Climate change threatens summer stages and outdoor shows

ASHLAND, Ore. — Smoke from a raging California wildfire prompted the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to cancel a recent performance of “The Tempest” at its outdoor theater. Record-breaking flooding in St. Louis forced the cancellation of an outdoor performance of “Legally Blonde.” And after the heat and smoke at an outdoor Pearl Jam concert in France damaged the throat of its lead singer, Eddie Vedder, The group canceled several shows.

Around the world, rising temperatures, raging wildfires and extreme weather conditions are putting entire communities at risk. This summer, climate change is also putting a treasured hobby at risk: outdoor performance.

Here in Rogue Valley, Oregon’s Shakespeare Festival sees an existential threat from the increasingly common wildfires. In 2018, it canceled 25 performances due to wildfire smoke. In 2020, when the theater was closed by the pandemic, a massive fire destroyed 2,600 local homes, including those of several staff members. When the festival reopened last year with a solo show about civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, smoke from the wildfires forced it to cancel almost all performances in August.

“The problem is that in recent years there have been fires in British Columbia and in the mountains of Washington State and fires all the way to Los Angeles,” said Nataki Garrett, artistic director of the festival. “You have fire along the west coast, and it all seeps into the valley.”

Even before the start of this year’s fire season, the festival postponed the nightly start time of its outdoor shows due to extreme heat.

Ashland isn’t the only outdoor theater to cancel performances due to wildfires. Smoke or fire conditions have also resulted in cancellations in recent years at the Butterfly Effect Theater in Colorado; the California Shakespeare Theatre, known as Cal Shakes; the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival in Nevada and the Getty Villa in Malibu, California, among others.

“We are a giant ecosystem, and what happens in one place affects everywhere,” said Robert K. Meya, general manager of the Santa Fe Opera, which stages outdoor productions each summer in a stark desert setting, and who, in an era of massive wildfires near and far, has installed sensors to assess whether it is safe to perform.

Reports of worsening conditions are coming from across large swaths of the country. “Last summer was the toughest summer I’ve had here, because the fires came early, and associated with that there were some pretty severe heat indices,” said Kevin Asselin, artistic director executive of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, which organizes free performances in rural areas. communities in five Rocky Mountain West states, and has increasingly been forced indoors. “And the hailstorms this year have been out of control.”

In southern Ohio, a growing number of performances of an annual historical play called “Tecumseh!” were canceled due to heavy rain. In northwest Arkansas, rising heat plagues “The Great Passion Play,” an annual reenactment of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. In Texas, record heat forced the Austin Symphony Orchestra to cancel several outdoor chamber concerts. And in western Massachusetts, at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s bucolic summer home, more shade trees have been planted on the expansive lawn to provide relief on hot days.

“Changing weather patterns with more frequent and severe storms have altered the landscape of Tanglewood on a scale never seen before,” the orchestra said in a statement.

On Sunday, the US Senate voted in favor of the nation’s first major climate law, which if enacted would seek to drive major reductions in greenhouse pollution. Arts presenters, meanwhile, are wondering how to preserve outside productions, both short-term and long-term, as the planet warms.

“We are in a world that we have never been in as a species, and we are going to a world that is completely alien and new and that will challenge us in ways that we can only dimly see in right now,” Kim Cobb said. , director of the Institute of Environment and Society at Brown University.

Some sites take elaborate precautions. The American Players Theater in Spring Green, Wis., now requires performers to wear absorbent underwear when the heat and humidity increase, encourages actors to consume second-act sports drinks, and asks creators to costumes to eliminate wigs, jackets and other heavy outerwear on hot days. .

Many outdoor venues say that while they are preparing for the effects of climate change, they are also trying to limit how they contribute to it. Santa Fe Opera Invests in Solar Energy; the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival plants native grasslands; and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival uses electric vehicles.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which before the pandemic was one of the largest nonprofit theaters in the country, is, in many ways, patient zero. The theater is at the heart of the local economy – the town center is home to establishments with names such as Bard’s Inn and Salon Juliet. But the theater’s location in southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley has repeatedly been subjected to high levels of smoke from wildfires in recent years.

The theatre, like many, has installed air quality monitors – there’s one in a niche in the wall that encircles the audience in the Allen Elizabethan open-air theatre, where this summer ‘The Tempest’ alternates with a new musical titled “Revenge Song.” The device is visible only to the sharpest of eyes: a small cylindrical white gadget with lasers that count particles in the passing breeze.

The theater also has a smoke crew that meets daily during fire season, assessing whether to cancel or continue. The theater’s production manager, Alys E. Holden, said that since she objected to the cancellation of a mid-show performance and later learned that a technician had vomited due to the air pollution, she replaced her “show must go on”. ethos with “If it’s too dangerous to play, you don’t play.”

This year, the festival has reduced the number of outdoor performances scheduled for August – usually, but not always, the smokiest month.

“Actors breathe huge amounts of air to project themselves for hours on end – it’s no trivial event to inspire this stuff, and their voices are blown the next day if we ring the call,” said Holden said. “We are therefore canceling to preserve everyone’s health, and to preserve the next show.”

Air quality related to wildfires has become an issue for western sites. “It’s constantly on our minds, especially as fire season seems to be starting earlier and earlier,” said Ralph Flores, senior theater and performance program manager at the J. Paul Getty Museum, which owns a 500-seat outdoor theater at the Getty. Villa.

Air quality issues sometimes surprise guests on days when pollution is present, but cannot be easily smelled or seen.

“The idea that outdoor performance would be affected or disrupted by what’s going on with the Air Quality Index is still a pretty new and cutting-edge concept for a lot of people,” said Stephen Weitz, producer artistic director at the Butterfly Effect Theater in Colorado, which organizes free shows in parks and parking lots. Last summer, the theater had to cancel a performance due to poor air quality caused by a distant fire.

Another theater there, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, is now working with scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder on surveillance and health protocols after a fire more than a thousand miles away in Oregon polluted the local air enough to force the cancellation of a show last summer. . Tim Orr, artistic director and producer of the festival, remembers breaking the news to the public.

“The looks on their faces were startling and shocked, but a lot of people came up and said, ‘Thank you for making the right choice,'” he said. “And when I came off stage, I thought, ‘Is this going to be part of our future? “”

Planning for the future, for places that present themselves outdoors, now invariably means thinking about climate change.

Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theatre, which produces Free Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park, said the 2021 summer season, when the theater reopened after the pandemic shutdown, was the rainiest in his two decades there. “I could imagine playing more in the fall and spring, and less in the summer,” he said.

In some places, theater managers are already envisioning a future in which shows will all take place indoors.

“We won’t have an outdoor theater in Boise forever – I don’t think there’s a chance of that happening,” said Charles Fee, who is the artistic director-producer of three nonprofit organizations. profit collaborating: the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival and Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland. Fee asked the Idaho board to plan an indoor theater in Boise.

“Once it’s 110 degrees at 6 p.m., and we already get that from time to time, people get sick,” he said. “You can’t do Shakespeare’s big fight, you can’t do the dances in ‘Mamma Mia.’ And you can’t do that to an audience.

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