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Climate Change Threatens Summer Stages and Outdoor Performances

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

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

Here in the Rogue Valley, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival sees an existential threat from increasingly common wildfires. In 2018, it canceled 25 performances due to wildfire smoke. In 2020, while the theater was closed due to the pandemic, a massive fire destroyed 2,600 local homes, including those belonging to several staffers. When the festival reopened last year with a one-woman show about civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, wildfire smoke forced it to be cancelled. almost every gig in August.

“The problem is that in recent years there have been fires in British Columbia and in the mountains in Washington state and fires as far as Los Angeles,” said Nataki Garrett, the festival’s artistic director. “You’ve got fire along the west coast and it’s all seeping into the valley.”

Even before this year’s fire season kicked off, the festival moved the nighttime start time of its outdoor performances due to extreme heat.

Ashland isn’t the only open-air theater to cancel performances because of wildfires. Smoke or fire conditions have also led to cancellations at the Butterfly Effect Theater of Colorado in recent years; the California Shakespeare Theater, known as Cal Shakes; include the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival in Nevada and the Getty Villa in Malibu, California.

“We’re one giant ecosystem, and what happens in one place affects everything,” said Robert K. Meya, the general manager of the Santa Fe Opera, which puts on open-air productions every summer against a striking desert backdrop, and who performs in an era of massive wildfires near and far, has installed sensors to measure whether it is safe to perform.

Reports of deteriorating conditions come from large parts of the country. “Last summer was the toughest summer I’ve been through here because the fires came early and combined with them were pretty heavy heat indexes,” said Kevin Asselin, executive artistic director of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, which offers free performances in rural areas. is organizing. communities in five Rocky Mountain West states, and is increasingly being forced indoors. “And this year’s hailstorms have gotten out of hand.”

In southern Ohio, a growing number of performances of an annual history game called “Tecumseh!” canceled due to heavy rain. In northwestern Arkansas, “The Great Passion Play,” an annual replay of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, is ravaged by rising heat. in texas, record heat forced the Austin Symphony Orchestra to cancel several open-air chamber concerts. And in western Massachusetts, at Tanglewood, the rural summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, 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 changed the landscape of Tanglewood on a scale not seen before,” the orchestra said in a statement.

On Sunday, the US Senate voted in favor of the country’s first major climate bill, which, if passed, would lead to a major reduction in greenhouse pollution. Art presenters, meanwhile, are struggling to maintain outdoor productions, both in the short and long term, as the planet warms.

“We’re in a world we’ve never been to as a species, and we’re entering a world that is completely strange and new that will challenge us in ways we can only vaguely see right now,” said Kim Cobb, the director. of the environment and society institute at Brown University.

Some locations take extensive precautions. The American Players Theater in Spring Green, Wis., now requires performers to wear moisture-wicking undergarments when the heat and humidity rise, encourages actors to consume sports drinks, and asks costume designers to remove wigs, jackets and other heavy outerwear on hot days. .

Many outdoor performances say that while they brace for the effects of climate change, they are also trying to limit the ways in which they contribute to it. The Santa Fe Opera invests in solar energy; the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival plants native pastures; and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival uses electric vehicles.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which was one of the largest nonprofit theaters in the country before the pandemic, is patient zero in many ways. The theater is central to the local economy – the downtown area has establishments with names like the Bard’s Inn and Salon Juliet. But the theater’s location, in southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley, has repeatedly been subject to… high levels of wildfire smoke in recent years.

The theater, like many, has installed air quality monitors — there’s one in a niche in the wall that surrounds the audience at the open-air Allen Elizabethan Theater, which this summer alternates “The Tempest” with a new musical called “Revenge Song.” The device is only visible to the keenest of eyes: a small cylindrical white gadget with lasers that count particles in the passing breeze.

The theater also has a smoking team that meets daily during the fire season to assess whether it should be canceled or continued. The theater’s production director, Alys E. Holden, said that ever since she argued against canceling a performance mid-show and later learned that a technician had vomited because of the air pollution, she’s “must go on” her show. has replaced. ethos with “If it’s too unsafe to play, don’t play.”

This year, the festival reduced the number of outdoor performances scheduled for August — generally, but not always, the smokiest month.

“Actors breathe in massive amounts of air to project out for hours — it’s not a trivial event to inhale this stuff, and their voices get blown the next day when we blow the call,” Holden said. “So we’re canceling to preserve everyone’s health and to preserve the next show.”

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

Air quality concerns sometimes surprise customers 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 happens to the Air Quality Index is still a fairly new and progressive concept for many people,” said Stephen Weitz, the producing artistic director of the Butterfly Effect Theater in Colorado. which puts on free shows in parks and parking lots. Last summer, the theater had to cancel a performance due to poor air quality from a distant fire.

Another theater there, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, is now working with scientists at the affiliated University of Colorado Boulder on monitoring and health protocols after a fire more than a thousand miles away in Oregon severely polluted local air enough to put on a show last summer. Cancel. . Tim Orr, the festival’s producing artistic director, recalls breaking the news to the public.

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

Planning for the future, for outdoor venues, now invariably means thinking about climate change.

Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, which produces Free Shakespeare in the Park at New York’s Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park, said the 2021 summer season, when the theater reopened after its pandemic closure, was the rainiest in its history. two seasons. decades there. “I can imagine performing more in the fall and spring, and less in the summer,” he said.

In some places, theater leaders already envision a future in which performances all move inwards.

“We won’t have outdoor theater in Boise forever — I don’t think there’s a chance of that,” said Charles Fee, who is the producing artistic director of three collaborating nonprofits: the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival and Theater of the Great Lakes in Cleveland. Fee has asked the Idaho board to make plans for an indoor theater in Boise.

‘If it’s 110 degrees at six o’clock in the evening, which we have now and then, people are sick,’ he says. “You can’t do the great Shakespeare fight, you can’t do the dances in ‘Mamma Mia.’ And you can’t do that to an audience.”

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