Wildfire smoke costs famed Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The famed Oregon Shakespeare Festival that attracts tourists from around the world said Tuesday that it lost $2 million this summer because wildfire smoke forced it to cancel more than two dozen outdoor performances.

The organization will have an indoor venue next season for smoky days as an alternate to its award-winning outdoor theater and will shift its outdoor season back a week to avoid the worst of the wildfire season, said Julie Cortez, the festival's spokeswoman.

The event in Ashland, Oregon, had to cancel 26 outdoor performances starting in July and running through earlier this month, she said. That's more canceled shows than in all five previous seasons combined, Cortez said.

"It's impacting everyone in our region. Pretty much every business or organization in this area has sagged a bit this summer," she said.

It comes as climate change extends the wildfire season and makes blazes bigger and more destructive, threatening to make air quality worse in urban areas.

The festival has always had to contend with wildfires, but this season was "above and beyond" any other, Cortez said, with smoke coming in from massive fires in Northern California, southern Oregon and sometimes even Washington state. Ashland is just across the state line from California.

The Tony Award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival is among the oldest and largest professional nonprofit theaters in the nation. It prides itself on offering outdoor showings of Shakespeare's plays performed in a venue similar to what his contemporary audiences would have experienced, but it also offers other types of theater in indoor performance halls.

Next season, the festival plans to open an alternate indoor venue from July 30 to Sept. 8 — peak wildfire season. The organization will only sell in advance the number of tickets it can honor in the indoor location, Cortez said.

If the weather looks promising, the rest of the tickets for the 1,200-seat outdoor theater will go on sale shortly before the show so no one is turned away, she said.

The festival is still searching for an indoor venue that will work and plans to add matinees in the indoor space.

This year, a local high school theater provided 400 seats so outdoor shows that were canceled could accommodate one-third of ticketholders, she said.

The rest could exchange tickets for another date, get a refund or "donate" their ticket cost to the festival, Cortez said.

Not included in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's calculations is how much revenue was lost from would-be tourists who simply stayed away, given the smoky conditions.

The nonprofit is still calculating that amount and has launched a fundraising drive.


Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/gflaccus .