ashland.news
April 14, 2024

OSF announces emergency fundraising campaign to save the season — and the organization

Elizabethan Theatre OSF
A full house at Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Allen Elizabethan Theatre. Kim Budd photo
April 11, 2023

Theater company says ‘Save Our Season’ campaign must raise $1.5 million by June  

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news

A week prior to the opening of the 2023 season, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has put on hold planning for the 2024 season and launched a campaign to raise a total of $2.5 million to “Save Our Season” (SOS) and secure the organization’s future.

OSF said in a news release it is experiencing a gap in funding between May and July of this year, and to avoid further layoffs, announced Tuesday morning an emergency fundraising campaign to raise a total of $2.5 million to help complete the 2023 season. According to the release, the campaign must raise $1.5 million by June for the 2023 season to continue. According to a letter emailed to supporters, “We have set an ambitious goal of raising $2.5 million dollars over the next four months in order to save our season.”

An OSF board committee has also taken over the role of executive director held on an interim basis by Nataki Garrett so she can focus on her duties as artistic director. The Board of Trustees will watch the results of the campaigns closely to reevaluate its financial position in May and to determine what the next steps will be.

“Through these campaigns, OSF is calling on benefactors — past, present and future — to help secure the company’s legacy by investing in its future,” Garrett said, in a news release.

The campaign, called “The Show Must Go On: Save Our Season, Save OSF,” involves several efforts to save the season and ensure the company reaches its 90th anniversary in 2025 and beyond, according to a news release. OSF has been navigating financial hardships endured during and after the COVID-19 pandemic and impacts of wildfires and smoke on play attendance.

“OSF is in crisis, and we are not alone,” reads a statement from the organization’s donation website. ”All across the theater industry, attendance and donations are down significantly. Because we are a destination theater 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.  

“We see the path forward to sustained success, but we need your help to get there. We have set an ambitious goal of raising $2.5 million over the next  four  months in order to save our season, and to help us continue producing the world-class theater that keeps you coming back  home to  OSF year after year.  We know it is a heavy lift, and a big ask of our supporters, but we have seen what we can do when we all come together in times of need.  Whether  it’s moving up your annual giving or making one-time gifts to help us through this crisis, whatever you can afford to give, we need you to give now.

“We need you more now than ever to ensure that we reach this critical fundraising goal. OSF is a house that community built — and it will be you, our community, who ensures that what we’ve built together endures.”

The next phase of fundraising efforts will be critical for OSF as the company also announced additional decisions:

  • This year’s production of “It’s Christmas, Carol!” will be canceled so staff can focus all resources on the 2023 repertory season.
  • The Executive Committee of the Board of Directors has implemented a temporary management structure and will assume the executive director duties that Garrett has been responsible for since January so she can focus on the opening of the 2023 season. 

“OSF has existed for almost nine decades for a reason,” says Kamilah Long, Interim Director of Development. “This is an economic anchor for the Rogue Valley, a beloved theatre throughout the industry, and a beacon for innovative theatre-making. The Show Must Go On: Save Our Season, Save OSF campaign is just that: A way for everyone who loves OSF to come together, save this theatre that we all love so much, and make sure that OSF shows can go on.”

In addition to The Show Must Go On grassroots campaign, OSF is also launching a transformational gift campaign, aimed at securing large gifts that can help secure and sustain OSF’s future.

“OSF is a national treasure and the Board is hopeful that this campaign will produce the needed funds to enable us to keep offering world class art to our audiences,” says Board Chair Diane Yu. “We are facing difficult scenarios based on a post-pandemic reality, but we are doing everything we can to prevent these scenarios from happening. Our hope is that everyone whose lives have been touched by OSF and values powerful theatre-making will help ensure its survival.”

This movement to invest in OSF’s future has already begun: 

  • The Hitz Foundation committed to a $10 million multi-year gift, OSF’s very first of that size 
  • The Mellon Foundation has given $2 million
  • OSF has already secured $5 million in individual pledges towards stabilization 
  • OSF Endowment Board released $4.5 million in endowment funds in December
  • $170,000 pledged by the OSF Board of Directors, including a $50,000 gift from board chair Yu

The measures come on the heels of a dozen layoffs, seven employee furloughs, and halting or delay of filling 18 open positions in January, as reported previously by Ashland.news.

The 2023 season opens Tuesday, April 18 with William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” followed by “Rent” on Wednesday, April 19. Tickets are on sale at OSF’s website.

Garrett talks about upcoming season

Garrett met with Ashland.news via Zoom in late March to talk about the 2023 season.

While anticipating the plays on tap to open next week, Garrett said at the time she was just glad it was happening at all.

“The most important thing is that we’re still here,” Garrett said on March 22. “We have been tested these last few years.

“We are in a recovery,” she added. “And recovery’s are tough and everybody knows that a recovery is tougher than the reason why you needed to recover in the first place, and so we are really struggling to get through this year.”

Garrett said the organization fell into an “immense deficit” this year.

“OSF has historically had deficits consistently since 2013,” Garrett said. “We have not had a year in the black … except for coming into 2021, with the $19 million that I raised. It was the first year in a decade that OSF was back in the black, so now we’re back in the red.”

Garrett said she and former Executive Director David Schmitz talked about what was needed in order to bring OSF back to support and sustain the town.

“The endeavor was bigger than the resource that we had, and so basically we borrowed from this year last year, and so we’re sort of in this deeper hole,” Garrett said. “So I’m excited that we’re opening, and every single week is an endeavor to make sure that happens.”

Garrett said the organization has been focused on how to ramp up fundraising, especially since 2020. OSF hired a local group to conduct a feasibility study looking at what the theater company needs to be successful.

“They did a beautiful job of letting us know where we were in our fundraising and development and gave us some really important recommendations that we were in the process of instituting at the top of that pandemic,” Garrett said. “Everything of course fell apart because of the pandemic and the closure, and of course with the departures of both David (Schmitz) and Amanda (Brandes), everything sort of has to be rebuilt, but the recommendations that they had still stand. We need more resource in philanthropy than we’re bringing in.

“The ticket sustaining model for the American theater has been waning over the last 25 years,” she added. “OSF is not immune to that and so we need to diversify our portfolio of donors.” 

Historically, OSF has relied on individual donors for support, more than corporate or foundations.

Garrett called this approach to fundraising an “unsustainable business model.” 

“We have to expand the corporate (support), we have to expand the foundational (support),” she said, “and we have to diversify the number of individual donors that we have.”

Garrett emphasized the generosity of so many individual donors during the pandemic, in addition to both 2021 and 2022.

“But we still need more resources and … we cannot put the onus on the individual donor to be our primary support base for the kind of money that we need to raise,” she said.

The focus now will be to expand OSF’s donor base by expanding the corporate donor base, the individual donor base, and deepening relationships with foundations, she said. 

“OSF, it takes a lot of money to run it,” she said. “We are a $40 million organization. Whether we do five shows or nine shows, it’s still $40 million, and so there’s a lot of money to raise.”

‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Rent’ previews begin next week

Both “Romeo and Juliet” and “Rent” start with previews next week, on Tuesday, April 18, and Wednesday, April 19.

“My goal here is that it’s the season of love,” Garrett said. “And it’s an opportunity to love on the work that we do. It’s an opportunity to love on the art of OSF.”

Garrett said the rehearsals have been going “beautifully.” 

“Everybody’s having a good time and there’s a real dedication to telling the story,” she said.

“It’s a reflection or an opportunity to witness the human condition and the reason why we want to do that is so that we have an understanding of ourselves, our empathy, our capacity for compassion, and our desire to be a better society.”
— Nataki Garrett

“Every Shakespeare theater should go back to ‘Romeo and Juliet’ once every six years because it is the most-read play amongst the education system across the United States. And so we’re doing our due diligence by making sure that young people have access to this play.”

Garrett spoke about her affinity for both plays, and especially “Romeo and Juliet,” a play that first inspired her through its dramatic literature in the seventh grade through her English teacher.

“I think because of the way that my teacher taught it,” she said. “She taught it as if it belonged to us first of all.” 

Garrett emphasized her desire is to direct the play in a fresh way.

“You can’t engage a piece of theater, a dramatic text, as if it were a museum piece, or a piece of iconography, and expect to be moved by what the playwright intended you be moved by,” Garrett said. “You actually have to engage it as if it’s a new piece every time.”

“Every play that I produce, every play that I direct, every theater that I’ve worked at, my focus is … these words on this page were meant to be embodied, to express the human condition,” she added. “It’s a reflection or an opportunity to witness the human condition and the reason why we want to do that is so that we have an understanding of ourselves, our empathy, our capacity for compassion, and our desire to be a better society. And I think it’s important right now to make that the center of the work that we’re all doing, because otherwise, what is the point of the theatre?”

Garrett’s vision for “Romeo and Juliet” sets the star-crossed lovers from two different families, the Montagues and the Capulets, in a setting modern to this age.

“I really created the setting so that I could give the actors a deeper point of exploration than what I had previously seen,” Garrett said. “I wanted the actors to be able to engage in the questions of humanity of the moment of circumstance that the characters are in. I wanted the actors to be able to deepen the awareness and to really do deep, deep, deep work in why somebody expresses these words.

“Ultimately the dramatic text is an expression of how people think or feel about their circumstance,” she added.

Garrett said she needed an arena to push the actors and design team out of what they have in their mind’s eye of Romeo and Juliet, and into a space that allows them the freedom to explore it as a new piece of material.

“That’s how you actually get to the essence of the human condition,” Garrett said.

In Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” not only is it Garrett’s favorite musical. Her mom will be in the front row on opening night, Garrett said.

“It’s just so beautiful and impactful and the voices are so rich,” Garrett said. “Jonathan Larson who wrote it, he died before his time. He left this industry with such a jewel in that piece. It is beyond its time. It focuses on a time in New York City of real transformation, and a lot of trauma. It focuses on the AIDS crisis and the dawn of the opioid crisis. It signals some things that I think we’re living in now but … at the end of it it, it’s love.”

The 2023 season will also include “Twelfth Night” and “Three Musketeers,” which will debut June 1 and May 31, respectively. “Where We Belong” will open in late August. All plays run through mid-October.

To donate to the fundraising campaign, go to osfashland.org/SaveOSF.

Have comments, questions, story tips? Email Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

April 12 update: Original post updated with information from Ashland.news interview with Nataki Garrett in late March.

Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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