Nataki Garrett on OSF’s jubilant future

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director talks about her first full season at the helm, expanding a legacy of inclusion.

“I’ve never been to a theater where people move to a city to be closer to the theater!”

The strange magic of Ashland, Oregon is starting to work itself on Nataki Garrett. Of course, as the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival since last August — only the sixth in the festival’s long history — Garrett herself moved to Ashland to be closer to the theater. But she’s talking about the passion and dedication of the festival’s nationwide audience, and about inheriting the leadership of a company that can inspire fans to not just buy tickets but rent U-Hauls.

I’ll just say that I’m excited that this is my first official season at OSF,” Garrett says, talking recently by phone. “I’m really taking the opportunity to learn about this community, this amazing company, this audience. I’m really happy to be here.”

New Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director Nataki Garrett: Photo: Kim Budd.

Garrett’s hiring, last March, was the result of a nearly year-long search to replace Bill Rauch, who was OSF artistic director from 2007 until leaving last year to help start the new Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center at New York’s World Trade Center. Before coming to Ashland, Garrett, who’s a graduate and former staff member of California Institute of the Arts (CalArts),  spent 18 months as acting artistic director at Denver Center for the Performing Arts, where former Portland Center Stage leader Chris Coleman eventually took the reins. 

“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,” Rauch said in a statement last year.

Another direct expression of that commitment is OSF’s participation in the Jubilee, a nationwide  effort to increase diversity of representation in the theater by getting companies and schools to commit to putting historically marginalized voices at the center of their 2020-2021 season programming. (Among the founding members of the Jubilee’s organizing committee was former Portlander Michael Rohd of Sojourn Theatre, and among the current “core producers” is Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Tamara Lee Carroll.) 

A cornerstone of that programming for OSF is Bring Down the House, a two-part adaptation of Shakespeare’s three-part Henry VI, examining the widening of personal conflicts and political fissures into civil war during the reign of a pious but ineffectual king. And central to the production of Bring Down the House is the upstart crow collective, a trio of Seattle theater artists with a specialty in adapting classical plays for contemporary audiences while using diverse casts of female and non-binary actors. Bring Down the House was written by collective’s Rosa Joshi and Kate Wisniewski. Joshi directs the production, while Wisniewski and fellow collective founder Betsy Schwartz perform prominent roles onstage.

To get a clearer picture of the upcoming OSF season, ArtsWatch spoke by phone recently with Garrett and Wisniewski. The following transcription has been edited for clarity.

This is OSF’s 85th anniversary season. Ten years ago, much of the theater world and our country as a whole was in a tailspin from the Great Recession, yet OSF wasn’t just producing remarkable work, it was setting sales records. It seemed to be charmed, above the fray. In recent years, though, there’ve been controversies and setbacks, from ugly racial incidents in the town to financial fallout from wildfire smoke in the region. 

What’s the present outlook? What’s your sense of where the great ship OSF is in its journey?

GARRETT: It’s interesting to be 10 years out from that. Somebody told me recently that Oregon experiences every major countrywide financial shift late, so we’re probably actually right on time for the Northwest, in terms of experiencing what might have been felt (a decade ago) across the United States. I feel like when I look at my sister theaters, not just regionally but across the United States, we’re actually doing quite well. Most theaters worth their salt will always experience some sort of major highs, like you saw in 2010, and then they’ll experience extreme lows. And the lows are usually signified by a series of leaps that the theater knew it had to take in order to remain relevant in the future. A lot of the work Bill did over the last 10 years was to concretize and create a foundation for what OSF needs to be in order to be a relevant theater space in the 21st century. What he was coming into in 2010 was the platform by which he could do that. So I know that right now there are things that he shifted that I don’t have to be responsible for starting. I have to be responsible for utilizing those shifts to create a sturdy foundation for the future of the theater. A decision I make now is a decision I make thinking about what the impact will be in 2025, 2035, 2045. When another generation inherits this theater, I want to be able to see what they inherit is the foundation I laid so they could be here.

Fires, race relations — all those things are exterior to what happens to a theater. We are in a society and have to experience the shift of that society. So those things are a normal part of how an organization exists in the world and are not unique to us.
Part of what I’m really focused on are ways to create a sustainable business model so we can be here in the future. Most theaters don’t do rep, because rep is expensive, and we’re learning that our structural deficit issues are related to the way we do business. So we have to look at new ways of enhancing our operations. 

None of the issues are insurmountable. I am going to be a black woman tomorrow and the next day and for as long as I live on the earth; people who have issues with that are still going to exist in the world. I’m not here to create a space in which it’s easier for them to accept (me). I’m here to continue to tell the stories of as many different kinds of people as possible, to provide my audience with the broadest experience possible of what the world is like, and to give them an opportunity to see and experience stories that help them grow and become better and more engaged with their own empathy and their ability to change the world. That’s what my mandate is.

Do you have an elevator pitch for this season’s first set of shows?

GARRETT: Yeah, sure. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an exploration into the magic of love and the love of magic. Peter and the Starcatcher is proposed as a family piece, but really is a play for parents and their children; it’s for the inner children inside of grown folks, about the ways in which you do have to go back and discover how you got here, who you are, and what your imagination is and what you’re capable of. Bring Down the House is about political intrigue, family and legacy; and it’s about these amazing — I wish I had a better way of describing them, but — these bad-ass women capable of taking on this story and really impressing upon us how important it is to settle, and to forgive and to evolve your way of thinking. And then The Copper Children is a giant umbrella that is really focused on the question of what is the impact of the world on children: How can we begin to look at one another through our experiences and find a way to be more empathetic and more open? It’s about history, about the proletariat and what people who are struggling will do in order to survive. It’s looking at a dominant power structure and questioning whether that is something we still want to live in.

The Copper Children examines a largely forgotten story of “orphan trains” to the American west. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed discussing about OSF, with Bill Rauch and others, is what I think of as the crosstalk, the thematic conversations that seem to crop up between the plays, especially as the season goes along. This season, you have Bring Down the House and The Tempest both dealing with pendulums of power. You have The Tempest and black odyssey both involving grand efforts toward a return home. Are there other such ways you see the plays enriching each other?

GARRETT: I’m really excited about the mighty giants of Shakespeare’s texts. Everything That Never Happened looks at this play (The Merchant of Venice) that has caused harm and the kinds of upheavals that lead to people’s deaths. I’m excited to see that exploration aligned with Bernhardt/Hamlet where we’re really looking at how you evolve and what that has to look like. Then having that play up against Bring Down the House, where we’re continuing the legacy of what Sarah Bernhardt did in playing Shakespeare’s most important and popular character, witnessing these amazing women take on the power and the might of the three parts of Henry VI. I’m excited about the intersection in the stories of women who come from different backgrounds in Bernhardt/Hamlet, in Confederates, a play that I’m directing, and in Everything That Never Happened. 

The entire season really takes a penetrating look into legacy. But not legacy building. It’s about what generations inherit: the generational wrongs, the generational behaviors that we wish that we could mitigate. It takes a powerful look into the consequences of not being conscious of the decisions that you make and that you act upon in front of your children. Almost every play has an element of, “Do you know that when you do that in front of a child, the ripple effects will go on for an entire generation? Because they’re watching you more than they’re listening to you.”

The matter of whose stories are being presented, how and why, brings us to the Jubilee. How has OSF’s involvement in the Jubilee shaped this season?

GARRETT: To be honest, I feel like OSF has been participating in Jubilee for about the past eight years. OSF has really striven to make this a place that is for every voice you can imagine. I think OSF signed on to Jubilee before I got here as a way to signal to other theaters, “You need to get on board.”

For me the Jubilee is an interesting way of looking  at — I come from theaters that were doing (the work of) Jubilee long before Jubilee existed, theaters that focused on cultures, that were born out of communities that were generally marginalized, theaters that were focused on the lives of women, the lives of people of color, the lives of people with disabilities, the lives of LGBQIA community members. So I’m already of the Jubilee because I am a product of it. And I’m lucky to be in a theater that believes it should reflect Jubilee in everything that it does. So the big secret of OSF participation is that we’ve been doing Jubilee and will continue to do Jubilee even after we no longer name it that.

Bring Down the House puts female and non-binary performers in the male roles of Shakespearean history play. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

A question for Kate Wisniewski (actor and adapter, with Rosa Joshi, of Bring Down the House), if we can bring her into the conversation: Has the upstart crow collective’s experience with adapting classics for female casts been a head start of sorts for Bring Down the House and/or any of the other productions this season? Have you found some keys for how these productions work best?

WISNIEWSKI: The way we approach work at upstart crow collective is that we don’t change the gender of any of the characters. We really lean into the very binary approach of Shakespeare and the very male world — especially in what we call the political war plays, rather than the history plays. We simply put female and non-binary bodies into those roles. I say simple; it’s not that simple. But — we really try to do the play. We don’t put a twist on it in any way, we don’t really editorialize it — it least we don’t believe that we do. But what ends up happening when the audience sees these bodies that they’re not used to seeing playing those roles is they suddenly are the ones who have to examine their own assumptions about power, about women in power, about men in power, about violence, about their experience of violence. 

What we’ve found happening over and over with our productions is that first people are a little jolted by it; they’re very conscious of the fact that these are not the kinds of bodies they’re used to seeing in these roles. But very quickly people start to “forget” that these are female or non-binary bodies. What happens — this is what I really believe — is they don’t actually forget, but they get engaged in the story and then there’ll be a moment, maybe a moment of extreme violence like in Titus Andronicus, where the reality that those are female or non-binary bodies performing those acts, saying those words, suddenly springs to mind. That’s the moment where I think there’s a kind of interesting disassociation that happens, in a way: “Oh! That’s not the way I expected it to be!” 

The whole Judith Butler idea that gender is performative, suddenly we don’t need to talk about that in an academic way: It’s right there. And I think people start to see that in a way that (makes them think) “Wow. What is gender?”

What that does to an individual audience member is really their own story. My experience, though, is that it shakes them up in a way.

GARRETT: It really does. I was really good friends with somebody who was the former undefeated amateur female boxing champion in the state of California. I went to see her fight a few times, and these bouts are set up so the women fight first, because nobody wants to see that, and then the men fight. When women fight in boxing, they step in to receive a real good heavy hit on the chin, so they can leave two behind. When men fight they tend to block their faces. So when women fight, what they accept first is that this thing they’re engaged in may ruin their ideas of beauty.

The same is true when I’m witnessing women perform in these roles, especially the ones that are violent. There’s a tendency to actually lean in a little bit more. There’s a kind of deepening in the body. There’s a forward motion. Because there’s a willingness to say, “I’m willing to sacrifice the notions that codify my existence in the world so that you can understand where I’m coming from.” So there’s actually this deeper engagement in making the imprint, on the audience, on the actors across the room from them, on the story itself. I saw a run-through (of Bring Down the House) last night and I left with this feeling like, “Yeah! If you wanna change the world, you gotta get in there with your body and your spirit and your mind, and be willing to take one on the chin so you can leave two behind!”

That’s very different from an idea we often hear, that presenting women in roles of authority lets us see gentler models of how power could be used, less about conflict than conciliation. Perhaps that’s a naive way of looking at human societies, even non-patriarchal ones.

GARRETT and WISNIEWSKI (in unison): It is.

The three of you in upstart crow collective have been working together since 2006, and you’ve committed the bulk of this year to Bring Down the House. What’s next for your company?

WISNIEWSKI: We’re going back to Seattle when we’re finished here and we’ll be doing another co-production with Seattle Shakespeare Company that’ll open in January. We’re going back to the beginning of the history plays and start with Richard II. And ultimately our plan as a company is to take the whole bunch — from Richard II to Richard III (eight plays, in Shakespeare’s versions, covering roughly 85 years) — take them to Washington, D.C., put up a big white tent and do them all in rep. We feel like folks there need to see this work! 

Some seasons there’s a show that kind of falls through the cracks a bit and doesn’t fill the seats as well — because the title’s unfamiliar or the ostensible subject matter doesn’t grab folks reading a brochure, or whatever — yet is a special show. Is there something later in this year’s lineup that you’d especially want us not to overlook?

GARRETT: I love all my babies! (Laughs) I’ll talk about my own play last year, How to Catch Creation. People really loved it, but it didn’t make its sales numbers. I had a board member ask me how that was possible, because they thought it was so good. Our plays are interdependent: If something is going really well in the Elizabethan, chances are the plays in the Bowmer and the Thomas benefit from that in ways that we don’t record. What happens is that people get here, and they love what’s happening in whatever space that they’re in and they make these other decisions. And usually that has to do with what you talked about earlier, how the plays are interrelated, the conversations. I think if you see Bring Down the House Pts 1 and 2, you should see Confederates and Everything That Never Happened. If you go to see Poor Yella Rednecks, you should make sure you check out Black Odyssey.  You need to make sure you understand something about that world and its relation to The Copper Children. Those are lines that our audiences tend to make on their own; they talk to one another about their experiences, they go to the Prefaces and the post-show discussions, they meet on the bricks and engage in conversations around what’s happening. When you get here you learn that you should see something because of its relationship to something else. 

I do want to make sure people make a point to see Bring Down the House. This time that we’re in, in politics, I feel like Shakespeare knew that we could come back around again to this time, and be as outrageous in our time now as they were then — so full of their own designs for how the world should be that they were willing to annihilate their loved ones. We’re in a time of consuming our loved ones. Bring Down the House, secretly it’s the baby I love the most. Not just because it’s a room of these amazing women actors, but also because it reflects where we are. Even some people’s aversion to women playing these roles is a reflection of where we are as a society. So get in to that theater and see that work!

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