LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
The wildfires across the Pacific Northwest have claimed lives and property, displaced thousands of people and consumed millions of acres. They're also creating hazardous breathing conditions beyond the fire zones. Smoke has forced the cancellation of several performances by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Jes Burns of Oregon Public Broadcasting has more.
JES BURNS, BYLINE: Bonnie Milligan has a big voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRODUCTION, "HEAD OVER HEELS")
BONNIE MILLIGAN: (Singing) A little piece of blue, a piece of blue.
I do a lot of high, what we call, belting in "Head Over Heels."
BURNS: But belting and smoke don't mix.
MILLIGAN: I can feel it right now, like, the back of your throat. You're like, you just need water. And, you know, there's never enough water.
BURNS: Milligan is one of the leads in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of "Head Over Heels," a musical inspired by a 16th century story set to the music of The Go-Go's. She also sings in "The Count Of Monte Cristo." Both shows are staged at the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre, where the air quality changes constantly as wildfire smoke moves through the Rogue Valley.
MILLIGAN: And it's hard because when you sing, especially high, it takes more breath. And when you're taking in bigger breaths, you're really sucking in those particles.
BURNS: It doesn't just affect performers' voices. The Environmental Protection Agency says exposure to smoke particulate can be linked to heart attacks, respiratory problems and premature death for people who have heart and lung disease. Festival Marketing Director Mallory Pierce says the company has to protect its actors.
MALLORY PIERCE: And we don't put the responsibility on them to say, do I do on or do I not go on.
BURNS: Aside from the safety of the cast and crew, cancelling a show can cost the festival a lot of money, up to $65,000 in ticket refunds for a sold-out show. So two years ago, when it started to become obvious that smoky summers were here to stay in the West, the festival put together a smoke team. Pierce is a member. Each day, before evening shows begin, they meet to assess air quality. The team uses the good old-fashioned, can we see the mountains across the valley yardstick, in addition to objective data from smoke reports, an air quality station on top of one of the theaters, and a handheld monitor that gives real-time measures backstage.
PIERCE: If a lot of patrons are walking out, if we're hearing from actors that they're not feeling very well, if the forecast is that that's going to continue, those are the factors that would play into cancelling the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
BURNS: A hot setting sun beats down on the festival's courtyard stage, where a small ensemble is playing Renaissance music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BURNS: The concert is part of the festival's free summer performance series. 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 seen in a while. Air quality here has been some of the worst in the Northwest.
CLAUDIA ALICK: I do think there has been an effect on turnout on the nights where it's very smoky.
BURNS: Claudia Alick produces the performance series.
ALICK: Sometimes my artists are hardcore, and they're like, I don't care if it's smoky. It's smoky in LA. We'll just perform. And if it's red...
BURNS: Meaning unhealthy air.
ALICK: ...Then I'm going to cancel the show for the health of not only the performers but of my staff.
BURNS: And the audience. Heidi Schultz and her two sons stopped on their way from Eugene to California, but she almost didn't come.
HEIDI SCHULTZ: Actually we've reconsidered our plans a few times because of the smoke and really just because of the fire danger.
BURNS: This kind of hesitation is a concern to Marketing Director Pierce. The festival draws more than 100,000 people to Ashland each year.
PIERCE: People who come here to see shows absolutely love to drive up to Crater Lake one afternoon or do a river trip or something. And when the activities that are outdoors are affected with the smoke, that kind of - it makes people rethink whether or not this is where they want to take their vacation.
BURNS: Despite the shifting smoky conditions, cancellations are still a relatively rare occurrence. And performers like Bonnie Milligan are doing everything they can to keep their voices strong and lubricated in the challenging conditions.
MILLIGAN: Last night I found myself - if I'm not talking and somebody else is talking, I know the song is coming up, I'm trying to (humming). Because if you clear your throat, it's a little harder, but you try to hum on your cords, it's gentler. And then I'd bite my tongue a little bit to try to salivate.
BURNS: It's not a pretty image, but it might just become a necessary part of smoky summers at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. For NPR News, I'm Jes Burns in Ashland, Ore.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRODUCTION, "HEAD OVER HEELS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing).
MILLIGAN: You suitors do not suit and now must go.
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