OSF attendance hurt by beam failure

ASHLAND — Forced to scratch 31 performances due to a broken beam in its Angus Bowmer Theatre, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival saw attendance this season drop a tick or two from 2010 levels. About 29,000 fewer seats have been filled this year, with about 16,000 of those attributable to the scratched shows.

The unexpected closing of the Bowmer due to the broken support beam was widely seen as the biggest crisis the OSF has faced in its history, sending festival officials scrambling at the height of the summer season to erect a large, air-conditioned tent in Ashland's Lithia Park to accommodate performances of Bowmer plays.

OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch called 2011 "an extraordinary year" that mixed sadness and joy.

"And we're not repeating it," OSF Executive Director Paul Nicholson added, drawing chuckles from a crowd of about 150 people at a town hall-style event Monday evening in OSF's New Theatre.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Rauch and Nicholson answered questions about attendance, diversity in casting, programming and other matters. Among the highlights:

  • Nicholson's preliminary estimate of attendance for the 2011 season, which will end Nov. 6, is 380,000. That's about 86 percent of capacity, compared with about 90 percent the last two years. Nicholson said the canceled shows stemming from the broken beam caused the festival to lose momentum, "and we never really got it back."
  • Asked if the festival "inserted" gay and other minority characters into plays along with "dwarf, blind, albino" actors in the interest of political correctness, Rauch joked, "Sure," to a burst of applause. Turning serious, he said the OSF has a long history of diversity in its acting company, but that it doesn't hire an actor because he or she brings diversity, but because he or she is a good actor.
  • Pressed for details on the failure of the beam, Nicholson said no inspection would have discovered the fracture before it occurred because it was invisible until the split actually opened up. He said working loads for the Bowmer's structural elements are being recalculated according to 21st century standards.

He said OSF officials were in an "ongoing conversation" with their insurance company about the beam and would soon submit a "statement for loss" seeking compensation.

  • Rauch said casting for the 2012 season, the 11 plays of which were announced earlier, would be announced Nov. 9. He described the season and the casting as "incredibly varied." He said there were "no immediate plans" for more site-specific plays like this year's "Willful," for which actors and audience alike split into several groups and then came together for the show's conclusion.
  • Responding to an observation that the OSF seems to produce popular Shakespeare plays such as "Romeo and Juliet" and "Twelfth Night" often, while more obscure plays such as "Timon of Athens" and "Pericles" are seldom mounted, Rauch said "Timon" would be coming up "pretty soon." Nicholson said that when a co-production with another theater such as this year's "Ghost Light" travels to another theater, the festival enjoys additional earnings to the tune of about $30,000 to $50,000 and, if they commissioned the play, a share of the playwright's royalties as well.
  • Rauch said the festival is "hungry" to present a work by American playwright Eugene O'Neill.

He said that despite the success of recent musicals, OSF doesn't want to create "traps" or "slots" in which it locks itself into certain kinds of plays. But he said three plays in the 2012 season could be considered "musicals," if not in the classic Broadway sense.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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