Iconic Festival Facing Crushing Financial Issues

Oregon Shakespeare Festival, running since 1935, is in danger of permanently disappearing due to attendance numbers not recovering following the pandemic.

By Kari Apted | Published

Oregon Shakespeare Festival oil rig theme park

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is one of the oldest and largest non-profit professional theaters in the United States. Founded in 1935 by Angus L. Bowmer, the landmark Elizabethan theater in Ashland, Oregon is now facing closure after attendance numbers failed to recover post-pandemic. On Tuesday, the festival’s board of directors announced a campaign to “save the season” by raising $2.5 million for the arts organization over the next four months.

“Oregon Shakespeare Festival is in crisis, and we are not alone. All across the theatre industry, attendance and donations are down significantly,” the announcement read. “Because we are a destination theatre where people often have to spend thousands of dollars to reach our stages, we have been especially hard hit by the twin impacts of COVID and inflation.”

The fundraising plea came just a week before the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was set to preview the first two shows of the 2023 season, “Rent” and “Romeo and Juliet.” It underscored the urgency of the matter, saying the festival needed $1.5 million by June to continue the current season. The statement also announced the festival’s holiday play, “It’s Christmas, Carol!” would be canceled this year.

According to Oregon Live, the interim executive director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been relieved of her role. Nataki Garrett took on the position in January when widespread layoffs forced the festival’s top executives to pull double duty. Garrett will still be part of the festival, focusing on production, but has received criticism since she became the first Black woman to occupy the executive role.

Garrett’s critics largely disagreed with the productions she chose, as she moved the Oregon Shakespeare Festival away from classic works toward modern plays. Her choices often explored social justice issues and focused heavily on diverse casting. Garrett defended her choices by saying that her goal was to create long-term sustainability for the festival by building a more diverse audience.

“My primary purpose here at Oregon Shakespeare Festival is to create a thriving enterprise,” Garrett said in a previous interview with The Oregonian, “so that in the future, when another group of people – 25, 30 years, 50 years, a hundred years out – comes to Oregon Shakespeare Festival, that it’s sustaining, that they use whatever platform we create so that they can have a future.” Unfortunately, the theater’s outlook remains in peril.

An unnamed Oregon Shakespeare Festival employee shared with Oregon Live that the organization’s financial problems date back several years. The employee said the festival’s leaders need to fix more than 15,000 incorrect entries in its ledgers, which were blamed on mismanagement and antiquated systems. In an internal staff meeting on Tuesday, executives told employees that they are still trying to sort out exactly how many bills the festival owes, its overall expenses, and cash flow numbers.

The financial problems at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival threaten to spread beyond its four theater walls into Ashland and southern Oregon as a whole. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has historically been a major draw for tourists. According to the city’s tourism bureau, over a third of the 350,000 visitors it receives each year have theater tickets.

As with so many problems around the globe, the festival’s current woes were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Oregon Shakespeare Festival had just begun an 11-show season when the March 2020 shutdowns hit, forcing the cancellation of more than 800 performances. Later that year, wildfires ravaged the Rogue Valley, destroying 2,500 homes and hundreds of businesses.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival officials are hopeful that a pending arts aid package moving through the state’s legislature could provide some much-needed relief. House Bill 2459 would provide the struggling theater with $5.1 million—the largest award of the proposed $51 million sent to arts organizations across the state. It has been approved by the House Economic Development and Small Business Committee and is being considered by the Joint Ways and Means Committee.

Even if the bill passes, the funds would not be distributed until late this summer, not soon enough to save some shows but perhaps early enough to save the theater.  “The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is one of Oregon’s jewels,” said Representative Rob Nosse, D-Portland, a co-sponsor of the bill. “We need to save it.”