The Oregon Shakespeare Festival got gobsmacked on Sept. 12, when the National Coalition Against Censorship published a statement denouncing OSF's request for its employees to not shop at Shakespeare Books because of a banned books window display several actors considered offensive.
What made the rebuke so harsh was that the who's who of signatories included The Dramatists Guild (the professional association of playwrights, composers, lyricists and librettists), aka, the theater-iest theater people there are.
But OSF's response to the statement so far has been to double down.
"We're incredibly disappointed the NCAC depended solely on information provided to them by the bookstore owner and unbalanced local media," OSF wrote on Facebook. "We are gathering information as we decide how to respond."
Perhaps with some self-reflection?
It doesn't matter whether Shakespeare Books closed because of the conflict. People are angry because even if one grants OSF all of their talking points for the sake of argument, the line was still crossed by the exceptional arrogance displayed for an actor to think that a display of banned books was about them personally, the narcissism required to demand it be changed to suit their personal comfort level, and the bullying tactics then used by OSF to achieve that end.
Or as the NCAC put it:
"In pressuring the bookstore to censor the display by removing a book OSF considers offensive, it undermines a fundamental free speech principle — that the response to noxious ideas is more speech, not enforced silence."
OSF's thinking comes from the pedestal it has been put on, and the reality distortion field of its economic privilege. Ashland has become a factory town, and it our pit-boss. For years, the festival has said it needs Ashland to jump, and the Chamber of Commerce has piped up, "how high!" So of course it expected its marching orders to Shakespeare Books to be carried out exactly and is baffled by the fallout. Like a spoiled child, OSF has been trained that it gets what it wants when it throws a tantrum.
But the problem is that a great many Ashlanders are not on board. The needs of the festival have driven up rents, unleashed a human rights horror show on the homeless, squashed local cultural offerings and more. Much could be shrugged off as issues too big to do anything about beyond grumbling at the bar. It’s not just Ashland’s tourist economy that keeps its working class impoverished and underemployed — that’s happening everywhere.
But to put the weight of the festival behind something so petty, hypocritical and antithetical to American values was a slap in the face. The backlash isn't from people misunderstanding OSF’s actions or motives; it's from understanding them perfectly and not liking it one bit.
It’s true that both Ashland and Oregon’s racial history and present are troublesome at best. The hate speech flung at actor Christiana Clark that started this chain of events is an ugly stain not just on our community, but on humanity itself, and one more common than is comfortable for locals to admit. But the road to hell is paved with the yellow bricks of good intentions. And we conquer those issues not by sweeping them under the rug, but by staring them dead in the eye and refusing to blink. That was the purpose of the banned books display in the window, and for my money, it was a more powerful statement than any play OSF has ever staged. Why? Because tickets to see it weren’t $100 a pop.
What the NCAC statement made clear is that it’s not just local rabble like myself that think OSF has gotten too big for its britches; its peers in the broader theater and literary community agree. It’s time for OSF to admit they messed up, and start making amends, not just for this boondoggle, but for the ugly economic legacy in its wake. I'll start holding my breath now.
— Josh Gross grew up in Ashland, and is now a writer and the artistic director of a local theater company. In spring of this year, he was no-fault evicted from his apartment so it could be rented to OSF instead.