More than a year after closing due to the pandemic, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has announced it will reopen its doors to in-person performances on July 1. That’s two months earlier than originally planned.
The theater company is mounting the production Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer about the civil rights icon. The performance will welcome a limited audience into the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theater.
OSF is requiring attendees to wear masks and to show proof of their vaccination status.
Jefferson Public Radio’s April Ehrlich spoke with OSF artistic director Nataki Garrett.
[This conversation has been edited for brevity.]
APRIL EHRLICH: So OSF originally planned to launch in-person performances again in the fall, but now the plan is to have doors open on July 1st with this performance. What’s changed?
NATAKI GARRET: We feel like we faced a set of unprecedented challenges and emerged with a situation that’s much better with this opening in the fall that allows for our businesses locally in Ashland to do what they are so used to doing, which they’ve done almost every year since 1935, which is open and serve, you know, the people who come to the festival.
EHRLICH: How has OSF been able to pull together this production so quickly?
GARRETT: We’re working in collaboration with Goodman Theater. This is a play that premiered at the Asolo [Repertory Theater] in Florida, and the playwright wanted another run before it went to the Goodman, and we were like, “We’ll take it!” We want to have an opportunity to have this powerful performance with Chicago-based actress E. Faye Butler and director Henry Godinez. And it’s also because, with all of the social uprisings and the impact of that in the state, we feel like this play is kind of the best way to sort of display historically and currently why our conversations around how we make sure that everybody has their rights: why that’s so important.
EHRLICH: So the pandemic is not quite over yet. What kinds of precautions does OSF have to take for staff and audiences? And are there spacing or vaccine requirements?
GARRETT: We are asking for limited proximity to the people who are doing or performing on the stage and the people who are putting this particular piece up. We have a safety squad that sort of commands the entire campus to make sure that when you walk into a space your temperature is checked. They ask you to COVID test. And we’re looking into methodologies to make sure that our audiences can check a box to say that they’ve been vaccinated. We’re asking people to be vaccinated before they come into our space and I think we’re looking into requirements around that as well. Because if you can imagine, one person who catches that disease within our midst would cause a maelstrom that would cause us to shut down.
EHRLICH: Well, thank you so much for your time today. Is there anything else you want to add or you want folks to know?
GARRETT: Yeah, you know there’s been a lot of questions as to why there’s no Shakespeare at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And there are two reasons why. The first is that the expense actually outweighs the ability for us to really be able to deliver in the way that we want to.
EHRLICH: That’s really interesting. I didn’t even think about asking that, but [JPR gets] a lot of letters from people who get really upset by the fact that OSF has a lot of very modern plays and, in their eyes, fewer and fewer traditional Shakespeare performances. But you’re saying it’s a financial thing.
GARRETT: Let me answer the question about why we do what people are terming “non-traditional Shakespeare,” because I think when people say that what they really mean is the kind of Shakespeare that they saw here at OSF when they were a child, which is not traditional Shakespeare. It’s a very buttoned-up, less bawdy, Eisenhower, 1950s brand of performance. And that was really beautiful at the time and important. So we’re continuing in the tradition of that by making sure that we do the work that we want to do that reflect our time. Shakespeare was a populist, he reflected the times, and that’s the kind of work that OSF has been doing forever. And so we will continue to support new work and recognize that every single one of Shakespeare’s plays at some point was new work. So all of that is actually a part of why OSF continues — and will continue — to make sure that the voice of the future continues to have a platform to be amplified from. That is OSF’s mandate as we move into the future.
EHRLICH: Well, thank you again.
GARRETT: Thank you.