Viewpoint: Theaters are not museums

Jack Willis in "The Great Society" at OSF in 2014. Jenny Graham photo/OSF
October 8, 2022

Death threats? No other artistic director has ever faced such violence

By Robert Schenkkan

Dear Friends and Supporters of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival,

I count as some of my happiest memories, my time in Ashland and the art I created there with that extraordinary community. So, it is with a great deal of sadness that I read about the recent wave of protests directed at the theater and especially its new Artistic Director, Nataki Garrett.

One is free to voice one’s opinion, of course, and art — like politics — ain’t beanball. But when aesthetic disagreements become death threats, when the artistic director needs a security detail in order to go out in public, then clearly a major line has been crossed. This is criminal behavior. So, first and foremost, this kind of violence must be stopped, and the rhetoric that encourages and supports it must be rejected.

Yes, OSF is changing.

That’s a good thing. That’s what happens when a new artistic director arrives. Yes, an AD needs to understand and respect the traditions of the institution, but it is also their job to lead that institution into the future. Theaters are not museums. They are living, breathing collectives whose mission, Shakespeare felt, was to “hold a mirror up to nature.”  I take that to mean, to show us our times as we are living them, in all their shame and all their glory. That can be uncomfortable. I’m good with that. I’m good with theater that takes me out of my comfort zone and challenges me. I think most of you feel that way as well.

It is worth noting that the two previous artistic directors at OSF, Libby Appel and Bill Rauch, both “changed the direction” of the theater they inherited. And both received a great deal of public criticism for doing so. In both instances, some in the audience voted with their feet and did not renew their memberships. This is disappointing, of course, but for those who left, many more came and stayed.

But death threats?

No other artistic director has ever faced such violence. Of course, no other artistic director has been black. It is impossible to ignore the racial implications of this situation. Especially since Oregon has a well-known and terrible history when it comes to race relations.  Exclusion laws. Anti-Chinese laws, sundown towns, housing covenants, at one point the dubious distinction of the largest Klan membership per capita in the United States. No, I am not saying that if you don’t like Ms. Garrett’s programming you are a racist. But I do ask you to consider the company you may be keeping, and the language they are speaking. Death threats.

All people who love OSF and Ashland need to take a moment and take a breath. Everyone should agree that the threat of violence is unacceptable and should be completely rejected. Individuals who engage in this behavior should face criminal charges.

Our beloved theater does face an existential crisis right now, caught as it is between the Scylla and Charybdis of a COVID-19 virus that keeps mutating, and a fire season which shows no signs of abating. Ms. Garrett is responsible for neither but is doing her level best to keep the theater not just alive in the face of these daunting obstacles, but also, simultaneously, to give OSF a new energy and a new direction that will carry it forward.

That’s the job and she’s earned, more than earned, the right to make those decisions. If, at the end of the day, it’s not for you, well, that’s too bad. But I urge you not to rush to judgment. Instead of racing to embrace outrage — that most debased coin of our shaky national realm — I urge you to engage with OSF.  Understand what these changes are and what is driving them. You might just be pleasantly surprised. The mark, I think, of a good night in the theater.

Sag Harbor, New York, resident Robert Schenkkan is a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning playwright. He’s the author of four plays produced at Oregon Shakespeare Festival from 2002-2014 — “Handler,” “By The Waters of Babylon,” “All The Way” and “The Great Society” — as well as other plays, musicals and screenplays.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.


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