Nine outdoor shows at the Allen Elizabethan Theatre were canceled in August and September because of air quality that reached hazardous levels. The theater, seen here in 2012, seats 1,200 people. [Photo by T. Charles Erickson]

Smoke darkened OSF's 2017 season

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival ended its 11-play season on Oct. 28 with reduced attendance over the previous two seasons and many questions over how to deal with the fallout from smoky forest fires.

OSF's 2016 numbers showed an overall attendance of 381,378, which was 82 percent of capacity and about 16,000 fewer attendees than in 2016. This year's productions generated $21.9 million in revenue.

Some 55,000 students attended. About 21,000 tickets were processed for educational events, with $432,000 in revenue.

OSF staged 795 performances. Its contributed income was up 14 percent for 2017, the festival said in its year-end summary to the media. The 2018 OSF fiscal year started Nov. 1.

Smoke from wildfires continued to be a worrisome factor in late summer, as it was in the 2013 through 2015 seasons. It scrubbed nine performances at the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre, forcing $300,000 in refunds of already purchased tickets plus an estimated loss of $100,000 in slower walk-up sales during that time, notes OSF. 

OSF’s previous attendance figures were 397,304 (86 percent of capacity) in 2016 and 390,387 (87 percent of capacity) in 2015. The total capacity changes each year because of seating arrangements, says Communications Manager Julie Cortez.

Cortez said the festival refunded or provided vouchers for 6,800 paid tickets this year. That did not include any losses in walk-up customers.

As for strategies to deal with smoke, “our artistic office is examining potential options that could be offered to patrons as alternatives when smoke becomes an issue,” notes Cortez.

“Contributed income increased this year,” says Cortez. “It’s always our goal to keep increasing donations. It’s a general attempt to keep us in a good, sustainable mode and keep doing the art we do and keep it as affordable and accessible as possible — and smoke plays a role in that.”

The festival is dealing with the new phenomenon that some people look at late summer in Oregon as "smoky time" — which can deter them from reserving tickets.

OSF, she adds, “is dealing with the cumulative financial effects of four of the last five years having significant wildfire smoke in peak summer months, resulting in canceled performances and reduced bookings. We've seen a trend of lower attendance in months in which wildfire smoke is a strong possibility, even if we don't actually cancel performances.”

OSF on Oct. 13 announced 12 layoffs, with seven positions trimmed from the acting company and five from non-acting posts in development, artistic and information technology areas. The festival said the decision to offer fewer acting contracts next season is part of an effort to budget in response to the wildfire losses, but says next year's cutback does not technically constitute "layoffs," as company size always varies in size from year-to-year.

OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch summed up the just-ended theater year, saying “This dedicated, talented OSF company consistently rose to the occasion this season with passion and grace, as they always do. It is a joyful, humbling, invigorating challenge to (do this) and our smart, savvy audiences always inspire us to do our best work.

“It’s impossible to name a favorite highlight of the season, but I must mention the thrilling success of our first play by a Native writer, Randy Reinholz’s 'Off the Rails,' and our audience development efforts in partnership with the Native community. I look forward to continuing that journey with the world premiere of Native writer Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Manahatta next season.”

“Manahatta,” which traces Indian experience from the 17th century through the present, will have its world premier at OSF and, Cortez says, “will be completely fascinating.”

Cortez notes there was much excitement when next year’s offerings were announced earlier, especially Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility.” Hamill's adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" recently was extended off-Broadway, evidence of the demand for her work.

“It will be a heck of a lot of fun for Jane Austen fans and anyone,” Cortez said.

Rogers & Hammerstein’s 20th century classic “Oklahoma,” will be produced with same-sex couples and is endorsed by the Rogers & Hammerstein Foundation. “It’s a labor of love for Bill Rauch, something he’s dreamed of doing for decades.”

The next season opens with previews in mid-February. By that time seven wheelchair and companion seats will have been added in the Angus Bowmer Theatre as part of Phase III of OSF’s “Access for All” made possible by donors Joel Axelrod and Dr. Judy Shih. Phase II, unveiled in summer 2017, was a re-do of "The Bricks,” opening up improved access for wheelchairs.

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at

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