The reinvention of OSF is a major gamble, and it comes at a time unpropitious for gambling
By Herbert Rothschild
I used my column last week to catalyze a community conversation about the offerings at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Thank you to everyone who sent responses directly to me, posted them on the Ashland.news Facebook page, and submitted letters to the editor. I’d like to keep the conversation going because OSF is not only a treasured arts organization but also has a major place in Ashland’s economy and national identity.
The gist of that column was the extraordinarily provocative assertion that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival should stage the plays of Shakespeare. Not because Shakespeare needs OSF. As long as there is theater in the English-speaking world, his plays will be staged. As I write, they are being staged in parks across the United States, including New York City, Nashville, Dallas, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Chicago and three locations in Montana, to name but some.
And contrary to those who believe that Shakespeare attracts only old white folks and thus — after four centuries of popularity — will fall into oblivion when people my age die off, I cite the experience of Rosa Joshi, a middle-aged woman of South Asian descent who has produced Shakespeare’s plays at various theaters, including OSF, and currently teaches theater at Seattle University. In an interview on the Seattle Shakespeare Festival website, Joshi recalls falling in love with Shakespeare at age 14 when she was a schoolgirl in Kuwait.
The question, then, is not whether Shakespeare needs OSF but whether OSF needs Shakespeare. Its current leadership seems determined to find the answer to that question by staging fewer and fewer of his plays— three this season, only two next year. The definitive answer will take the form of attendance numbers and income from ticket sales. We’ll see.
Let me advance this discussion now by returning to the issue of demographics. While, in general, Shakespeare’s audience is not confined to old white folks, old white folks probably represent the largest single component of OSF’s audience, and a large majority of those who travel from other places to see the plays. I suggest that this is because of the cost. It’s one thing to pack a picnic basket and attend a performance of Shakespeare in the city park. It’s another to come up to Ashland from the Bay area to attend several performances and pay for lodging and meals out.
How shall we respond to such a reality? Shall we view it through the lens of our current culture wars, resent white “dominance,” and gamble that a different OSF will attract audiences of equivalent size but different demographics? It’s unlikely that such a strategy will succeed for OSF, because there is so little racial and ethnic diversity locally. And even if that strategy fills the seats in OSF’s three theaters, it won’t fill the hotels, restaurants and shops that depend heavily on visitors.
Let’s say that what we are witnessing is a desire to expand audience demographics by heavily emphasizing contemporary plays in the belief that, if they are well done, people who can see such plays in San Francisco, Portland and Seattle will come nonetheless to see them here without the inducement of Shakespeare.
That’s a major gamble. OSF’s uniqueness was its highly professional productions of Shakespeare’s plays, originally only in the Elizabethan theater (the first such in the U.S.). That was what brought people to Ashland, and many returned year after year. Absent an emphasis on Shakespeare, OSF’s uniqueness will disappear.
Not only is the reinvention of OSF a major gamble, it also comes at a time unpropitious for gambling. COVID-19 struck a major blow to all performing arts organizations, and they are still struggling to recover. Smoke from wildfires, plus record-breaking heat waves, added to OSF’s woes. Under such circumstances, most enterprises play to their strengths. In its 2021-2022 season, for example, The Metropolitan Opera staged Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” its first work by a black composer, and Brett Dean’s contemporary “Hamlet,” but the offerings were heavily weighted toward tried-and-true works like Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and Mussorgsky’s “Boris Gudonov.”
In the future, it’s unlikely that the environmental conditions for OSF will get better than they have been so far this year. Yes, COVID-19 is still around and has caused a few cancellations of OSF performances when it hit cast members, but it hasn’t shut down the theaters. And my understanding is that this will be the norm for the foreseeable future. Also, we’ve experienced only a few bad smoke days, and the worst heat days have been fewer and not as bad as last year. Given global warming, however, smoke and heat will only increase. So OSF’s strategy for recovery needs to demonstrate major promise of success by the end of this season.
I urge people to keeping talking about this subject — among yourselves and with OSF management as well as in this publication. The stakes for Ashland are high. I’d bet on Shakespeare.
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Email him at email@example.com.