Nataki Garrett receives outpouring of support from national theater community, says she’ll ‘stay the course’
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
The news that Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Nataki Garrett received death threats early this year and has traveled with security since then has drawn an outpouring of support for her from the national theater community since National Public Radio broke the story Sept. 28.
Garrett met with an Ashland.news reporter Friday for a multifaceted, 90-minute interview to address the complexities of the 2022 season, having her own security escort, and clarifying her vision for moving OSF forward.
Garrett hasn’t expressed a desire to change course. In fact, staying the course is one piece of advice given her by prior OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch before he left in 2019.
When Rauch walked Garrett through her transition to becoming artistic director, Garrett remembers him giving her a list of important things to do, but among them, “His greatest advice was to ‘stay the course,’” Garrett told Ashland.news in her OSF office Friday morning.
“He inherited that from (previous artistic director) Libby (Appel), who was also very clearly focused on making sure that the things that she felt were important at the organization were centered and she felt like she had inherited that legacy,” Garrett said.
Appel served as artistic director of OSF from 1995 to 2007, followed by Rauch.
Statements of support for Garrett after news of deaths became public were issued jointly by the Dramatists Guild, Theater Communications Group and the Shakespeare Association and, separately, by PEN America.
“The Dramatists Guild, Theatre Communications Group, and Shakespeare Theatre Association are joining together to stand with Nataki Garrett and condemn in every possible way the unconscionable harassment and death threats that she has received as artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival,” begins the joint statement. “As a leading advocate for diversity, equity, inclusion, and access in the American theater, and the first Black woman to direct such a celebrated performing arts organization, she became the target of death threats, which have forced her to travel with a security team in public.”
“PEN America stands in solidarity with Nataki Garrett and the staff of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and unequivocally condemns threats of violence against artists and leaders in the creative community,” begins the PEN statement. “It is essential that we maintain space for open discourse about the arts, including trenchant criticism and ardent disagreement. But we must also speak out when discourse and debate cross the line into threats of violence.”
NPR Bilal Qureshi reporter interviewed Ashland.news columnist Herbert Rothschild for his article, since Rothschild has been critical of the OSF’s programming in his Relocations columns published Aug. 12 and Aug. 18. Qureshi’s story was broadcast on NPR’s Morning Edition on Sept. 28, including on the local Jefferson Public Radio affiliate.
In his columns, Rothschild, who is also board president of Ashland.news, aired concerns about OSF programming and encouraged “OSF leadership” to be cautious, calling “the reinvention of OSF a major gamble …at a time unpropitious for gambling.”
“I’d bet on Shakespeare,” he concluded.
The joint statement issued by the Dramatists Guild, Theatre Communications Group, and Shakespeare Theatre Association included a list of “Four Ways Theatremakers Can Support Nataki Garrett.” Among them was a recommendation to write to Ashland.news because, the statement reads, “One of the most vocal opponents of Garrett’s programming is Ashland.news columnist Herbert Rothschild, who is urging his readers to ‘keep talking about this subject — among yourselves and with OSF management as well as in this publication. The stakes for Ashland are high. I’d bet on Shakespeare.’”
Garrett said that the columns by Rothschild adversely affected not only her, but also the community.
“I’m concerned about the adverse effects on the local businesses,” Garrett said.
When people come to stay at OSF, they don’t stay at OSF, she said. They stay at the local hotels, they eat at the local restaurants, they shop in the shops.
“We are a collective ecology, a community ecology and we are interdependent and I knew that from the very first day of the pandemic closure,” Garrett said.
She’s concerned about the artists and the technicians that work at OSF, and what they experience because they live in Ashland. And now, she said, they have to live in a town that is espousing a kind of vitriolic response to the work that they do every day.
“I love critique,” she added. “I’m not interested in silencing people. I think everybody has the right to say what they say … What I’m asking for is to be conscious of the impact.
“The ripple effects are real,” she emphasized. “But we can be more conscious because we are a more thoughtful society.”
Support from the community
Despite critiques, there has also been a plethora of support shown for her in the aftermath as well.
“What we’ve experienced at OSF is people doubling down on their support for what we do,” Garrett said. “Our core community, our core constituencies are writing and reflecting that they believe in what we’re doing. They all recognize that the decisions that I’m making are reflective of what it means to pull an organization out of a recovery into the possibility of sustainability and that that process takes a long time, about five years.”
Garrett said that people in the community who have been welcoming since she arrived in 2019 have been “steadfast,” but she is conscious that there are some people who don’t feel the same.
At one point, Garrett said, she was receiving some 20 letters per week though from across the community, asking why she wouldn’t program more Shakespeare plays.
The 2022 season has three Shakespeare plays: “King John,” “The Tempest” and “The Cymbeline Project,” with two scheduled for a scaled back 2023 season: “Romeo and Juliet” and “Twelfth Night.”
“What we endeavored to do this year was present a slate of programming that reflected what our traditional theater-going patron base would recognize,” Garrett said. “So we did as many plays as possible, as we could, with the resources that we had in the hopes that we would attract back (theater-goers).
“We have this core group of traditional, theater-going audience here at OSF that is kind of … like a fan club, more than just other theater’s traditional audiences,” she added.
The core group of people makes up about 60% of the OSF audience, Garrett said, and they have been coming as a part of their family vacation or since they were in grade school, many for decades.
A battle to survive
While Garrett has said she will stay the course, there have been some twists and turns along the way.
“The course shifted because there was this pandemic … and 18 months of closure,” Garrett added. “I was really forced to look at the survival of the organization and the future of my industry as a collective necessity … I could not be selfish about what we were doing here. I had to think about the whole entire industry.”
Garrett assumed her role as artistic director fully in August 2019, following four months of shadowing Rauch. The pandemic hit southern Oregon, as with the rest of the world in March 2020, followed by the Almeda and Obenchain fires in September 2020.
Garrett said the closure of OSF would have been longer had she not pushed OSF to put “anything” on their stages to keep the organization moving forward in 2021, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We would’ve had a longer closure but I knew that the town couldn’t handle that,” Garrett said.
Garrett started the 2022 season aiming for the first full season since she started at OSF. With less smoke this summer, despite nearby wildfires, and less COVID-19 disruptions, the year posed other conflicts that appeared to arise from the selection of plays chosen for the lineup.
“All of our theaters are operating between 40 and 50%, the entire industry is in trouble and OSF is a part of that industry,” Garrett said. “And yet, locally I have people who are blaming me, and as if I caused the pandemic.
“The whole entire industry is suffering from a 60% loss of everything,” she said. “Forty percent of patrons have returned across the industry, including Broadway, and until we have a lawmaker that’s willing to stand on the steps of The Met and say, go to the theater, we’re going to be in this really tough position as we’re working through a recovery period.”
Garrett and OSF Executive Director David Schmitz recently lobbied Congress in Washington, D.C., speaking with lawmakers, going to the White House, speaking with as many lawmakers as she could to encourage support for theaters.
Garrett and Schmitz also went to thank lawmakers for their bipartisan effort to pass the “Save our Stages Act” that gave nonprofit theaters access to a $12 million grant.
Garrett started a nationwide advocacy group for theaters, the Professional Non-Profit Theater Coalition (PNTC), in 2020 in order to have better access to grant funds. The coalition has 125 member theaters in 50 states and territories.
“I’m in a different position than a lot of my sister-theaters,” she said. “OSF is one of the economic engines of this valley. It’s certainly the economic engine of Ashland and so, my responsibility is not just to get my theater open. My responsibility is to get the theater open so that people come and they spend their dollars here and we can keep these businesses going.
“I have a greater responsibility than just, I want my theater to be open.”
While she has intended to reach her core audience through the programming this year, some of her core patrons have been the most vocal about their dislike of her approach.
As for next year, two contemporary plays have been removed from the lineup due to a shortened season.
“When you make theater, you buy the art in advance,” Garrett said. “The simple equation was to shorten the number of weeks of availability.”
Garrett said there also has been a notion put out there that her programming reflects that she doesn’t trust Shakespeare.
It has also been posited that white people are not welcome to the plays. Garrett dismisses both claims.
“As this organization has evolved, it has always looked at contemporary playwrights and different playwrights, and so I came here because I inherited that legacy, that was started well before I got here,” Garrett said. “So I balance as it has been balanced.”
Two of the five main season shows in 2023 are Shakespeare — “Romeo and Juliet” and “Twelfth Night” — and the two shows that were removed were contemporary plays.
“Fiscally, the plays that draw the most audience to OSF are the contemporary plays,” Garrett said. “It’s hard to produce Shakespeare … it’s an expensive endeavor because Shakespeare didn’t write many one-person shows and, in this time of recovery, I have to be conscious of the kind of Shakespeare that I program. And also, in the 21st Century, I have to be conscious anyway.”
Garrett’s inclusion of a land acknowledgement for Indigenous people to the region has also prompted feedback.
“At the very least, what OSF can do is work with local Native community people on creating an acknowledgement of their experience and their lives,” Garrett said.
She wants to clarify to the community that when she talks about overall inclusivity, she also means everyone — she emphasizes, everyone — is invited to OSF.
Garrett was among 300 people nationwide to sign a document titled “We see you, White American Theatre.” The coalition of nonprofit theaters addressed the letter to a majority of theater-goers following the pandemic, who stated they were unwilling to return to oppressive spaces in the theater industry.
Garrett believes there may have been a misunderstanding that led to white individuals over the age of 65 feeling unwelcome at the theater.
“Inclusivity actually means you, too,” Garrett said.
“How are we going to have a future if we don’t invite the future audience now?” she added.
“And for people to bastardize that and decide that inviting all different kinds of people is the same thing as disinviting white people actually speaks to where those people’s heads are.”
Shakespeare was grappling with difference in a lot of his plays, Garrett said.
“I don’t know what this attraction is to homogeny because I wouldn’t have taken a job at a theater that required homogeny, there just would be no point of that,” she said.
“I love my field too much,” she added. “I love the industry too much to attack it. I’m here to actually find the cultural current and pull the thread forward for another generation.”
And she is seeing that new generation coming to the theater, although some are arranging their weekend stays differently.
A growing market share of people who are coming to the Rogue Valley are coming for outdoor recreation, Garrett said, such as for white-water rafting or mountain biking or visiting wineries, and they also take in an OSF play or two before they leave town.
“They come and they go to a winery and …they go to see a play as the end of something they’re doing,” she said. “That puts the dollar back into the town.
“That working dollar is as important to me as the local, community of people who retired here from working in Silicon Valley, as is important to me as my older patron base who’ve been coming here since they were children, as is important to me as the communities between here and Grants Pass and Roseburg and White City, as important to me as everybody who works at OSF.”
She lowered the price of tickets this year to $35 each to help attract audiences that may not have previously found it affordable to attend.
Having grown up in an underserved community in the Bay area in a single parent home, Garrett says she understands that not everyone has always been able to afford the experience.
“When first got to OSF, I wouldn’t have been able to afford the tickets, and I’m a theater artist,” she said.
Garrett talks to those locally, in Talent, Phoenix, and Medford, who for one reason or another, have felt like Shakespeare is not for them. She wants to change that perspective.
“No, actually it is for you,” she said. “It’s always been for you. The point of a nonprofit is to be there for the public good and that public is vast and it has all kinds of experiences embedded in it.”
Despite her role as artistic director, economics plays more than a supportive role in her job of programming each season.
“I don’t make a programming choice that’s not tied to the bottom line,” Garrett said. “As a trained theater professional and administrator that has worked in this business for 25 years, every decision I make is tied to budget.
“If I don’t have plays for people to see, I don’t have jobs for people at my theater and I employ over 350 people,” she added.
And she wants everyone to come see the plays, from the contemporaries to the classics to the Shakespearian.
“I need the school groups to come and I need local people to come,” she added. “I need Ashland High School to come, I need (Southern Oregon University) students to be able to come down the road to come see it and I need something that will attract them. The choice to do any play this season was based on the artistic endeavor, how much it was going to cost us to do it, and whether or not we had the resource to do it; the bandwidth, and the material resource to be able to get it done. But also a way to attract audiences.”
“You can look back at the archives of OSF and it was always reflective of the time, always,” Garrett told Ashland.news. “There was always this entrepreneurial spirit that was embedded into the leadership of the organization, to continue to endeavor forward, otherwise we would still be playing in the Chautauqua Dome or with blankets on a wooden stage in a park. The entire endeavor of OSF is evolutionary.”
“The point of having a theater is not to create a museum, a relic for some sort of experience,” Garrett said. “I am actually not really sure why people believe that the normal practice at OSF is kind of an Elizabethan style.”
“Over time, people will see that Nataki’s vision and choices are really sound, they’re exciting, they’re bold,” Diane Yu, chair of the OSF Board of Directors, told Ashland.news Saturday. “She’s mixing classics, Shakespeare, and also new work. She’s also experimenting with new technology, new platforms.
“I think that some of the worries about the demise of OSF are premature,” she added.
Dealing with fear
Garrett sees some of the feedback on the season appears to be a symptom of fear.
“When people are afraid, they get into this really absurd mindset where they become very myopic about what’s happening,” Garrett said. “Part of the reason we produce plays and we write plays is so we can give people an opportunity to orbit a little bit higher so that they can see the bigger picture. So I’m just going to keep doing that ….”
Garrett also addressed being the second Black woman in OSF’s history to require a security escort at OSF and around the community since receiving credible death threats earlier this year. An OSF actress in the 1950s also had to be escorted on OSF grounds by security personnel.
“It’s a part of a legacy here if the first Black woman to be on the Elizabethan stage also had to be escorted around town and that was how many years ago, so we’re in the 21st century and that part has not changed?” Garrett said.
The threats “completely upended my life,” Garrett said. “When you pursue artistic leadership, it’s not something that you actually think it’s going to come with it. I’m the only artistic leader that I know in this free country who is having this experience and it is because there have been credible threats against the organization and against me personally and a couple of other members of our staff.
“I’m really balancing what it means to be threatened because of the work that I’m doing with my need to be in service,” she added later on in the interview.
Garrett said she’s grateful that the OSF Board of Directors took the threat seriously enough to consider a way for her to move safely about Ashland.
“I have a family, my family comes to visit me often,” she said. “I have a young child that is having an experience because I’m having this experience and so I have to be really conscious of having that impact, and if it’s to scare, me … it’s doing it but I have an obligation to this organization, and so I’m really balancing what it means to be threatened because of the work that I’m doing.”
Garrett said some of the language that she had heard and read in some of the letters that people wrote her had some language pulled from news articles as a part of the threat. She cautioned that people have to be conscious of their language use.
“There are people who disagree and say, ‘I wish you would do it differently, Nataki,’ and there are other people who weaponize that language and they turn it into a credible threat,” she said.
Garrett sees the presence of threats based on hers and OSF’s approach to this season as “part of the zeitgeist of this community.”
“There’s a thread in this community that wants control, and they use the word control and control is a really tough place to be, because it is there to counter-current something that is constant, which is change,” she said. “Control is not constant, change is constant.”
And change, she says, in theater as in every industry, can be expected to continue as long as theater reflects the times in which we live.
Ashland Chief of Police Tighe O’Meara said he first learned of the threats while reading Qureshi’s story on NPR. He contacted OSF to schedule a meeting to discuss the threats.
“The Ashland Police Department will investigate any death threats against any member of the community and we will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law any bias crimes,” O’Meara told Ashland.news.
Yu, the OSF board chair, said she was shocked this year to learn about the threats to Nataki and OSF staff and has thrown her support behind them.
“It’s so unfortunate that any of our staff should feel threatened and feel unsafe,” Yu said. “This community has to rally around OSF leadership; not threaten it like this, because it’s important for the community that OSF be successful and it’s important for OSF that the community have an economic rebound.
“That’s not saying everyone believes this, but we know enough people have vocalized some of their opposition in these ways that have made the environment feel unsafe and that’s just unacceptable,” she added.
Ashland Mayor Julie Akins read a statement at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, saying “Ms. Garrett has received death threats and as a result, they’ve had to hire a private security detail. And furthermore as a Black woman Ms. Garrett confirms that she has been subjected to racism in this community and so have members of her staff. …
“I struggled at first to accept this ugliness as real. I didn’t want to believe it. But after speaking with her and others, it strikes me that denial, innocence if you will, actually promotes greater racism. It’s not enough to simply do our personal work against racism, we must as a community speak to it, and be clear: we are anti-racist.”
Akins added that she’s asked O’Meara to “ascertain the nature of threats against her and her staff and neutralize them. …
“I’ve supported the recommendation by our Social Equity and Racial Justice Committee to hire a diversity, equity and inclusion officer for the City of Ashland because the work must get done here,” she continued. “It’s job one to keep all of our residents safe. It’s vital we do anti-racism work. It cannot be reserved for later — it must be now.”
Garrett believes some feedback from the community reflects the polarization we see in the world today, both locally and at a national level.
“People feel like there is a side to be on and a place to be and because of that, there is an aesthetic choice,” Garrett said. “I didn’t grow up feeling like Shakespeare wasn’t for me and so I don’t understand people equalizing Shakespeare with whiteness.
When asked how she plans to move OSF into the 21st century while also continuing it’s more than 85-year heritage, Garrett’s answer was multifaceted.
“What is the heritage?” Garrett asks. “Does the heritage start with the first Black woman to perform on the Elizabethan stage who also had to have a security escort? What is the heritage?
“If the heritage goes all the way back to Elizabethan Shakespeare, then yes, I will always center the legacy of the revolutionary and raw raucous spirit of our namesake playwright. No doubt, I will always do that.”
Garrett recalled that OSF founder Angus Bowmer performed Othello several times in blackface.
“He wore a hugely offensive nose while performing Shylock in Merchant of Venice — That heritage I will never, never repeat,” she said.
“If our theaters become museums, they become relics of the past,” Garrett said. “The legacy is embedded in the namesake playwright and the material that we choose, but the balance of that is actually in line with my predecessors.”
Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at email@example.com. Ashland.news Executive Director Bert Etling contributed to this article. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 541-631-1313.
Oct. 5 update: Name of Chautauqua Dome corrected.