ASHLAND, ORE.: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) announced this morning that Nataki Garrett will become its sixth artistic director in August 2019, succeeding Bill Rauch. The announcement by OSF emeritus board chair and search committee chair Gail Lopes ends a nearly yearlong search.
“OSF board of directors has found in Nataki Garrett an individual with a powerful artistic vision, proven change leadership, and the ability to continue the festival’s upward trajectory established under predecessors like Libby Appel and Bill Rauch,” said Diane Yu, search committee member and recently elected co-chair of the board of directors, in a statement. “We are excited to welcome Ms. Garrett to the Rogue Valley, and believe she will provide exquisite artistic taste, dynamism, innovation, and a deep commitment to the four pillars of our mission: excellence, stewardship, company, and inclusion.”
“I have known Nataki Garrett for 17 years and have closely followed and admired her career,” said Rauch in a statement. “She is a rigorous and thrilling artist; a thoughtful, confident leader; and big thinker. Nataki’s historic appointment, as an African American woman running one of the largest-budget theatres in the United States, is a direct expression of OSF’s decades-long commitment to helping create a more equitable field.”
Assuming the title of incoming artistic director, Garrett will arrive at OSF, which has a budget of $44 million, in early April. She’ll hardly get a chance to begin preparing for the 2020 season before she goes into rehearsals as the director of Christina Anderson’s How to Catch Creation (which opens there July 23).
Garrett most recently served as acting artistic director of Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) during the organization’s 18-month leadership transition from Kent Thompson to Chris Coleman. During her tenure at the $27-million organization, she initiated and negotiated the first co-world premieres in 10 years for two DCPA-commissioned plays, The Great Leap with Seattle Repertory Theatre and American Mariachi with the Old Globe.
As the former associate dean and the co-head of the undergraduate acting program at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) School of Theater, Garrett is known as a champion of new work as well as a savvy arts administrator. At CalArts, Garrett managed a $10 million budget and oversaw all operations of conservatory training.
I spoke to Garrett, who’s a member of Theatre Communications Group’s board of directors and was a recipient of an NEA/TCG career development fellowship for for directors, today in the midst of tech for the Philadelphia Theatre Company production of How to Catch Creation. We spoke about her background, her plans, and about the unique Ashland theatre where Rauch and his predecessors have continually pushed the envelope of what’s possible within a repertory theatre, particularly along the lines of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI).
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Congratulations! This is huge and heartening news. I notice that you have your work cut out for you in the next few months—and I don’t even mean at OSF. Aren’t you taking this Christina Anderson play to two other theatres after Philadelphia—Baltimore Center Stage, then OSF?
NATAKI GARRETT: Yes, but they’re different productions of the same play. Christina and I figured out that it was better to collaborate as many times as possible if we have the chance. My forte is in development, so it’s the same director and almost the exact same design team. So now she can keep working on the play, deepening the language and the circumstances. It’s rare that you have this many productions of your brand new play all going on within six months.
Indeed you’re known primarily as a new-works director and deviser, isn’t that right?
It’s part of the aesthetic of my alma mater, CalArts, to always be a deviser, even if you’re working with established material. The focus there is experimental, avant-garde; it feels like a series of science experiments rather than a conventional training model. It gave me a really great platform to play, because mostly what you’re doing in it is developing your ideas. Then I was asked back to teach and recruit actors across the performance programs, both for MFA and BFA. I was also the associate artistic director of the Center for New Performance, which is the producing arm of CalArts. A lot of the work we did there would transfer to Europe, Asia, or Latin America, so we’d develop new pieces and didn’t rely so much on co-productions within the U.S. I did a lot of touring and transfers in that world. At some point there I had three titles: associate dean, co-head of undergrad acting, and associate artistic director.
This seems like a recurring theme in your career.
Yes, I’ve always had to work under multiple hats at the same time: focusing on actors while looking for opportunities for them within the season, while also looking for opportunities for the organization to grow. The beauty of the model at CalArts is that they don’t separate: It’s not, students do this, professionals do this. They’re training you to be a colleague. Bringing those skills to Denver Center is what allowed me to help them through the transition there, working in as many areas as possible. I’m used to having my hands across the table, and bringing in people from all departments.
Speaking of Denver Center, I don’t remember the timing exactly. Were you brought in to help with the transition after the previous artistic director, Kent Thompson, announced he would leave, or did he leave while you were there?
The thing that’s remarkable about my time at Denver is that two days after I was hired, Kent tendered his resignation. It was understood that I would begin to take on the duties of the a.d. They’d been through a few transitions with a new CEO who left rather quickly, and the associate a.d. before me had recently left. They were in the throes of the tumult of change. My mandate and mantle was to help quell the tumult of that transition by providing clear leadership. The thing is, change is temporary; you have to go through it, but it’s not insurmountable. I helped them get to the next space, and they trusted me.
Were you disappointed, then, after serving as acting a.d. for 18 months, that you didn’t get the job, but it went to Chris Coleman instead?
I’ve actually known Chris since my early days in Atlanta. I was a directing apprentice and stage management intern when Kenny Leon was leading the Alliance Theatre, and I stage-managed a show at Actor’s Express, a musical about Harvey Milk; Chris played Harvey Milk. What I’ll say is that it was always very clear that the Denver Center Theatre board was looking for something else—they were very clear about the kind of leader they were looking for. And I think Chris is doing an amazing job there. I love the American theatre, and I’ve always loved the theatre more than I love myself in the theatre. So that made it easier to accept that I wouldn’t be the person for that job. I want that theatre to succeed however it needs to succeed.
Now let’s talk about OSF. What are your impressions of its unique assets and challenges? What kind of job awaits you, do you think?
First, I’m really thrilled to have this opportunity. As a little girl from Oakland raised by a single parent who was a teacher, growing up under Reaganomics, this is something beyond my wildest dreams. I’ve watched the company grow and climb into the national spotlight, and watched the catapulting of the name of OSF, the tangibility of its brand, to the Tony, to the plays on Broadway, including plays they’ve developed: Indecent, Sweat, the new work they’ve done.
It’s an important year of transformation across the industry. Here’s the thing: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) work is always felt more than it’s seen. There are feelings about the EDI work there that need to be reckoned with. I’m going to focus on stabilizing the organization, building a stronger fiscal foundation, developing new producing models. OSF has some financial difficulties, but they are not insurmountable. We need to look at places where we may be applying 20th-century solutions to 21st-century problems and make adjustments.
I’m also looking ahead to where OSF can be the most impactful going forward. In 30 years today’s millennials will be in their 60s, and we need to get ready for that. I have a really great foundation for all these changes because of what Bill has been doing for the last 12 years.
OSF has really beefed up its new-play producing, and that’s also your focus. But it has Shakespeare in the name, and it’s still in many ways a classical rep company. Is it going to stay that way?
It has to. Shakespeare brought us to new places in all of his plays, so I think of Shakespeare as a model for how you develop new work. It’s not just Shakespeare’s plays but his ideas which we can apply to exploring new voices. What we’re really doing is providing a platform for new voices to continually develop, to deepen their ideas and impact. The playwright’s voice is extremely important to me and to my practice. The work of the theatre is to listen to the playwright. Sometimes that’s an O’Neill play that was written 100 years ago; sometimes it’s an Ibsen play; sometimes it’s a Quiara Hudes play or a Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play. I think we stoke the fire for all our work through the new work.
When I wrote about OSF a few years ago, I talked to some folks there who conceded that doing so much new work within a repertory schedule was challenging, to say the least.
Yes, and some of that may mean looking at the producing model, and looking at where it’s leaning heavily on the process, and maybe mitigating some of the effect of that. It might mean rebalancing or removing something. There’s also a lot of conversation around what’s happening with our shops and our IATSE brethren, and I want to make sure we’re all really involved in the conversation about how we all make theatre together really well. A lot of people are tied to way that OSF has done the work, and I have enormous respect for that. So I want to balance the desire to keep the things the way they are with the need to change and evolve.
Are you talking about the behind-the-scenes workers, or the audience?
Across the board. I think you can convince your shops and your craft artisans that there are new ways to do things; if you’re a theatre artist, you’re usually interested in new things. The hardest thing is going to be the conversation with the audience. They come back year after year, they come generationally, so it’s about engaging in a conversation with them to make sure they know that a shift is not a way to disinvite them but to enhance the experience for all.
Was that what you were talking about when you mentioned the “feelings” around EDI?
It’s been true in all the organizations I’ve been part of. I’ll use this analogy: Everybody thinks of the Civil Rights Movement as the March on Washington. But it was also the death of Medgar Evers, the beating of people’s heads on Bloody Sunday, the firehoses unleashed by Bull Conner, people sitting at lunch counters having stuff dumped on them—and those are just the pictures we saw. Any kind of change is going to be tumultuous. People make that sound, “EDI,” those three letters, and they think they’re doing whatever that sound evokes. But they’ve only scratched the surface of the changes that need to happen. I have not yet been in an organization where, even in the brave act of taking on EDI and social justice work, there was not a sort of reflective tumult, where the change is not met with difficulty. What’s happening there is that there are people who have been living under difficult circumstances who are being heard, and once that’s in the room, you have to rebalance.
The impact of being the flagship theatre for EDI, as OSF has been, is that you’re the first—you don’t know what’s coming. You don’t know why this thing is so hard, or that thing came easy. All you know is you’re in the process of doing it. Bill really had to do that work. He brought some amazing voices of color into the organization, and provided a space for them to live in their full dynamic complexity, to make it okay to be in that community, far from the big city, in a small town of relative homogeneity, and to be vocal about their experiences and give them a space to talk about that. That’s the launching of artEquity and the work of EDI. The need is connected to the means.
Now that that has been established, there has to be a restoking of that energy and a look at the impact of that work, at how to deepen it and really ask: Who is not empowered? Whose voices are not being heard? Humility and empathy have to be the primary drivers of the work that we’re doing, and we have to bring everybody into that. Transition always makes people feel uneasy. But I believe you can really only change an organization that’s in the process of changing, and OSF has been.
I need to ask specifically about the nearby wildfires, because they’ve had such an impact on the theatre, especially financially.
You know, I lived in Southern California for 17 years; fire and wind are seasons in L.A. These are things I’m used to. Now that it’s clear that fire is a season in Southern Oregon, the challenge is not insurmountable. I think the problem was the surprise—“Wait, this is happening again?” Now that we’re clear that the fires are coming, there’s a plan. There’s a theatre where the outdoor Elizabethan shows can be taken indoors, for instance.
I’ll end with a big question. What do you think your stamp on OSF will be?
I believe my stamp is going to be: to engage the generation we’re going to be serving in 30 years, while still maintaining the stewarding audience we have now. I have to find or create the means to get to that. I don’t want to say exactly what it will be, because I want to make sure I’m clear about it before I present my plan. I do know that the needs of the Baby Boomer audience and the needs of millennials are the balance we have to strike in the American theatre.
What about us Gen-Xers? We always get left out.
I’m Generation X too. But there are many more boomers and millennials; one generation has the resources and the time, the other has the energy and engagement. So you create spaces where both can rub elbows with each other.