This year’s slate of plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I decided after my visit to Ashland in mid-July, has to be my favorite. I loved the mix of new plays and the new approaches to classic, and I thought that the company had begun to reap the benefits of its inclusive approach to casting and play selection. The shows were beautifully produced (as usual), smart with a nice edge, and surprising. I thought I had truly entered the theater of the future. Or maybe the lobby to the theater of the future: The future is a long time, after all.
The week I was in town was hot, but it wasn’t smoky. I’ve been in Ashland when forest fires nearby had filled the streets with that gross particulate haze, and it wasn’t pleasant. The effects of the vast fires in California earlier in the summer hadn’t reached Ashland, and it looked like clear sailing, knock on wood, for the three shows in the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre—”Romeo and Juliet,” “The Book of Will,” and the brilliantly conceived “Love’s Labor’s Lost.” I knocked on wood, but I failed to spit for luck.
The subsequent outburst of forest fires in northern California (creeping into Oregon) and Washington started filling up the Rogue Valley with smoke later that month—the source of the smoke alternating with wind direction—and continued into early September. As a result,
the festival had to cancel or move (to a much smaller indoor theater) 26 productions from that 1,190-seat house—more than the past five years combined.
The company figures that the cost of all that smoke is in the neighborhood of $2 million, which has been widely reported. I would add the phrase, “at least.”
Around 65 percent of the festival’s revenue comes directly from ticket sales, according to Julie Cortez in the press office, and the company’s $2 million estimate included losses from the canceled or moved performances, losses from canceled trips (and tickets), and the low demand for tickets this summer, especially August, from people who hadn’t already purchased tickets but who usually show up to catch a show or three. The festival is pretty good at estimating its attendance by this time.
The $2 million number doesn’t include the likely lower summer demand in future years due to the severity of the 2018 wildfires. These are theater fans who don’t want to risk the trip, given the risk of smoke inhalation. It doesn’t include the donations that the people who canceled this year (or never came at all) would have made to the festival (another steady rate that the festival has a good handle on). And it doesn’t account for the direct costs of smoke mitigation by company, according to Cortez.
It also doesn’t reflect the hours of planning and consulting the company will have to do to figure out a way to deal with future cancellations due to smoke. Is 2018 the new normal in the Rogue Valley or is it an outlier, not likely to be repeated? It’s another way of asking, do we have to start taking climate change into our considerations? Or, do we have to change our forest practices to prevent (what we consider to be) the worst from happening every year? The answer to both is probably yes, though the festival can only deal with the first—directly.
Whatever mitigation plans the festival institutes will cost money, maybe lots of money if it arrives at solutions that involve something like a retractable dome over the Elizabethan Theatre, which is crucial to the festival’s economic model because it’s so much bigger than the festival’s other two theaters. That would protect audiences during the shows, maybe, but not when they walk the smoke-choked streets of Ashland. The problem really isn’t smoke in the Elizabethan—it’s smoke in Ashland, in Oregon, in just about every West Coast city.
It would be understandable and laudable if you wanted to help the festival figure this stuff out with a contribution. We are at the beginning of this sort of thing, and the festival’s process and solutions might help guide us going forward. The easiest way is to click this link and make a donation directly. Or, if you’re in town to see shows in October (my favorite time to go!), you might buy a ticket to a special production of Robin Goodrin Nordli’s take on the women in Shakespeare, “Virgins to Villains,” 7 pm Monday, October 15, in the Thomas Theatre.
Wasn’t I JUST talking about climate change?
Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Jeff Goodell’s “The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World.” Goodell’s concern here isn’t smoke, but in his carefully researched and argued book, he suggests that we are woefully unprepared, especially in the US, to deal with the coastal flooding that will occur with increasing frequency and ferocity as climate change affects sea levels and the intensity of big storms.
Mercy Corps is bringing Goodell to Portland for a lecture, “Resilience in the Age of Climate Change,” at 7 pm Thursday, October 4, Revolution Hall, 1300 SE Stark Street. Portland-based Mercy Corps is already dealing with climate change, both in its emergency relief efforts and its economic develop projects around the world, and the proceeds from Goodell’s talk will help support those activities. Tickets are reasonable ($15-$20 plus $50 patron seats) and available at the door. Maybe I’ll see you there.