In 2019, Nataki Garrett grabbed a plum.
That is, she landed one of the great jobs in American theater, as artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a celebrated, long-running institution, by some measures the largest nonprofit theater in the country.
These days, one might imagine that Garrett feels like she stumbled into a vast patch of two-leaf clover.
Over the past few years, the venerable festival has been beset by troubles – major disruptions to its operations and income due to wildfire smoke and the COVID-19 pandemic, unprecedented staff turnover, even death threats made against Garrett, the company’s first Black artistic director.
The latest misfortune came to light this week when The Oregonian reported that the theater needs to raise $2.5 million, with more than half that amount needed by June in order for the 2023 season – due to start with previews April 18 – to be completed. One production, the holiday comedy It’s Christmas, Carol, has been canceled. And the board relieved Garrett of the interim executive director role that she’d taken on just a few months ago, following the departure of David Schmitz.
Altogether, it’s another sign of decline – or at least instability – at what’s long been the most significant and successful cultural institution in the Northwest. Before this came January’s reshuffling of leadership roles and another set of layoffs. Which of course followed a series of show cancellations, layoffs, reconfigurations of staff and schedule, and so on.
From its founding in 1935, the festival was a model of stability and consistency. Founder Angus Bowmer ran the artistic side of things until retiring in 1971. His successor, Jerry Turner, spent 20 years at the helm; Garrett is only the fourth artistic director since he left 32 years ago. On the business side, William Patton and then his protege Paul Nicholson kept a steady hand on the growing company for 60 years. Conversely, Nicholson’s successor, Cynthia Rider, spent five years as executive director but left more than a year before Schmitz was hired.
Steady, stable leadership and a habit of long deliberation toward bold decisions helped the festival reach, arguably, a peak in the era of artistic director Bill Rauch. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, when other theaters were facing cutbacks, the festival was setting attendance and revenue records. The company built a large new production facility in the nearby town of Talent and had ambitious future plans, including a new “Welcome and Education Center” and even a new outdoor theater to replace the venerable but aging and limited Elizabethan stage.
To now have to launch an emergency “The Show Must Go On” fundraising campaign is a shocking contrast.
It’s important to note that not all of this woe, perhaps very little of it, should be viewed as Garrett’s fault. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is hardly the only arts organization that’s been battered recently by the twin terrors of climate change and COVID. Yet some of the features that have made the festival such a unique success story have made it especially vulnerable to tumultuous times such as these. Its tourism-dependent business model, its distance from large metro areas, its relatively old core-audience, its reliance on large crowds – all these became major problems in a pandemic or even post-pandemic world.
And even under ideal conditions, the Ashland operation is a hard ship to steer. With three stages, a large resident ensemble, high production values and a large support staff (“It is important to remember that for every actor on stage, there are five people behind the scenes ensuring that the show goes on,” read a company document from 2015), any adjustment to its operations has complex ramifications. Nimbleness just isn’t in the nature of the beast.
Even more than for the theater industry as a whole, the festival has a tricky tightrope to walk between, on one hand, an established audience founded on tradition and (if we’re honest) stolidly 20th-century cultural norms and values, and on the other, a desperate need to broaden that audience demographically, reaching younger and more diverse customers in order to survive. The company long has been making adjustments to its choices of plays and its interpretations and presentations of them, but that’s still part of the essential tension that seems to underlie the backlash that Garrett has faced. (Though it’s worth noting that Rauch faced little such pushback, even when presenting Oklahoma! with same-sex couples at the fore.)
For now, the festival’s newest crisis and its latest Big Ask leave us wondering about some of the details. Why was such a dire budgetary shortfall not foreseen earlier? (Slower-than-expected ticket sales? Market downturn hurting investments? Poor results from previous fundraising?) How long standing are the accounting issues that The Oregonian alluded to in its report? What happened so quickly, between just January and April, that made the board rethink having Garrett as a unitary administrator?
And of course – most importantly – what’s the path out of this growing bad patch?
THE FLATTENED STAGE
Not so long ago, when times were good…
Kevin Canty’s 1997 novel Into the Great Wide Open presents the story of a smart but jaded slacker boy and a troubled, black-clad girl as they pitch headlong into the exhilarating, confusing intensity of adolescent love, amid the rock ’n’ roll miasm of early-1990s suburbia. Hmmm… smells like teen spirit.
But like that famous ‘90s anthem, there’s much more to it than just adrenaline and other hormones. According to Jessica Wallenfels, who’s written Great Wide Open, the stage adaptation that opens this weekend at Portland Playhouse, “No matter how much love makes us want to believe that anything is possible, the forces exerted by familial wealth and status are so strong, they overwhelm the romantic survival of a young couple, which mirrors the brokenness of the American dream.”
So, in that sense, teen angst is national angst. That might stink, but it’s what we’ve got to work with.
In any case, this adaptation – a co-production of the Playhouse and Wallenfels’ Many Hats Productions – is a promising proposition. Wallenfels already has had a long career, starting as a teen dancer and actor (including a small role on TV’s Twin Peaks) and continuing as one of the region’s leading theatrical choreographers, bringing vivid motion to shows at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Portland Center Stage, and elsewhere. In recent years, she’s begun to distinguish herself as a director in works as divergent as Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ racially thorny Appropriate and the kiddie romp Dragons Love Tacos.
Her knack for presenting energy, motion, and emotion bodes well for this show, for which she’s collaborated on devised and choreographic elements with co-director Charles Grant and a cast that includes Anthony Michael Shepard, Leiana Petlewski, Lane Barbour, Beth Thompson, and (ArtsWatch contributor) Bobby Bermea.
One of the hoariest of cocktail-party conversation starters (or celebrity-profile shortcuts) is the question of what figures from throughout history you’d most want to have at a dinner party. Not that anyone’s asked me, but the first name on my list would be Winston Churchill. (Yeah, yeah, he was an imperialist, but he also saved the western world from Hitler.)
Of course, he’s dead and therefore not available for social engagements. But the actor/writer David Payne might sate some of the appetite of Churchill fans by appearing in a solo performance as the great British statesman – much as he previously has performed as the late fantasy author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.
The premise of Payne’s show, titled simply Churchill, is that on the occasion of being awarded honorary U.S. citizenship (this would place the action in 1963), the former prime minister addresses the American-Oxford Society, reminiscing about his storied career in war and politics. Payne will perform three shows at the Winningstad Theatre, where he can’t smoke cigars like the great man would, but perhaps can sip some watered whisky or a tumbler of brandy.
Lakewood Theatre Company continues its Lost Treasures Collection series – “obscure and rarely performed musicals presented in concert/cabaret versions for one weekend only on our Side Door stage” – with Celebration, a 1969 work by writer Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt, the team better known for The Fantasticks.
Folks in Astoria doubtless know something about wanting to escape a rainy climate, so that town’s Ten Fifteen Theater seems the right spot for a staged reading of Matthew Barber’s Enchanted April. Based on a 1920s novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, the story concerns a clutch of London women who rent an Italian villa for an April getaway, offering what the website StageAgent.com calls “a gentle and romantic comedy of manners” and a “balm of sunshine and renewal.”
This weekend sees the end of The Actors Conservatory spring showcase, a production of Steven Levenson’s Core Values featuring the school’s advanced students in their new downtown Portland headquarters, as well as the fantastical John August/Andrew Lippa musical Big Fish being staged at Forest Grove’s Theatre in the Grove.
THE BEST LINE I READ THIS WEEK
“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.”
– W.E.B. Du Bois, quoted by The New York Times columnist John McWhorter in a newsletter about race and representation in media, interrogating the notion that it’s important for audiences to “see themselves.” “Today, I sit with Succession, Steely Dan and Saul Bellow and they wince not,” McWhorter writes. “I live with me. I watch TV to see somebody else.” (Though, speaking of wincing, in another recent newsletter McWhorter confessed to liking Family Guy. Yeesh!)
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better next time.