Wildfire Smoke Can Be A Show Stopper At Oregon Shakespeare Festival

September 21, 2015

Actress Bonnie Milligan should be belting out songs in a production of Head Over Heels at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. But belting and smoke don’t mix — and that’s causing problems this year at one of the country’s oldest and most respected theater festivals.

Wildfires have been raging across the Pacific Northwest. In Washington State they’ve consumed more than 1 million acres, displaced thousands of people and killed three firefighters. They’re also creating potentially hazardous breathing conditions beyond the fire zones.

The Shakespeare festival has canceled six performances so far — shows will only go on if the air quality is safe for audiences and performers.

“I can feel it right now,” Milligan says. “Like the back of your throat. You just need water. There’s never enough water.”

Milligan appears in Head Over Heels and The Count of Monte Cristo. Both shows are staged at the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre, where the air quality changes constantly as wildfire smoke moves through the Rogue Valley.

“It’s hard, because when you sing, especially high, it takes more breath, and when you’re taking in bigger breaths you’re sucking in those particles,” she explains.

It doesn’t just affect performers’ voices; the Environmental Protection Agency says exposure to smoke particulate can be linked to heart attacks, respiratory problems and premature death for people who have heart and lung disease.

Festival Marketing Director Mallory Pierce says the company has to protect its actors. “We don’t put the responsibility on them to say, ‘Do I go on?’ or ‘Do I not go on?'” Pierce says.

Aside from the safety of the cast and crew, cancelling a show can cost the festival a lot of money — up to $65,000 in ticket refunds for a sold-out show.

So two years ago, when it started to become obvious that smoky summers are here to stay in the West, the Festival put together a “smoke team.” Pierce is a member. Each day, before evening shows begin, they meet to assess air quality.

The team uses the good old fashioned “Can we see the mountains across the valley?” yardstick, in addition to objective data from smoke reports, an air quality station on top of one of the theaters, and a handheld monitor that gives real-time measures backstage.

“If a lot of patrons are walking out, if we’re hearing from actors that they’re not feeling very well, if the forecast is that it’s going to continue, those are the factors that are going to play into cancelling the show,” Pierce says.

‘It Makes People Rethink’

A hot setting sun beats down on the Festival’s courtyard stage, where a small ensemble is playing Renaissance music, part of the Festival’s free summer performance series. Tonight, there’s a good crowd. They’re sitting on the grass, lounging in camp chairs — and breathing the cleanest air the Rogue Valley has seen in a while. For weeks though, air quality here has been some of the worst in the Northwest.

“I do think there has been an effect on turnout on the nights where it has been very smoky,” says Claudia Alick, who produces the performance series. “Sometimes my artists are hardcore, and they’re like, ‘I don’t care if it’s smoky. It’s smoky in LA. We’ll perform.’ And then if it’s red [indicating unhealthy air quality] then I’m going to cancel the show. For the health of not only the performer, but also my staff.”

And also the audience. Heidi Schultz and her two sons stopped at the festival on their way from Eugene to California. But she almost didn’t come. “Actually we’ve reconsidered our plans a few times,” she says, “because of the smoke and really just because of the fire danger.”

This kind of hesitation is a concern to Marketing Director Mallory Pierce. The Festival draws more than 100,000 people to Ashland each year.

“People who come here to see shows, absolutely love to drive up to Crater Lake one afternoon or do a river trip or something,” she says. “And when the activities that are outdoors are affected with the smoke, it makes people rethink whether or not this is where they want to take their vacation.”

Despite the shifting smoky conditions, cancellations are still a relatively rare occurrence. And performers like Bonnie Milligan are doing everything they can to keep their voices strong and lubricated in the challenging conditions. Here’s one strategy she discovered:

“Last night if I found … [if] I know the song is coming up I try to hmmmmm hmmmm,” she says. “Because if you clear your throat it’s a little harder, but if you try to hum on your cords, it’s gentler. Then I bite my tongue a bit to try to salivate.”

It’s not a pretty image, but it might just become a necessary part of smoky summers at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Copyright 2015 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit http://www.opb.org.