Will The Coronavirus Kill “Shakespeare?”

Will The Coronavirus Kill “Shakespeare?”

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(This story was originally published on April, 10, 2020. It was updated on May 11, 2020.)

Will the coronavirus kill “Shakespeare?”

Are you daft, man?

William Shakespeare, aka “The Bard,” playwright of Stratford-On-Avon in Merry Olde England, died on April 23, 1616, over 400 years ago.

So the coronavirus can’t kill him. He’s long dead.

But could it “kill” his work which has survived from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I into the long reign of her namesake, Queen Elizabeth II?

Or more importantly, even if his plays survive in writing, will the theater companies—one in particular—which have been performing them into the second decade of the 21st century escape this modern day plague alive?

And why should I care?

In 1935 Angus Bowmer, then a teacher at Southern Oregon Normal School (today Southern Oregon University) in the small town of Ashland, bet that a production of two Shakespeare plays would draw enough theater-goers to pay for the cost of putting them on and be an even bigger hit than the prize fight that was scheduled to take place during the same week.

The city fathers scoffed at Bower’s  idea, but agreed to his scheme.

Bowmer turned out to be a savvy prognosticator of the town folk’s cultural wants. The plays outdid the pugilistic performance and even covered the city’s loss on the prizefight.

And thus was born what today and for decades has been known as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, or its nickname (undoubtedly dreamt up by publicity hacks) as “Oregon Shakes.”

My wife and I made the first of several “pilgrimages” to “OSF” in July of 1973 arriving in Ashland after a stay in the creaky, ready-to-fall-off-the-side-of-the-mountain Crater Lake Lodge, perched precariously near the rim of the fabled national park “rain barrel” like lake that formed over seven thousands years earlier when Mount Mazama, as Mount Saint Helens would do seven short years after our Crater Lake trip, blew it top off into the sky.

Unlike some of our friends who, like us, lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, we didn’t attend the festival every spring, summer or fall over the next 40-odd years before we moved to Eugene, Oregon, but we went often enough to become well acquainted with the town and one of its most famous “residents,” a cat who lived in the shoe store on Main Street and made the national news because of the birthday greetings he received annually from others who hadmet him when coming to Ashland to attend the festival.

It was a six-hour trip by car, including stops, from our Bay Area home to Ashland, a relatively easy journey. Some years we’d just drive up, see some plays, and then drive home. But usually we took an extended vacation, heading off to the lava lands of Central Oregon, into the Siskiyou Mountains east of Redding, over to the North California or Oregon coast, or the high deserts of Eastern Oregon.

After relocating to Eugene in January of 2017, I thought we would make the three-hour journey south to Ashland with some frequency. It was close enough that we might have left home after breakfast, arrived in time for a quick lunch, then attended a matinee performance, and been home in time for dinner.

But although we did stop off in Ashland for lunch, or even made a “one-night stand” there when traveling to and from the San Francisco Bay Area over the next two years, we have never attended a play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival since becoming Oregonians.

In 2018 we decided to stay two nights in Ashland at the end of August, see one play, eat at some of our favorite restaurants, and celebrate our 47th wedding anniversary, 45 years after we first visited the town.

Forest fires raging in Norther California, as well as near Ashland, had filled the skies over the town with clouds of smoke, as had happened the previous summer.

All performances in the festival’s outdoor Elizabethan Theatre had been moved to the local high school auditorium. And being stuck in a hotel room when not dining out or attending the one play we had planned to see made little sense to us.

So like many who planned to attend the festival that summer, we decided to put the trip off to another year. The festival reportedly lost a cool million dollars in revenue, and the fires put a financial hammer down on local business who cater to festival patrons, too.

We were supposed to travel to Ashland at the beginning of May of this year to meet up with long-time friends from the Bay Area. But the coronavirus nixed that plan.

Even though we weren’t going to see any plays during that visit, the fact that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was forced to shut down for at least a month not long after its 2020 season had opened, per the order of Oregon’s Governor Brown prohibiting large gatherings, meant it was likely that Ashland itself would be “closed for business” during our planned stay.

And near the end of March OSF announced it would not stage any plays until at least September 8, 2020, over six months after its theaters had “gone dark.” By then, the initial “wave” of the coronavirus may have swept across the country and dissipated, convincing Americans to once again venture onto the highways to get in at least one last trip before fall.

But OSF’s outdoor Elizabethan Theatre season ends around mid-October, and the final festival performance in any of its theaters will be November 1st, giving the festival company in particular, and Ashland’s business in general, less than two months to try and “stop the bleeding” from the monetary wound inflicted by the disease.

(On May 8,, 2020, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced that it was cancelling its Fall 2020 season. In doing so, the festival said: “Canceling the 2020 season has very real financial consequences for OSF. Since suspending performances on March 12, OSF teams have been working to plan and schedule a 2021 season.”)

We know many Americans will die from COVID-19. We hope the numbers will be lower than predicted.

And those of us who have known and loved “Oregon Shakes” and Ashland hope they won’t become fatally “ill” as well.


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