A couple weeks ago, those of us who are members of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (now they call us "change makers," blegh) received an e-mail signed by the Artistic Director announcing that the Executive Director, who runs the business side of the organization, has abruptly resigned, and that the "restructuring" this is part of also "unfortunately, include[s] 12 staff separations and 7 employee furloughs, as well as putting a stop or delay on hiring 18 open positions."
Holy bard! What is going on here? The rest of the text was administrative blither that doesn't really make sense to an outside observer: "a necessary part of stabilizing the organization as we turn our focus toward building a solid infrastructure to address inherited structural deficits, aligning budget to post-pandemic industry realities," yadda yadda whatever that means.
Then we get an invitation to a webinar to discuss this further with the Artistic Director and the newly-promoted interim COO. That was yesterday afternoon on Zoom. It didn't begin well. Asked by the moderator to explain the Executive Director's departure, the Artistic Director talked about how much she had valued his work. A question immediately appeared in the Q&A, "Yes, but why did he leave?" which was never addressed though several later-posted queries were.
After that, though, they got down to a more straightforward English-language discussion of what it said in bureaucratese in the e-mail. OSF is in financial crisis. It's actually been in more trouble for many years than it appeared - this was hidden due to a practice of listing the value of its capital assets, like buildings, among its financial assets - but it's the post-pandemic era that has really pressed this. During the pandemic, no theater was going on so little money was being spent, but last year's season was severely overproduced considering that only 45% of the pre-pandemic audience showed up. (We were there in September and noted how unusually empty the theaters were.)
Next year's season will have fewer productions, and a couple planned ones were additionally canceled, but that turned out not to be enough. Thus layoffs. And now they want to rebuild the relationship between the artistic and business sides. I was quite surprised that they need to do so: I'd never pictured OSF as the kind of organization which keeps finance and artistry strictly separate, not expecting the artistic staff to worry their little heads about how much money there is and to mutely accept budgetary dictates while the business side meanwhile doesn't ask how these dictates will affect productions. Now they want decisions to be made in mutual discussions. Well, duh.
This already began last year. One of the shows of the cancelled 2020 season was to have been a guest production by the Upstart Crow Collective of the Henry VI trilogy. OSF wanted Upstart Crow to appear in 2022, but decided that the big Henry VI was too expensive, so the groups worked out a revival of an old Upstart Crow production of King John instead. We saw that and it was an outstandingly good show.
Various other points were addressed, including why the "change makers" nonsense (originally it was supposed to be a new alternative to membership, but it got changed to a replacement when the Artistic Director wasn't looking, and after that it was too much work to change back), but what really got the Artistic Director and COO - who are both Black women, by the way - hopped up was responding to some catty comments they've gotten denigrating the production of new plays and of "woke" attitudes. They found this insulting, and pointed out that OSF has always put on new plays, starting in 1951 with Death of a Salesman. I chimed in in comments by saying there was no more "woke" period in OSF's history than the 1970s, when the then Artistic Director put on plays about burning contemporary issues like Vietnam or apartheid every year, it seemed. So there's nothing new about this. It's an OSF tradition.
So OSF's goals are to run more effectively, to seek more sources of funding and partnership, and to increase outreach: more touring productions, experiments with online theater, using that to involve people who can't come back, convincing new audiences to come. The Artistic Director cited her dental hygienist back in her hometown of LA, a young white woman who comes from this area and visits often but has only been to OSF once. Well, why not more? It's for rich people, she says. Gotta get past that attitude.