We got a positive indication this week of one aspect of life here coming back from the near standstill it’s been this past year. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a Tony-winning regional theater founded in 1935 which produces musicals, world premieres of new productions and commissioned new works as well as Shakespearean plays, announced its 2021 season after being forced to go dark just after the 2020 season opened last year. Located in the college town of Ashland (and conveniently close to my home), the Festival drew theater lovers from across the country and around the world who, along with all the professionals associated with the organization, pumped millions of dollars into the local economy. Restaurants, hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, shops and tour operators relied heavily on a season that ran from February through October each year. You can imagine how deeply the shutdowns and travel bans resulting from the pandemic affected the entire community.
OSF did not just fold up and hibernate entirely last year, however. Its artistic director, Nataki Garrett, and new executive director David Schmitz helped launch O!, a new digital platform that allowed theater to intersect with other media in order to support artists and reach audiences in new ways with new content. On the site one can access audio recordings of past performances; take part in interactive conversations and discussions; access digitized archives, classes and educational materials; watch past acts from the free outdoor Green Shows that preceded summertime plays; view documentaries; and enjoy online storytelling and podcasts. Still, we’ve all been missing the chance to take in live performances.
This week’s announcement of the 2021 season provided a gleaming light at the end of the COVID tunnel with the promise of a unique, combined digital and live season beginning in March and running through the end of the year. In addition to the ongoing content from O!, which Garrett describes as the Festival’s “marquee fourth stage where new and innovative projects will run alongside some of OSF’s most beloved and well-known productions,” four new, live productions will run in repertoire onstage in the fall and winter. These are August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned, an autobiographical one-man show; Unseen, a West Coast premiere about a conflict photographer who wakes up at the site of a Syrian massacre, unsure how she got there; and Confederates, a world premiere commissioned play part of OSF’s ongoing American Revolutions series, telling the stories of two Black American women: an enslaved woman turned Union spy and a modern-day private university professor. The final play, It’s Christmas, Carol, will be the first winter season production for the Festival and promises to be a whacky take on Dickens’ tale. It was written by three actors who together performed in the Marx Brothers comedies Coconuts and Animal Crackers at OSF a few years ago. If It’s Christmas, Carol is even half as hilarious as those two shows (my ribs were literally aching from laughing so hard after seeing Coconuts), it will be the best way to end the sojourn we’ve been on over the last year.
The Green Shows will also return, presenting free concerts, dance and community acts outdoors on the Festival courtyard stage, with the schedule to be announced soon. All live performances will be subject to state and local guidelines and restrictions, but the directors clearly believe performances with live audiences will be possible in the coming months.
The Festival will also stream on-demand shows from the OSF archives on a limited schedule, starting in March with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; Manahatta, by Mary Kathryn Nagle; and Snow in Midsummer, by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig. (Productions from recent seasons were filmed with multiple high-definition cameras and “exceptional” sound quality, promising a great video experience.) Tickets for those three performances are available now, and plans are to announce more streaming productions in the coming months. At $15 a pop or three for $40, it’s a great way to see plays that would cost as much as $100 or more in the theater. I’m looking forward to being able to catch shows that I wasn’t able to see live onstage but which had received great reviews.
While it will likely be another year before I’ll be able to watch Shakespeare under the stars at Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Allen Elizabethan Theatre, I am so happy to hear (knock on wood) that I’ll be able to attend live, world-class performances before the end of the year.
— Patty Vanikiotis, associate editor/copy editor
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