All Classical Radio James Depreist

Shakespeare Fest seeks emergency cash

A week before opening night, the Ashland festival puts out a plea for $2.5 million to "save our season."


The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is seeking an emergency $2.5 million to save its current season. Above, the 2017 production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” on the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre. Photo: Kim Budd

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a key Oregon cultural institution since it was founded in Ashland in 1935, has put out an extraordinary call for $2.5 million to stabilize its budget and keep its 2023 season alive. “The Show Must Go On,” an email sent late Tuesday morning to the company’s mailing list was headlined. “Save Our Season. Save OSF.”

The dire call to action came only a week before the current season is about to begin with opening nights of Romeo and Juliet on April 18 and the musical Rent on April 19. The company is seeking to raise an extra $2.5 million in donations in the next four months.

“Right now, OSF is in crisis, and we are not alone,” the email appeal, signed by board chair Diane Yu and board member Bob Speltz, said. “All across  the theatre industry, attendance and donations are down significantly. Because we are a destination theatre where people often have to spend thousands of dollars to reach our stages, we have been especially hard hit by the twin impacts of COVID and inflation.”

A changing climate has also played a role in the company’s problems, with annual forest fires and smoke hitting southern Oregon during what traditionally had been the festival’s peak times in late summer and early fall.

A proposed bill in the Oregon Legislature to help boost the state’s cultural sector earmarks $5.1 million for the Shakespeare Festival out of a total $51 million. The bill awaits approval. In July 2020, as the Covid crisis was at its peak, the Legislature’s Joint Emergency Board approved a $50 million expenditure to support hard-hit arts and cultural organizations; OSF, which began that season with a $44 million budget, received $4.71 million of that.

The Oregonian/Oregon Live, in a story published Tuesday morning, reported that the festival board has taken over administrative duties directly. Artistic Director Nataki Garrett had added that role to her artistic leadership in January after Executive Director David Schmitz left the company. The story, by reporters Jeff Manning, Janet Eastman, and Lizzy Acker, also said the festival is “suspending its planning for 2024 as it seeks to stabilize its finances.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."


5 Responses

  1. Theaters who refuse to tell good stories run the risk of shutting down. To that end, I’ll post the link to my cautionary tale on this topic once again.
    In the meantime, consider the Oregon Shakespeare Festival crisis.
    A month or so ago I reported that this theater, after several years of battling two things it can’t control — fire and the pandemic — and worsening the situation by mishandling the two things it can control — public relations and season choice — was on the ropes.
    Now, it’s on life support.
    With barely enough money to make it through May, it has oh-so-quietly canceled its Christmas show and launched a last-ditch effort to keep the doors open with a “The Show Must Go On: Save Our Season, Save OSF” $2.5 million dollar fundraiser. (The company needs Will to pen a better title for this effort, I think.)
    Doing the math, that’s maybe enough money to make it a few more months, which may explain the anemic response to the campaign so far.
    Put plainly, donating to this effort, as opposed to supporting smaller theaters you might actually enjoy attending, isn’t a wise investment, unfortunately. The endowment fund has been tapped repeatedly; leadership at the top is unstable at best and destructive at worst, and the company still insists that woke polemic is the storytelling its long-suffering patrons, donors and sponsors need *if they only weren’t so racist (and also transphobic) and knew what was good for them.*
    Public relations. Audiences attending OSF, largely from the Bay Area, Bend, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, are the bluest of blue demographics. They marched for voting rights and against the war in Vietnam. They read “My Body, My Self” to their kids. They raised feminist boys and girls. They groked the deal decades before an army of college grads, “trained” in the very, *very* soft sciences landed on OSF’s shores and decided season after season of scolding these good people was the way to, you know, end teh racism.
    Long after the largest issues around race had been resolved, unfortunately for these dude ranch freedom riders.
    So the seasons were designed with scolding in mind. Play after play screeched about the Terrible White Man, wept about How Bad Things Are and railed about Doing the Work.
    And it wasn’t just audiences that spent thousands to travel to Ashland only to be battered instead of entertained by a bitter theater company who clearly disliked its base. (Its only base, lest we forget.) It abused its own people as well. Company and staff alike were subjected to struggle session after struggle session; trained in the words they could not utter any longer (in a theater company, lest we forget) and were reduced to walking on eggshells lest they were reported, as happens eventually in all Maoist structures. Artist and employee churn, along with the layoffs, have reduced this grand old company to a ghost on the battlement walls.
    Oregon Shakespeare Festival can’t fight forest fires and it can’t cure Covid. But it sure as hell could have taken care of the people who have taken care of it for these past 80 years. It could have recognized that, especially coming out of the pandemic, people wanted stories that filled them with hope, with laughter, with inspiration. They wanted to feel welcomed home once again. Instead, audiences, donors and sponsors were demeaned, insulted and condescended to through the company’s communications, and straight from its stages.
    It could have given its artists wings; told them no ideas, no language was off-limits; that freedom OF speech and freedom FROM compelled speech were the cornerstones of spoken art. That art is dangerous and threatening and provocative, and that it was all welcome at OSF. It could have known that its staff was made up of good people working hard for low pay; people who had a right to their private thoughts and lives, and who deserved respect. That they were good people doing their best, and that that was good enough.
    It’s not the smoke or the flu that’s put OSF on life support.
    It’s OSF.
    Sure, it might meet its goal, aided by donors willing to throw good money after bad, hoping against hope that this story has a happy ending. But unless there is a complete turnover of leadership, a complete re-vamping of this and future seasons, and a complete change in mission, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival story will end a tragedy — one we are seeing play out nationwide, including right here in Portland with our own companies.
    Oh and what’s Ashland without Oregon Shakes, by the way?
    I mean no disrespect to that little town. I’m simply reporting the facts. When Oregon Shakespeare Festival fails, Oregon loses, the arts lose, we all lose.
    New leadership, new seasons, a new mission might make a miracle happen. But this is the last act, and a deus ex machina at this late date would be just that: a miracle.
    Theater companies. Take heed.

    1. I disagree with the screed by Mary McDonald-Lewis. I have attended the OSF for the last ten years and have enjoyed the often innovative approach to classics as well as new plays. They were not angry diatribes against anyone and it is a mistake to think that you can expect such in Ashland. What you can expect is a thoughtfully produced, well directed and well acted group of plays. The festival was hard hit by COVID and generously gave credit for plays cancelled. The terrible wildfires that plagued 2 seasons discouraged attendees. Some of my friends won’t return because they had plays canceled twice. They have no complaints about the repertoire. Now I understand that some accounting errors that may go back years have exposed a hole in cash flow. Many people love the OSF and enjoy coming to Ashland. There is widespread State support and an engaged Board. I am hoping that the Board with the assistance of consultants with vision can steer a way forward to a sound financial footing and continue to perform Shakespeare along with innovative approaches to classics and new plays.

      1. Mary is specifically referring to productions, changes, and conditions since the pandemic. The accurate points made are widely shared.

        1. No, Mary is not specifically referring to any productions; she doesn’t identify any. I’d like to hear some titles and what her specific problem with each was. Is the argument that the play was inferior, mediocre and unworthy of a professional theater company of OSF’s calibre, or did she simply not like or agree with the play’s sociopolitical content? Impossible to know; she offers literally zero examples.

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