Temporary Nomads With Tent No More
Oregon Shakespeare Festival moves back into the Bowmer Theatre after six weeks.

August 2, 2011

At 1:30 this afternoon, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s "can do" attitude can shift to a "did do" pride after an incredible six weeks of reacting to the crack of a beam.

That beam was the main structural element supporting the ceiling of the Festival's Angus Bowmer Theatre. At 600 seats, the 1970 house is the larger indoor theatre in the three-house complex in Ashland, Oregon. All season long, from February to November each year, the house is home to three or four full productions playing in repertory.

At the time of the crack, three shows were up and running: Shakespeare's Measure for Measure on a thrust set by Clint Ramos, Moliére's The Imaginary Invalid on a tall single level set on an elevated platform by the Festival's associate artistic director Christopher Acebo, and Tracy Lett's August: Osage County on a tall multi-level set by Neil Patel.

At 10:30 Saturday morning, June 18, as the stage manager conducted an understudy rehearsal with just a few cast members of Measure for Measure, a loud "pop" rang out and the ceiling visibly sagged. The 70-foot long wooden beam that is the main support for the theatre had split.

Evacuation was the first order of business. Once everyone was out, calls were made to engineers to assess the damage and to the Festival's management team at the Theatre Communications Group National Conference in Los Angeles.

Acebo, who was with artistic director Bill Rauch in LA, says that Rauch set the tone for the response when the first word of the cracked beam reached them. "As soon as we understood that we weren't going to perform in the Bowmer, Bill gave the order to find space – the park, the Armory, the college, anywhere – to put on our shows," says Acebo. 

"After all," Rauch explained later, "we are a destination theatre. Our audiences book non-refundable airline tickets to get to our shows. Many come year after year as their big summer vacation. We can't just hand them a 'rain check' and say come back in a few weeks."

There was no way around the cancellation of the Saturday matinee the day of the break. After all, it was only three hours from the loud "pop" to the scheduled curtain time, but by mid-afternoon, they already knew the evening performance would be a reading and that they would have to scramble for space.

Ashland happens to have a building that could seat 600 a few blocks from the Festival campus, a former Armory now rented out for parties, dances, conventions, and other events. It was there that the evening's performance was presented. Two other venues were ultimately drafted into service as well: the theatre on the campus of Southern Oregon University and another theatre in nearby Medford. But it was clear that a dedicated facility would be needed quickly.

Ashland also happens to be the headquarters of a major event management firm, Noel Lesley Event Services, Inc. The company handles projects  around the world including events for Super Bowls and Olympic Games, but they had never had a chance to work on a home town job. The company responded to the call from its neighbors who seemed to be following the lead of the bard's Richard III who called out, "Up with my tent there!”

Much work had to be done by staff members outside their normal duties. Christine Smith-McNamara, the head of the Costume Department, took on the assignment of working on the tent project with what both Rauch and Acebo call incredibly energetic support from both the Noel Lesley company and city officials. Plans fell rapidly into place for a 66'x120', 600-seat tent, along with temporary facilities for such important things as dressing rooms, air conditioning, and porta-potties.

It was to be set up on land in the city's Lithia Park, a 93-acre jewel that follows Ashland Creek for a mile and a half into the heart of town. The specific site for the tent, which was soon named "Bowmer in the Park," was on the banks of the lower duck pond which is below the temporarily closed Bowmer.

Acebo took on the task of designing a single set that could serve the design concepts of all three shows and coordinating them with the designers involved. When asked what his budget was, Acebo says, "We didn't have time for budgets! We would have lost half a million dollars a week in ticket sales for cancelled shows, not to mention losing the audience members' loyalty. We spent the time we might have spent on budgets on actually getting ready to pitch a tent."

While the public's attention was focused on the effort to obtain the tent and get  shows ready for "Bowmer in the Park," no less an effort was being made to get the real theatre back into condition. The day after the "pop," the beam was shored up with a scaffold of supporting columns. Within two weeks, full scaffolding was supporting the beam in its original position so that 180 holes could be drilled to accommodate metal pins and epoxy before the entire thing could be wrapped with tightened steel cables. "It looked like the most impressive set we've ever built inside the Bowmer," Acebo says.

The first performance in the tent was the matinee on July 7, just 19 days after the fateful "pop." Now, just 26 days later, the company is back in the Bowmer to finish out the final three months of the season. Rauch says, “While none of us would have wished for this, the commitment, patience, passion, and generosity of thousands of people have redefined the ideas of ‘company’ and ‘resiliency’ for us.”

With the Bowmer ready to receive audiences once again, the staff of the Festival can take a bit of a breath and then pause for a moment of pride reflecting on the fact that only two performances were canceled in the incredible summer of 2011: one the day of the "pop" and one performance in the tent due to a storm-caused power outage.