Wednesday, January 25, 2023

hard times of old Ashland

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.


  1. It's the market. People will come if they expect to enjoy the plays and Ashland and if they have the money, etc. My guess is that the "insulting" remarks come from people who don't want to spend their money on productions they expect they would not enjoy. These folks can be safely ignored if the OSF's mission is to promote certain social causes and if they can attract enough paying playgoers who are at one with them.

    Publicity about their plan to adapt Shakespeare's language would not have done them good with some prospective audiences. It was a real turnoff for me, one paltry retired English teacher. But I live too far away to be likely to attend anyway.

    There are also two problems with the city of Ashland, though. It's expensive. Also it is perceived as a place where you are likely to be annoyed by aggressive panhandlers. For my last few visits, I generally avoided the plaza area largely for that reason. (Also, some people don't like to be around people publicly smoking dope, so I guess that could be a third factor.) Living in the Bay Area, David, Ashland no doubt seems to you to have no problem with these things since you see more of it where you are.

    You can see comments about these problems with YouTube videos and so on; not with newspapers, since the Valley now has no newspapers, the Ashland Tidings have folded up two or three years ago and the Medford Mail Tribune having abruptly shut down on Friday the 13th of this month.

    OSF can hold that people ought to think differently, ought to spend their money there, etc. If they restrict their audiences to those already on the same page with them, their penetration of the potential market will be reduced. But you can't make people pay and go against their will.

    I lived in Ashland 1969-1978 and summer 1979, and I don't remember the courting of controversy that you do, David, though I take it you went to the full array of productions every year while I was pretty selective.


    1. OSF is not trying to "promote social causes" but to speak to a larger and wider audience than it's currently getting, and to attract that audience.
      What's insulting about the "woke" insults is their dismissal of other people's preferences as illegitimate.
      I've seen one of the "adapted" Shakespeare plays, Timon of Athens. I thought it was very effective. I don't think they should be dismissed tout court. Furthermore, Shakespeare has always been edited, sometimes far more drastically than this. And still is today: their last Merry Wives was completely reimagined, but the text was left largely untouched. But also, OSF is not replacing "the original" with the adaptations: this is an addition.
      There was no "courting of controversy" with the social issue plays of the 1970s. What is called "woke" today by people who don't like it was not controversial then. Those who weren't interested in social issue plays didn't go, and they can do the same today. I'm selective in which plays I attend myself.
      It's not that I'm not bothered by panhandlers, but I haven't seen them in Ashland.
      I do agree that Ashland is expensive, and that's a real problem for a wider audience. Also, at least pre-pandemic it was booked up long in advance. And there isn't much inexpensive meals, and nothing in chain restaurants for those reluctant to try new things. For all these problems, the existence of Medford helps, but not enough.

    2. OSF is trying to attract a "larger and wider" audience? Really?

      Consider the fact that, demographically, outside the Ashland enclave southern Oregon tends to lean Republican. What efforts has OSF made to reach such audiences in the past 10 years? That's a sincere question. I think they may have done a production of Little Women, which, if faithful to the novel, might represent outreach on that occasion. But much effort to reach those folks? Perish forbid, anything that might be described as "patriotic" in theme?

      OSF personnel can dismiss what they call "insults" -- and not having seen whatever it is they were referring to, I can't say whether expressions of disaffection with OSF deserve to be called "insults." I do know that when you label people's comments as "insults," that will shut down discussion. Perhaps OSF is not interested in having genuine discussions with people who are disaffected by its programming. They may do that, but should not object if the people they thus dismiss decline to pay for their programming.

      That remark about being "insulted" combined with being displeased about box office reminded me -- it's not a close analogy -- with John Lennon returning his MBE in a fit of pique when his record "Cold Turkey" was not selling very well.

      I have been the object of panhandlers in visits to Ashland. By avoiding the plaza I avoided the problem in my most recent visits, which will probably be my last.

      But my main point stands, I think. While OSF probably does enjoy grants from public agencies and private donors, it will always need customers in those seats. My hunch is that it has overextended itself lately and might have to scale back. An outstanding example of the way markets work that I observed is also from Ashland. I lived there in the 1970s. When I visited in the 1980s, advertisements and businesses for New Age products and services were everywhere. I still have copies of a free paper, the Lithiagraph, with ads for crystal meditation, astrology, Reiki, past life regression, various Buddhism-flavored enterprises, palmistry, higher consciousness speakers, etc. -- that area of the spiritual marketplace. Downtown kiosks were aflutter with handbills stapled on handbills, etc. But Ashland was eventually saturated. So the New Age boutiques, "metaphysical" speakers," etc. thinned out.

      I think OSF may have overextended itself, may have been presumptuous. Staff may have identified with Portland and the Bay Area, etc. too much. In the early 1970s the Festival seemed to pay its way and used a lot of local talent even for the direction of some of the plays. Perhaps by later standards the shows would have seemed creditable but provincial. But unless OSF is going to relocate to Portland, maybe it needs to consider if it's become grandiose and a bit more "progressive" than it can afford to be.


    3. Fascinating how it's worse to be called insulting than it is actually to be insulting. These criticisms are not on the lines of declining to attend, but are rude remarks denouncing the whole idea of a more expansive theatrical environment. Also, although this wasn't discussed at the meeting, OSF leaders have received threats of physical violence and have had to hire security guards. But apparently it's worse to object to receiving such threats than it is to receive them.
      You advise OSF to retrench, but the subject of the meeting, and my post, was doing exactly that. But you seem to want it to become a purely local theater for southern Oregon. It hasn't been that since the 1940s. It's a regional draw, pulling in more people from Portland, Seattle, and the Bay Area than it does locally: there just aren't that many people locally. The retrenching is financial. It would only make the financial situation worse to give up on the regional draw, and it would devastate Ashland's economy.

    4. David, are you deliberately insinuating, in your comment of 5:26 pm, that I was aware of threats of violence received by OSF personnel -- which you only now introduce into the discussion -- and was minimizing them? How catty of you to write: "apparently it's worse to object to receiving such threats than it is to receive them." Your response is unfair to me, as you would feel in my shoes.

      Nor did I propose that OSF become a "local theater." I suggested the -addition- of programming that would appeal to relatively conservative audiences, whether from Jackson and adjacent counties or farther away. Perhaps the mere idea would be anathema to OSF, but if they want to reach out to a wider market, there's something to be said for the suggestion. I know little about the repertoire, so I don't have plays to suggest, but I imagine they exist.

      And if they have trouble paying their bills, they may have, for a time at least, to find ways to economize. It is, after all, a market economy, even in progressive Ashland. Might local or regional people be able to do various theater jobs well without requiring a level of compensation such as OSF pays at present -- whatever that may be (-I don't know-)? Just -asking-, and hoping you don't flame me for asking.


    5. No, but that's where the logic of criticizing being upset at offense more than for the original offense takes you. People had been sending in rude catty remarks (I specified the cattiness in the original post) and at the meeting it was pointed out that, hey, that's really rather offensive. If that's to be criticized rather than the original offense, then it exhibits the privilege of certain people to be able to be offensive while expecting not to feel offended in return.
      Is OSF running plays that conservative viewers might like? Well, look at this year's season: two very popular Shakespeares, Romeo & Juliet & Twelfth Night and an adaptation of The Three Musketeers, one of the most well-known and popular stories ever. Also Rent (about the AIDS epidemic, but a popular and award-winning show) and one - just one - one-woman show about a non-white woman's encounter with Shakespeare.

  2. A further comment, if I may, and then enough from me.

    OSF might -- I don't know -- also be dealing with a decline in attention to Shakespeare in high schools and colleges. At the small state university where I taught until a few years ago, we had had a Shakespeare course required of secondary education majors for years. Sixteen weeks of required Shakespeare! Somehow One didn't run out of interest, but rather out of time.

    Our recently hired feminist instructor, as I recall, thought this requirement should cease. I don't know what the status of the Shakespeare course is now.

    Well, I wonder if there has been a quiet reduction going on in the past 25 years or so almost everywhere as regards Shakespeare. And given the priorities of accrediting agencies and teachers' colleges and so on, this would not be surprising. The fact is that the works of Shakespeare don't actually fit well into a "progressive" mindset, and will always be too hard for a fair number of secondary school students who grew up with defective pedagogy of learning how to read, were passed on to graduation for social rather than reasons of academic achievement, etc. And they've grown up online with texting rather than books.

    I taught the Shakespeare course towards the end of my career, and student response was good, but I didn't "approach" the plays with the "lenses" of critical theory. However, I suppose most new-hire English instructors do not know how -not- to do Theory (which, of course, is thoroughly permeated by Left assumptions of one sort or another -- name one variety of Theory that's not; it's all Sixties. ...See Tom McAlindon's Shakespeare Minus 'Theory," etc.).

    These factors too might have implications for OSF.

    Thanks for the hospitality of the comments section.


  3. Sounds like good news -- a newspaper for the Rogue Valley:

    (This is just an update to a comment I posted here, in which I said the valley had no newspaper, with the end of the Ashland Tidings and then, this month, the Medford Mail Tribune.)