphonic and chamber orchestras, and art museums face the same problem: how to keep their established audiences happy, and at the same time expand their base with younger and more diverse audiences. A lot of things play into this, including ticket prices: a price a person in her 20s can afford is likely to be far lower than what a 70-year-old retiree can afford. How does a large-scale company like OSF lower its ticket prices without (a) vastly expanding its contributed income, and/or (b) cutting back on the high-quality and expensive production values that are major attractors to audiences in the first place? Clearly the festival and its friends have a lot to sort out. But whether one “likes” or doesn’t like a particular play selection, or whether one thinks that content warnings are foolish nonsense or simply common sense, are side issues. Yes, a fair argument can be made that the festival has strayed from its core identity as a classical theater company focused on Shakespeare’s plays and other “great” European and American historical dramas. By shifting some of its focus to contemporary and often issues-focused works, is it offering potential audience members from urban areas such as Seattle, Portland, the SF Bay Area, Denver, and Los Angeles what they already have easily available in their home markets? Such things can, and should, be debated. But I sense in several of the comments here and on ArtsWatch’s previous story on OSF’s current difficulties an undercurrent of betrayal and disdain, as if the festival “deserves” its current troubles because it’s succumbed to “wokeness” — a politically and culturally loaded concept whose definition differs dramatically depending on who you’re talking to.

  4. The Oregon Shakespeare Theatre had $17.4 million in cash on hand 17-1/2 months ago, and now is broke. They have refused to say where the money went, but instead have threatened to shut down unless they get $1.5 million by June. From all appearances, they have grossly mismanaged their ample resources. Yes, covid hurt, but the federal government gave them many millions of dollars to get them through it. OSF has stonewalled anyone who asks where the money went. They shouldn’t get anything from anyone until they account for the money they had in the fall of 2021.

  5. It is with such mixed emotions that I write. We have long loved OSF and enjoyed countless productions over 40 years of annual trips. We thrill to theater that informs, enlightens, entertains, delights, and pushes us to new perspectives – which OSF often has. Over the years OSF rarely took exclusively “of the moment” agendas but instead balanced provocative, unconventional and exciting work along with pure entertainment. So now we have a dilemma, if we are going to make an expensive trek to a tired-looking town in order to see theater that (reputedly) will bludgeon us by current cultural wars, we reluctantly admit to wanting to go elsewhere. It would appear that both OSF and Ashland need reinvention.

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