In Ashland, the Play’s (Still) the Thing

This fall Tim Bond returned to his longtime creative home to serve as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director. The festival is struggling, but Bond’s outlook is sunny.

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“One man in his time plays many parts,” wrote the Bard in “As You Like It.” 

Tim Bond grew up in Ohio and California. He received a BFA in dramatic arts from Howard and his MFA in directing from the University of Washington, and he started his professional career at the Seattle Theatre Group in 1984, directing more than 20 productions, many of which were West Coast and world premieres. His career has taken him all over the country — from Dallas to Cleveland to Milwaukee. 

But the Pacific Northwest, and Ashland in particular, have had a strong pull for Bond, who was also a full professor and head of the professional actor training program at the University of Washington School of Drama. And from 1996 to 2007, he served as artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where he directed 12 productions and created a program to mentor theater artists and administrators from diverse backgrounds. 

In September he returned to Ashland to serve as the festival’s new artistic director. 

Bond returns during a challenging time for the 88-year-old festival and for the performing arts in general. He’s undeterred, though. In fact, he’s excited.

“I was just here in July,” Bond told Oregon Business during a video call in August. “There was an energy and an excitement of audiences coming back, finally, after COVID. That felt amazing.” 

In April OSF launched an emergency fundraising drive, saying it needed to raise $1.5 million by June — and $2.5 million in total — in order to continue the 2023 season. That announcement followed the January resignations of executive director David Schmitz and director of development Amanda Brandes, plus 12 layoffs, seven furloughs and a hiring freeze. Artistic director Nataki Garrett stepped into the role of executive director on an interim basis, but resigned from the festival in May. 

OSF later announced that it met and exceeded the $2.5 million goal in less than 50 days, but said it needed another $7.5 million to complete the season.

OSF board chair Diane Yu says after Garrett’s resignation, the search for a new artistic director was a “somewhat expedited process.”

“We felt that the organization needed leadership and needed strong, capable, knowledgeable leadership as soon as we could possibly find it,” Yu says. “We were delighted that the then-associate artistic director [Evren Odcikin] agreed to serve as the interim artistic director. But we also felt we should search for a permanent artistic director as soon as we could so that there’d be greater stability and greater opportunity for the next administration to get a foothold.”

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival was founded in 1935 by Angus Bowmer, an English instructor at what was then known as the Southern Oregon Normal School (a forerunner to Southern Oregon University).

Looking at the deterioriating remains of Ashland’s Chautauqua building — a lecture hall and theater built as part of a movement that brought cultural and educational programming to rural areas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — Bowmer noticed something. With the former dome ceiling removed, the building looked a bit like the sketches he had seen of Elizabethan theaters. 

He proposed a theater festival of just two Shakespeare plays, to be performed in conjunction with the city’s Fourth of July weekend. The city cautiously advanced him a sum “not to exceed” $400 (just under $9,000 in 2023 dollars) for the project, and the State Emergency Relief Administration provided a construction crew to build a stage and improve the site. 

The site of that performance space now houses the open-air, 1,200-seat Allen Elizabethan Theatre. The festival has since grown to include five theaters, and from a midsummer weekend event to a multimonth season — next year’s festival will open March 19 and close on Sept. 15. 

It’s also a major economic driver in Ashland and the Rogue Valley as a whole. In 2021 the Medford-based broadcast station KTVL reported that according to an OSF financial study, in 2019 the festival had an economic impact of $120 million, drawing around 120,000 tourists to the area during what was then an eight-month run. 

OSF was not able to provide Oregon Business with a copy of this study, nor with more recent data for comparison. But Katharine Cato, director of Travel Ashland — a branch of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce — confirmed that the festival is responsible for about one-third of the 350,000 visitors the area has historically received each year.

“Things have shifted and our visitor bases certainly evolved,” says Cato, who called OSF an “important amenity” for local tourism. Notably, she says, visitors are more likely to come to Ashland in the spring and fall to avoid smoke. “We are grateful they are building back.”

Cato was also optimistic about Bond’s return to Ashland, noting that he previously served on the Ashland Chamber’s board of directors and was active on a number of the chamber’s committees. 

“He is so engaged with the community. He raised his family here, he has roots here. He’s thrilled to, quote-unquote, be back home. So we were thrilled to have him,” Cato says.

In a sense, Bond never left Ashland. He still has a home in the area; in 2022 he directed a production of August Wilson’s “How I Learned What I Learned” for OSF. During his tenure as associate artistic director, he directed more than 12 productions, including Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Pearl Clage’s “Blues for an Alabama Sky” and “El Paso Blue” by Octavio Solis. He also directed three plays by August Wilson and has the goal of producing Wilson’s whole 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle for the festival. 

Bond is also the creator of OSF’s FAIR program. An acronym for fellowships, assistantships, internships and residencies, the program was set up to create opportunities for theater artists and administrators from diverse backgrounds. 

“I really felt Oregon Shakespeare Festival had such an amazing staff, and an amazing history and fantastic facilities and a lot of knowledge to pass on,” Bond says. “But we were looking to figure out how we could diversify more, how we could get younger voices, and get the next generation to infuse the company with new ideas and people coming from all over the country.”

Tim Bond, the new artistic director at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, photographed in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre in Ashland, Oregon

He says OSF now employs a number of staff who started with the FAIR program, and that he’s met FAIR alumni in both artistic and administrative roles. “We really have seeded the American theater,” he says. 

According to OSF’s website, the FAIR program is currently on hiatus; Bond has a goal of reviving it as soon as possible. 

Former artistic director Nataki Garrett described her tenure at OSF as “four years in crisis” in an interview with the online news outlet

Garrett was the second woman to serve as OSF’s artistic director. She was also the first Black artistic director; Bond is the second. After she announced her departure, Garrett told American Theatre magazine that early on, donors told her she was the reason they were rescinding their donation. She was also the target of threats so serious OSF hired a security detail and contacted federal law enforcement. 

Ostensibly, critics — including the anonymous writers of a series of letters who called themselves “the old white guard” — were displeased by Garrett’s programming choices, notably that in 2021, the only play OSF staged was a one-woman play about the life of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. 

Critics who signed their names to their critiques — like local columnist Herbert Rothschild — said the problem was that OSF was turning its back on the Bard. 

“An arts organization that originally produced only plays by Shakespeare is now producing fewer and fewer of them,” Rothschild wrote in 2022

A review of the festival’s production history, which is documented on its website, shows OSF began producing non-Shakespeare plays in the 1950s; the American Theatre story notes that Garrett’s Shakespeare-to-non-Shakespeare ratio is close to that of her predecessor, Bill Rauch.  

When Bond spoke with OB, the festival had not yet announced which plays it would be producing in 2024, but he said he hopes the upcoming season will be “our miracle season.” 

“We feel that Shakespeare will continue to be an important calling card for Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s work. We’re hoping to make at least 30% of our plays still be connected to Shakespeare,” but also to incorporate more musicals and highlight the work of longtime OSF actors. 

In September OSF announced plans to produce nine plays during its 2024 season. They include “Macbeth” and “Much Ado About Nothing” as well as three plays not written by Shakespeare that either make his work a central theme or make him a character in the action, as in Liz Duffy Adams’ “Born With Teeth,” a play that imagines a meeting at a pub between Shakespeare and his elder contemporary, Christopher Marlowe. 

Also on the roster: two one-man shows written and performed by veteran OSF actors that reflect, in part, on the immigrant experience; a new adaptation of Jane Eyre; and an indie-rock musical about a man with green, scaly skin.

Bond emphasizes that since he arrived at OSF in the 1990s, the festival has worked toward “providing a platform for all voices” and isn’t going to shy away from that work now. 

“All the world is a stage,” Bond says. “So let’s bring the whole world to the stage and to our audiences and on our staff.

“The factions that are particularly vocal these days are working against democracy and working against inclusion on some crazy levels. Our school kids are not being allowed to learn actual history. Books are banned. It’s a very difficult time. It was extremely unfortunate and really, really unacceptable, a lot of the comments being made and attacks that happened to my predecessor and to Oregon Shakespeare Festival,” he adds. “I think those were drawn out through a political dialogue that’s going on nationally — and I assume locally — that is igniting a lot of those voices. And it’s a shame. It’s, anti-American, it’s anti-democratic, in my opinion. So my hope is that we are going to continue to be inclusive and equitable and welcome all sorts of voices.”

Campus of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon

A Jefferson Public Radio analysis of OSF’s finances quotes Yu as saying the festival has historically received as much as 80% of its revenue from ticket sales for plays. That figure, according to Liam Kaas-Lentz at Portland Center Stage, is unusually high; it’s more common for theater companies to get 50% to 60% of their revenue from ticket sales. 

And that reliance on ticket sales, it appears, has placed OSF in a particular bind. Last fall the festival’s then-executive director, David Schmitz, told The Oregonian that attendance for the 2022 season was 46% lower than it was in 2019. And even before COVID hit, OSF —which has two open-air theaters — faced the challenge of worsening air quality due to wildfire smoke. In 2019 The Oregonian reported that the 2018 season had ended with 26 performances either canceled completely or moved indoors due to smoke, with $2.3 million in losses resulting in 16 layoffs. 

OSF is, of course, not alone. Peter Bilotta, executive director of Chamber Music Northwest and treasurer of the Cultural Advocacy Coalition of Oregon, says performing arts organizations are struggling all the way across the board.

“For almost any concert, play, dance performance or other performing art activity that’s occurring right now, typically, we’re seeing audiences at about 60% to 70% of what we saw pre-pandemic,” Bilotta tells OB

He doesn’t see the sector recovering quickly.

“The psychological impact of the pandemic, as well as several years of lower attendance, mean that we have a lot of catch-up to do. It’s not something that, instantaneously, people will start coming back post-pandemic,” Bilotta says. “It will take three to five years to get back to attendance levels that we were seeing back in 2018 and 2019.”

In August Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre announced it was canceling its 2023-24 season due to a lack of funds. The statement in part blames state legislators for failing to pass House Bill 2459, which would have appropriated more than $22 million in aid for arts and culture organizations. It included a line item of $5.1 million for OSF; Ashland-based playwright Octavio Solis submitted written testimony in support of the bill. 

Bilotta says while Oregon is a leader in terms of per capita participation in arts and culture, public funding for the arts in the state is “almost an afterthought.” 

While Bond doesn’t control OSF’s purse strings, he emphasizes that the festival would work on moving forward “in a sustainable way.” That includes strategic planning sessions for dealing with wildfire smoke as well as meetings with donors and board members to talk about how OSF will move into the future.

“It’s too soon for me to say exactly how we’re going to solve it,” Bond says. “But we’ve got some of the greatest minds in American theater looking at this. We have many challenges that we are facing, but I want people to know that we are strong, that we have an amazing group of patrons and community members and artists and artisans that are committed to this place. And I feel very strongly that the state of Oregon, that the country, that our local folks here are going to do whatever they can to keep this place going.”

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