Bonnie Milligan has a big voice.
And in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival musical, Head Over Heels, she does a lot of belting. That’s the loud, powerful, high singing associated with performers like Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.
The problem is, it’s been a smoky summer in the Pacific Northwest. Wildfires have had communities from Eastern Washington to Portland to Northern California gasping through days and weeks of poor air quality.
And belting and smoke don’t mix.
“I can feel it right now, like the back of your throat. You just need water. There’s never enough water,” Milligan says, the afternoon after a Wednesday night show.
Milligan is one of the leads in Head Over Heels and sings in several numbers. She also sings in the Count of Monte Cristo. Both shows are staged at the festival's outside Elizabethan theater, where the air quality changes constantly as wildfire smoke moves through the Rogue Valley.
“It’s hard because when you sing, especially high, it takes more breath, and when you’re taking in bigger breaths you’re sucking in those particles,” Milligan says.
The smoke doesn’t just affect performers’ voices, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says exposure to the fine particulate in wildfire smoke can be linked to heart attacks, respiratory problems and premature death for people who have heart and lung disease.
“The actors… I think of it as like an athlete in a game or running event. And we don’t put the responsibility on them to say, ‘Do I go on?’ or ‘Do I not go on,’” says Oregon Shakespeare Festival Marketing Director Mallory Pierce.
Cancelling a show is a big decision, with the potential for major financial repercussions — up to $65,000 dollars for a sold-out performance. Pierce says the festival puts a neutral liaison backstage to hear any complaints or concerns from the performers, to ensure they can have input but are shielded from the decision-making process.
The Festival is still working through insurance claims for cancellations in 2013, when it first became apparent that smoky summers were becoming the new norm in Southern Oregon. It was then the Festival put together a “smoke team” in charge of developing a new “smoke protocol.” Pierce is a member of the team.
Each evening, a couple of hours before shows begin, the smoke team gathers in the Festival’s outdoor theater, armed with a weather forecast and other pertinent information about the air quality.
The team uses the old standard “Can we see the mountains across the valley?” trick, in addition to objective data from Oregon’s color-coded smoke reports, an air quality station on top of one of the theaters, and a handheld monitor that gives real-time measures backstage.
“When we get into that orange zone, we’re on high alert,” Pierce says. “If a lot of patrons are walking out, if we’re hearing from actors that they’re not feeling very well, if the numbers are trending upwards, if the forecast is that it's going to continue, those are the factors that are going to play into cancelling the show.”
The Festival has cancelled three outdoor shows so far — one when the audience was already seated and another half-way through the performance.
What if they don’t come?
A hot setting sun beats down on the Festival’s courtyard stage, where a group of musicians is playing traditional songs of the Renaissance. They’re part of the Festival’s free summer performance series called the Green Show. The show, which runs six days a week during the summer months, attracts visitors and locals alike.
Tonight, there’s a good crowd. They’re sitting on the grass, lounging in camp chairs – and breathing the cleanest air the Rogue Valley has had in a while. For weeks though, air quality in Southern Oregon has been some of the worst in the Northwest.
“I do think there has been an effect on turnout on the nights where it has been very smoky,” says Claudia Alick who is in charge of the series.
For this rotating performer line-up, the musical acts, dance troupes and spoken-word artists have more direct say in whether a show is cancelled because of air quality. Once it gets into the orange range — unsafe for certain populations — Alick gives the artists the option of backing out.
“Sometimes my artists are hard core, and they’re like, ‘I don’t care if it’s smoky. It’s smoky in LA. We’ll perform.’ And then if it’s red , I’m going to cancel the show. For the health of not only the performer, but also my staff.”
Alick has made the call to cancel on three evenings in August, after fires to the north near Crater Lake started pumping thick smoke into the Rogue Valley.
Heidi Schultz and her two sons stopped in to catch the Green Show on their way from Eugene to California. For days, she says she’s been monitoring the wildfires and smoke conditions along her route. And she almost didn’t make the trip.
“Actually we’ve reconsidered our plans a few times. Because of the smoke and really just because of the fire danger,” she says.
This kind of hesitation is a concern to Pierce, the festival's marketing director. Tourism is a $500 million industry in Jackson County where the Shakespeare Festival is based. More than 100,000 people saw Oregon Shakespeare Festival shows last year.
Mallory says a lot of the festival's ticket sales are from people traveling through the area, like Shultz and her family, who then decide to add a show to their itinerary. It works the other way as well.
“People who come here to see shows, absolutely love to drive up to Crater Lake one afternoon or do a river trip or something,” she says. “And when the activities that are outdoors are affected with the smoke, it makes people rethink whether or not this is where they want to take their vacation.”
Despite the shifting smoky conditions, cancellations at OSF are still a relatively rare occurrence. And performers like Bonnie Milligan are using tricks to keep their voices strong and lubricated in the challenging conditions.
When she’s on stage and doesn’t have lines, she hums to keep her vocal cords clear. She’ll also bite down on her tongue to try to make herself salivate, because singers need the moisture to be at their best.
Milligan has toured the country as a professional actor and had performed in a variety of demanding climates and conditions. But she says performing in the smoke in Ashland this summer has been the most challenging of her career.