The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is seeking $2.5 million in donations to save its 2023-2024 season. A cultural mainstay of Ashland, the festival started in 1935, and it serves as an economic hub for the Rogue Valley. The festival brings in tourists from around the world and has put Ashland on the map as an arts and theater destination.
Since 2020, the theater’s success has faltered. Like many theaters across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic forced in-person shows to cease, and ticket sales never recovered. As of September 2022, audience numbers were less than half of what they had been in 2019. These issues were compounded by the wildfires that devastated the region in late 2020. Outdoor shows since then have been canceled due to smoke. To remedy their financial issues, OSF chose to move in a different direction.
Artistic director Nataki Garrett, whose time with OSF began in 2019, sought to bring a younger crowd into the theater. “The American theater has relied for decades on that one demographic of people … over 65, affluent, white. It’s sort of the bread basket of the industry,” Garrett told NPR. As this demographic ages, Garrett wants to bring younger people into the theater. While OSF has hosted non-Shakespeare plays since 1960, Garrett’s vision will include even more. She is also bringing in more diverse casts for the Shakespeare plays.
Garrett faced significant backlash from the local theater community. In letter-writing campaigns and social media posts, theater-goers claimed she was trying to fundamentally change the nature of OSF. “My concern is that they have decided to essentially remake the OSF into something it wasn’t … instead of building on their strengths, really turning their back on its strengths,” said Herbert Rothschild, a longtime OSF subscriber, and local columnist, told NPR. “If so, I think they’re going to drive it into the ground.” Other community members took things father, and Garrett faced death threats. She now travels with a security team in public.
OSF was forced to lay off twelve people last January, and it chose not to fill another eighteen vacant positions. To prevent future losses, OSF launched its The Show Must Go On: Save Our Season, Save OSF campaign. “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.”
OSF is also beginning a transformational gift campaign and asking for large gifts from corporate donors. They have received multi-million dollar gifts from several large donors. To donate, go to www.osfashland.org/SaveOSF.