Peter Royston had gotten his dream job. He was stage managing Oklahoma! at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a “historic” revival featuring queer characters and same-sex couples. As a gay married man, he said, it was “such a life-changing, affirming experience to be backstage.” But in July, after having worked on the show for months, Royston began to have health problems. “I felt chest pains and I couldn’t sleep,” he recalled.
He eventually went to a local emergency room, where the doctor told him the cause: smoke. Since June multiple forest fires have been burning in Oregon, and one of them was near Ashland, where OSF is located. Staff had been given masks and air purifiers had been installed backstage in all three of OSF’s theatrical spaces. But even though Royston was working indoors, smoke still leaked into the theatre.
Royston recalled having trouble breathing and staying focused while backstage. “The lack of oxygen—it makes you feel frazzled,” said Royston, who has minor cerebral palsy and a history of seizures. “I just felt insane and crazy; I felt high the entire performance.”
With a heavy heart, Royston backed out of his OSF contract early, on doctor’s orders. He admitted that “it’s been very hard to come to peace” with his decision. “Some people had health challenges and they put up with it. Why couldn’t I?”
It was just a week ago that Ashland finally saw a clear day, though there are still fires burning in Southern Oregon, Northern California, and Washington State. NASA estimates that 231,278 acres have burned in Oregon and 716,276 acres in California.
Ashland was surrounded by four fires, each around 70 miles away. Over the summer the Air Quality Index in Ashland got as high as 208, a classification deemed “very unhealthy.” In July the Environmental Protection Agency ranked Ashland’s air quality as the worst in the country due to the fires, with “the risk of health effects…increased for everyone.”
This season alone the fires have forced OSF to cancel or move 26 performances (some performances intended to play in the 1,200-seat outdoor Elizabethan Theatre were moved to a local high school auditorium with just 353 seats). OSF also cut short its Green Show, a 6-night-a-week free event performed outside in OSF’s courtyard. The company estimates this year’s losses at around $2 million in revenue. There was also a human toll, as workers like Royston cut their contracts short for health reasons. “There are a few members of the larger company whose health was impacted by the smoke to the degree that they weren’t able to stay,” said artistic director Bill Rauch sadly.
While this is not the first year that OSF has been affected by the fires, Rauch said this year has been the worst. “It’s been very frightening,” he says. The theatre’s leadership has been in talks for what to do next year if the fires end up being as bad or worse. OSF has a “smoke team” in place, whose job it is to assess whether or not a production needs to be moved or cancelled. The team usually monitors the air quality and makes a call in the morning of a performance if they decide it needs to be moved indoors. Cancellations typically occur when the air quality dramatically drops later in the day.
Because OSF programs its productions in rep, some workaround for next year include only using one set for the outdoor space, “so our changeover crew isn’t outside with the smoke,” said Rauch. OSF has also smoke-proofed its indoor spaces by adding layers of plastic over the windows, and making sure audience doors are always closed.
OSF is also looking into other local venues that can accommodate its outdoor productions. Unfortunately, none have a 1,200-seat capacity. “At the highest risk time of the season, we may only sell the number of seats of audiences that can fit the indoor venue, so we’re not in a position to turn people away,” Rauch said.
But for many who work at the theatre, the fires have brought concerns about climate change home. OSF has not been the only theatre affected by raging wildfires on the West Coast: The Ensemble Theatre Company of Santa Barbara reported a loss of $20,000 following the Thomas Fire of 2017. Since leaving OSF and returning to his home in New York City, Royston has been working with the Broadway Green Alliance, which advocates for more environmentally conscious theatre practices. “We’re supposed to be focusing on making the world a better place,” he said. “It’s about our own lives as artists and people.”
Another OSF company member, Barret O’Brien, has written a play called Water Made to Rise, a Beckett-like piece about three men sitting in a bar drinking, while the water levels around them increase. It is sponsored by three environmental organizations: the Southern Oregon Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Southern Oregon Pachamama Alliance, and the Crest at Willow-Witt. It will play Sept. 24 and 25 at the Historic Ashland Armory.
When it comes to talking about climate change, O’Brien said, “There are people much brighter than I talking on the intellectual level, political level, and scientific level.” But what theatre artists can do, he said, is “talk on an emotional gut level.” There will also be a talkback after the play so everyone can talk about how they can “translate those feelings into action.”
He points out that there are also practical things theatres can do as well, such as “divesting of fossil fuels, recycling sets, doing plays that are green-focused,” he said. But he emphasized the need for theatre artists to contribute to the conversation around climate change.
O’Brien is originally from New Orleans, where his family lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina. The father of two young girls, this past summer he couldn’t let them outside without a mask. When asked if he plans to leave Ashland, O’Brien quoted his own play, in which one character says: “I’ve got nowhere left to run, we’ve got nowhere left to run, ya’ll,” adding, “it’s time to stop running and just get to work. The solutions are here.”