OSF needs to make clear its long-term commitment to Shakespeare
By Magdalene Sullivan
When I moved to Ashland in 2016, I was 24 years old and had never before been to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. In fact, I moved to the town from Arizona sight unseen, in large part owing to the festival and the opportunities I felt it offered a young creative. As a writer with merely a passing interest in Shakespeare, I hoped, among other things, to learn the appeal.
OSF didn’t disappoint. Right away, I saw Shakespeare as I never had before. Before coming to the Rogue Valley, Shakespeare had been Orson Welles in black-and-white putting me to sleep on Sunday morning. It was mumbling classmates forced to read Romeo’s lines out loud, or snippets recycled through popular culture.
Then I had the pleasure of seeing the 2016 production of “Hamlet,” with Christiana Clark’s incredible performance as Horatio. It was the first show I watched on the Elizabethan stage, and it changed me. Shakespeare came alive for me. It was fresh and immediate. Not just Shakespeare, but theater itself was changed. By the next year I was volunteering for Tudor Guild all summer long. From 2016 to 2019, my partner (a longtime donor-member of OSF) and I attended every single play, old and new, good and bad. We watched them all indiscriminately because we trusted the theater. Because I so loved the Shakespeare.
Now, six years later, I have been shocked and disappointed. When Nataki Garrett first came aboard with “How To Catch Creation,” I was excited. Out of the new plays in the 2019 season, it was without a doubt the best-directed. Yet, when we were invited to a special OSF function, I came away concerned, and have only become more concerned since.
There is, in this valley, an abundance of theaters performing contemporary plays, and a great number in Oregon at large; to say nothing of the country. The number of Shakespeare theaters and festivals in the United States is far smaller. While I admire Ms. Garrett’s dedication to her mission, and I understand she feels she provides a public service, I would tell her if I could speak to her that not all theaters need to be the same. I have learned infinitely more from seeing Black, female Horatio than I ever learned from a new play.
Shakespeare can and should be played by people of color. Give me an all-Black Macbeth! I’ll see it six times over, as I saw the one in 2019. I cannot imagine seeing a new play six times, no more than I can imagine anyone traveling across the country to see new or even experimental plays at a theater that used to be a renowned Shakespeare festival. When the goose that lays the golden eggs is dead and all you have left are eggs like ones you can get in the local grocery store, why go out of your way?
In editorial letters, the narrative seems to be the brunt of the protests are coming from older audience members. There’s talk of a five-year plan at OSF; perhaps in five years older audience members will stop complaining. However, younger audience members may also stop complaining. They will stop complaining because they will move away, having lost interest in the theater that used to give them a minimum of four wonderful Shakespeare plays per year, with OSF’s company, in a unique experience not had anywhere else.
I am the audience OSF wants to attract to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And unless OSF makes clear it does have a long-term commitment to Shakespeare, and not to become yet another uninspiring contemporary theater, you are losing me.
Author Magdalene Sullivan is a resident of Ashland.