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Climate Change Threatens Summer Stages and Outdoor Performances


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

Around the globe, rising temperatures, raging wildfires and extreme weather are imperiling whole communities. This summer, climate change can also be endangering a treasured pastime: outdoor performance.

Here within the Rogue Valley, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is seeing an existential threat from ever-more-common wildfires. In 2018 it canceled 25 performances due to wildfire smoke. In 2020, while the theater was shut down by the pandemic, an enormous fire destroyed 2,600 local homes, including those of several staffers. When the festival reopened last yr with a one-woman show concerning the civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, wildfire smoke forced it to cancel almost every performance in August.

“The issue is that in recent times there have been fires in British Columbia and within the mountains in Washington State and fires so far as Los Angeles,” said Nataki Garrett, the festival’s artistic director. “You’ve fan the flames of and down the West Coast, and all of that’s seeping into the valley.”

Even before this yr’s fire season began, the festival moved the nightly start time of its outdoor performances later due to extreme heat.

Ashland isn’t the one outdoor theater canceling performances due to wildfires. Smoke or fire conditions have also prompted cancellations in recent times on the Butterfly Effect Theater of Colorado; the California Shakespeare Theater, referred to as Cal Shakes; the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival in Nevada and the Getty Villa in Malibu, Calif., amongst others.

“We’re one giant ecosystem, and what happens in a single place affects in every single place,” said Robert K. Meya, the final director of the Santa Fe Opera, which stages open-air productions against a striking desert backdrop each summer, and which, in an era of massive wildfires near and much, has installed sensors to gauge whether it’s protected to perform.

The reports of worsening conditions come from wide swaths of the country. “Last summer was the toughest summer I’ve experienced out here, because fires got here early, and paired with that were pretty severe heat indexes,” said Kevin Asselin, executive artistic director of Montana Shakespeare within the Parks, which stages free performances in rural communities in five Rocky Mountain West states, and has increasingly been forced indoors. “And the hailstorms this yr have been uncontrolled.”

In southern Ohio, a growing variety of performances of an annual history play called “Tecumseh!” have been canceled due to heavy rain. In northwest Arkansas, rising heat is afflicting “The Great Passion Play,” an annual re-enactment of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In Texas, record heat forced the Austin Symphony Orchestra to cancel several outdoor chamber live shows. And in western Massachusetts, at Tanglewood, the bucolic summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, more shade trees have been planted on the sweeping lawn to supply relief on hot days.

“Changing weather patterns with more frequent and severe storms have altered the Tanglewood landscape on a scale not previously experienced,” the orchestra said in a press release.

On Sunday, the U.S. Senate voted in favor of the nation’s first major climate law, which, if enacted into law, would seek to bring about major reductions in greenhouse pollution. Arts presenters, meanwhile, are grappling with the best way to preserve outdoor productions, each short-term and long-term, because the planet warms.

“We’re in a world that we now have never been in as a species, and we’re going right into a world that is totally foreign and latest and will likely be difficult us in ways we are able to only dimly see without delay,” said Kim Cobb, the director of the environment and society institute at Brown University.

Some venues are taking elaborate precautions. The American Players Theater in Spring Green, Wis., now requires performers to wear wicking undergarments when the warmth and humidity rise, encourages actors to eat second act sports drinks, and asks costume designers to eliminate wigs, jackets and other heavy outerwear on hot days.

Many outdoor performing venues say that, at the same time as they’re bracing for the consequences of climate change, also they are attempting to limit the ways in which they contribute to it. The Santa Fe Opera is investing in solar energy; the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival is planting native meadows; and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is using electric vehicles.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which before the pandemic had been one in every of the most important nonprofit theaters within the country, is, in some ways, patient zero. The theater is central to the local economy — the downtown features establishments with names just like the Bard’s Inn and Salon Juliet. However the theater’s location, within the Rogue Valley of southern Oregon, has repeatedly been subject to high levels of wildfire smoke in recent times.

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

The theater also has a smoke team that holds a every day meeting during fire season, assessing whether to cancel or proceed. The theater’s director of production, Alys E. Holden, said that, ever for the reason that time she opposed canceling a performance mid-show and later learned a technician had thrown up due to the air pollution, she has replaced her “show must go on” ethos with “If it’s too unsafe to play, you don’t play.”

This yr the festival reduced the number of out of doors performances scheduled in August — generally, but not all the time, the smokiest month.

“Actors are respiratory in huge amounts of air to project out for hours — it’s not a trivial event to breathe these things in, and their voices are blown the subsequent day if we blow the decision,” Holden said. “So we’re canceling to preserve everyone’s health, and to preserve the subsequent show.”

Wildfire-related air quality has turn into a problem for venues throughout the West. “It’s consistently on our mind, especially as fire season seems to start out earlier and earlier,” said Ralph Flores, the senior program manager for theater and performance on the J. Paul Getty Museum, which has a 500-seat outdoor theater on the Getty Villa.

Air quality concerns sometimes surprise patrons on days when pollution is present, but can’t be readily smelled or seen.

“The concept outdoor performance could be affected or disrupted by what’s happening with the Air Quality Index continues to be a reasonably latest and forward concept to lots of people,” said Stephen Weitz, the manufacturing artistic director on the Butterfly Effect Theater of Colorado, which stages free shows in parks and parking lots. Last summer the theater needed to cancel a performance due to poor air quality brought on by a faraway fire.

One other theater there, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, is now working with scientists on the affiliated University of Colorado Boulder on monitoring and health protocols after a hearth greater than a thousand miles away in Oregon polluted the local air badly enough to force a show cancellation last summer. Tim Orr, the festival’s producing artistic director, recalled breaking the news to the audience.

“The looks on their faces were surprise, and shock, but lots of people got here up and said ‘Thanks for making the best selection,’” he said. “And after I stepped offstage, I assumed, ‘Is that this going to be a daily a part of our future?’”

Planning for the long run, for venues that present outside, now invariably means interested by climate change.

Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, which produces Free Shakespeare within the Park on the Delacorte Theater in Latest York’s Central Park, said that the 2021 summer season, when the theater reopened after the pandemic shutdown, was the rainiest in his twenty years there. “I could imagine performing more in the autumn and spring, and fewer in the summertime,” he said.

In some places, theater leaders are already envisioning a future by which performances all move indoors.

“We’re not going to have outdoor theater in Boise eternally — I don’t think there’s a likelihood of that,” said Charles Fee, who’s the manufacturing artistic director of three collaborating nonprofits: the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival and Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland. Fee has asked the Idaho board to plan for an indoor theater in Boise.

“Once it’s 110 degrees at 6 o’clock at night, and we now have these occasionally already, persons are sick,” he said. “You possibly can’t do the massive Shakespeare fight, you’ll be able to’t do the dances in ‘Mamma Mia.’ And you’ll be able to’t do this to an audience.”

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