The embattled Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which just three weeks ago announced an emergency fund drive to allow it to complete its 2023 season, suffered another major blow with the announcement Friday morning that Artistic Director Nataki Garrett will leave the company effective May 31. The story was broken by American Theatre magazine, and quickly followed up by reporters Lizzy Acker on Oregon Live and Roman Battaglia on Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Garrett joined OSF in 2019, replacing artistic leader Bill Rauch, and faced huge unanticipated problems almost immediately. The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic just as the festival’s 2020 season was about to spring into action threw the festival and its $40 million-plus annual budget into disarray, shutting down shows for long periods and curtailing the tourist travel on which the festival, set far from major urban centers in the small southern Oregon town of Ashland, relies. Consecutive summers and falls of devastating wildfires and smoke further cut performances and attendance.
Why did Garrett step down just as the festival’s newest season was getting going? In January the board had added executive director duties to her workload after David Schmitz abruptly left that position; a few weeks ago the board stripped her of those duties and took them over itself.
“You kind of have to get out before you burn out,” Garrett told Rob Weinert-Kendt, American Theatre’s editor-in-chief. “I don’t want to be a liability to this organization. I could feel the stress of this year.” Weinert-Kendt continued: “She pointed to the April departure of associate artistic director Mei Ann Teo, whom Garrett had brought on as part of a team of associate leaders in 2021, as ‘a good sign for me that what OSF is going to need in this next endeavor to move through a crisis may not include my skill set.’”
In addition to natural disasters, problems on a human scale have plagued the festival, which was founded in 1935. Garrett, OSF’s first Black artistic leader, faced death threats in the largely white community, and hired security for protection. And a significant number of regular festival-goers expressed concern over what they saw as a pivot away from OSF’s traditional focus on Shakespeare and the classics, and toward a more contemporary and issues-based repertory.
Festival board member Octavio Solis, a playwright and director based in nearby Medford, will step in to help with artistic duties while the festival board seeks a permanent artistic director, Battaglia and Acker reported.
Acker, reporting on Oregon Live, wrote that money troubles, some of them longstanding, have become a major issue at the festival:
“Details shared at an internal staff meeting last month suggest the festival was also dealing with accounting issues that date back several years.
“According to an Oregon Shakespeare Festival employee who attended, and who asked not to be named because they are not authorized to speak for the festival, leaders said at the time that they needed to correct more than 15,000 incorrect entries in its financial ledger, the result of antiquated systems that were not properly maintained. The leaders also told employees they’re still trying to precisely determine cash flow numbers, bills owed and overall expenses of the organization.
“According to the employee, leaders also said the festival was leaving some bills unpaid to cover expenses.”
OSF’s “Save Our Season” campaign, which began in April and is seeking $1.5 million by June 1 and $2.5 million by mid-July, had raised about $1.4 million as of May 1.