Around the country, leading regional theaters have given up on spring.
Now one of the nation’s most prominent theater festivals is giving up on summer, too.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, one of the oldest and largest American nonprofit theaters and a popular travel destination, said on Friday that it would lay off 80 percent of its 500 employees, cancel half of this year’s productions and postpone any live performances until after Labor Day.
The reason is obvious: the coronavirus pandemic, which is wreaking havoc with much of the economy, including nonprofit cultural organizations.
“We’re trying to make sure we have enough cash to regroup and come back,” said Nataki Garrett, the festival’s artistic director. “Without money coming in from ticket sales for current shows or future shows, we have to say we have this much cash, and it will last us this long.”
Garrett is in a challenging position: She has been in the job only since August, part of a wave of new leaders of American regional theaters who are still getting to know their institutions and their audiences but are now facing an enormous, and unexpected, challenge. Garrett took the job imagining all kinds of ways she would make her mark on the venerable festival; now, she said, “I can’t even think about what course we were on before this thing happened, because it so swiftly shifted.”
Earlier this month, when the coronavirus outbreak prompted theaters around the country to shutter, some said they hoped to reopen after a few weeks. But more recently, many have canceled all spring productions, from Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., to the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
Most summer festivals are still taking a wait-and-see attitude. In Scotland, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe said, simply, “We still don’t know what the future holds.” In Canada, the Stratford Festival “now finds itself in a holding pattern” and has suspended season preparations.
In New York, Lincoln Center Theater has decided to move two summer productions to next season; the Public Theater says it is awaiting guidance from local officials before determining what impact the pandemic might have on its popular Shakespeare in the Park program. And in the Berkshires, a summer destination in Western Massachusetts with a rich concentration of cultural institutions, Barrington Stage Company has already canceled its first production, which was scheduled to run from mid-May to early June.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, founded in 1935, won the regional theater Tony Award in 1983 and presents contemporary work as well as classics; the festival has helped develop several shows that ultimately landed on Broadway, including the Pulitzer-winning “Sweat” and the Tony-winning “All the Way.” In ordinary seasons, there are about 800 performances attended by about 400,000 people.
The festival, which has three theaters, has a particularly long season, running eight months of the year in Ashland, a Rogue Valley city just north of the California border. The city is heavily dependent on tourism — visitors to the festival sustain a number of hotels, restaurants and shops — and has had a rough few years because smoke from wildfires in the Northwest has forced the cancellation of some outdoor performances and deterred some travelers.
The festival’s first performance this year was on Feb. 28; five plays then opened before the pandemic prompted a shutdown on March 12, including “Bring Down the House, Parts I and II,” a new two-part adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI” trilogy, performed by a female and nonbinary cast; “The Copper Children,” a new play inspired by the early-20th-century transporting of Irish orphans from New York to a mining community in Arizona; Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; and a new production of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a prequel to “Peter Pan.” Garrett’s hope is to resume productions of those plays on Sept. 8, along with an outdoor production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” and to attempt to run them as late as mid-November; she is canceling productions of five other plays planned for this season.
The organization has a $40 million annual budget, of which about $22 million comes from ticket sales. Those laid off — who include artists and staffers — who had health benefits will continue to get coverage from the festival for another two months. Garrett said she hoped to rehire as many people as possible in the fall, but said that given a truncated season (two months instead of eight) and production schedule (six shows instead of 11), there would undoubtedly be fewer people employed.
This is not the first time the theater has been forced to close — it was shuttered from 1941 through 1946 because of World War II.
“What we have to do is rethink where we are headed — what is the coronavirus going to mean for what it means to do theater,” Garrett said. “We’re praying for everybody’s health first and foremost, making sure everybody can make it through the crisis, and then we need to figure out how we are going to remobilize.”
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