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DramaWatch: Big shakeup in Ashland

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, beset by pandemic and environmental troubles, slashes leadership and other jobs – and Artistic Director Nataki Garrett adds more duties.

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Artistic Director Nataki Garrett, taking over business operations at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, too. Photo: Kim Budd/2020

The good news out of Ashland this week is that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has made some big changes to its leadership structure and staffing.

The bad news out of Ashland this week is that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has made some big changes to its leadership structure and staffing.

That is to say, you can look at this sort of thing from differing – and perhaps equally valid – perspectives. But however you care to spin or parse it, Wednesday’s announcement from OSF signals yet more upheaval in the once placid narrative of the Northwest’s most revered cultural institution.

The press release issued by a San Francisco PR firm (OSF’s in-house publicity department having been a pandemic casualty) frames the changes as a positive strategic move:

“As part of a restructuring strategy aimed at aligning its business model with its vision and realities of the post-pandemic market, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) announces emergent changes in leadership, staff, and programs. David Schmitz announced his decision to step down as executive director, effective immediately, as part of OSF’s restructuring to ensure that the artistic and business sides of the organization can be brought into further alignment. Amanda Brandes will also be stepping down as Director of Development mid-February. During this transition, Artistic Director Nataki Garrett, will be stepping in as Interim Executive Artistic Director, overseeing artistic, development and marketing. In addition to her current role as Managing Director of IDEA People,  Culture & Operations, Anyania Muse will be stepping in as Interim Chief Operating Officer, taking on finance, audience experiences and education. She will report to Garrett.“

That’s a fair bit to untangle, but the upshot is that Garrett – who has appeared both inspirational and embattled throughout her tenure in Ashland – will become a sort of unitary chief executive. Though it’s more common for large theaters to have a two-headed leadership, with the business and artistic sides overseen somewhat independently, sometimes artistic directors sit alone atop the organizational chart; such was the case for portions of Chris Coleman’s long run at Portland Center Stage.

However, Schmitz leaving after less than three years – and the abrupt departure before that of previous executive director Cynthia Rider, following a similarly brief time at the helm – is striking. Prior to those two, OSF had had just two top administrators over its several decades of operation.

The festival’s most recent show was the holiday comedy “It’s Christmas, Carol!,” which played Nov. 23-Jan.1. The slimmed-down 2023 season, which includes five live performances plus several virtual offerings, opens with productions of “Romeo and Juliet” April 18 and the Jonathan Larson musical “Rent” April 19. Photo: Joe Sofranko

What’s less clear amid the PR-speak and the jumble of job titles is whether these changes set the new normal or set the stage for more change. Are “emergent” changes in leadership things that have happened already and just now are being announced (for instance, was Schmitz’ departure in the works for awhile or a result of recent number crunching)? Or are they an ongoing process (do the new interim tags for Garrett and Muse mean there’ll be a selection process for those as permanent posts)?

What’s painfully clear is what the press release gets to several paragraphs in: 

“The announced changes also include 12 staff separations and 7 employee furloughs, as well as putting a stop or delay on hiring 18 open positions. These decisions come after OSF took several bold actions throughout the 2022 Season and in advance of the 2023 Season to offset inherited structural deficits and the pandemic’s impact on operational costs, investments, ticket sales, and donations – including reducing the number of shows per season, decreasing the number of weeks it offers performances, and diversifying its offerings.”

I’ve never heard the term “staff separations” before, but I’m assuming they’ll precipitate visits to an unemployment office rather than a marriage counselor.

Of course, all this comes in response to what has been a tough several years at OSF, which has been battered by the major blows of environmental change (wildfire smoke in the region has caused cancellation of numerous performances and suppressed tourism) and the Covid-19 pandemic (which caused lengthy theater closures and has continued to suppress ticket sales). The Oregonian reported that the 2018 season ended with $2.3 million in losses and 16 layoffs, and that attendance for the 2022 season was 46 percent less than it was in 2019.

OSF – long-established and nationally renowned –  once seemed to float above the vicissitudes of the industry: As the Great Recession brought retrenchment at other theaters a decade or so ago, OSF set records for attendance and budgets. 

Times have changed.

Sponsor
Oregon Children's Theatre Dragons Love Tacos Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

Wednesday’s announcement sounded some upbeat notes, emphasizing recent large donations and a board-approved release of money from the festival’s endowment to support operating expenses. The money and the strategy both aim at a restructuring that can revitalize the company and sustain it for the long term. 

“This idea of revitalization is not new to OSF, but the extended pandemic recovery is forcing us to look at it in a different way,” Garrett says in the press release. “We spent part of the pandemic focused on restructuring artistic and production practices. We now have an opportunity to turn our eye to parts of our organization that support our artistic efforts and invest in systems that will uplift our Finance, Information Technology, Human Resources, Marketing, and Development departments. We must shift our business model in a way that works successfully in this post-pandemic paradigm.” 

Also included in this strategy will be the launch of an $80 million campaign during the first quarter of 2023 to build capacity and help fund operations at OSF. So, if you’ve ever bought tickets there before, you might expect to see a donation request in the mail.

The flattened stage

Reflecting on the glories of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I’m tempted to try to choose my all-time favorite production there, but that would be one of those engrossing yet impossible tasks. So I’ll simply offer up a reminder of one of the shows that surely would be in the running: the sharp, sardonic and even beat-savvy 2010 Hamlet directed by Bill Rauch and starring Dan Donohue. 

Opening

Uruguayan playwright Alicia Dogliotti, who is directing her play “Semillas” at Portland’s Milagro Theatre.

Milagro co-founder Jose Gonzalez makes a rare return to the stage as a monk who helps an idealistic young environmentalist in Semillas, writer/director Alicia Dogliotti’s play about wildfires and a “CO2 Revolution to restore the forests of the world.”

Closing

Adea Michelle Sessoms and Jennifer Wolfe in the North American tour of “Moulin Rouge The Musical.” Photo: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

The film director Baz Luhrmann has built a bountiful career around an aggressively more-is-more aesthetic, a wildly colorful, self-consciously stylized sensationalism that doesn’t seem over the top solely because it refuses to acknowledge any ceiling on excess. A thrill if it’s your cup of glitter. (But perhaps you can tell it isn’t mine?) 

In any case, Luhrmann’s garish 2001 musical Moulin Rouge, a romance set in a Belle Epoque Parisian cabaret, was adapted for the stage a few years ago and won a Tony for best musical. A Broadway-bred touring production is in Portland at the Keller Auditorium though the weekend. The stage – for both its immediacy and its limitations – might well suit Luhrmann’s presentational flash-and-fizz better than the screen. Or at least one can hope.

The best line I read this week

“I don’t like improv. It’s basically a Quaker meeting in which a bunch of office workers sit quietly in a circle until someone jumps up, points toward a corner of the room, and says, ‘I think I found my kangaroo!’ My vibe is less ‘yes, and’ and more ‘well, actually.’”

– Olga Khazan, in The Atlantic, in a story about taking improv classes as part of an attempt to change her personality.

***

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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