bill rauch

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. 

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DramaWatch: Cause for celebration at OSF

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens its 85th anniversary season; plus new shows open across Portland, "West Side Story" gets too dark a makeover, and more.

In a way it feels odd to refer to something that goes on eight months of each year as a festival. And yet, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — originally launched in 1935 as a two-play, three-evening event, now grown into one of the largest, busiest theater companies in the country — still feels celebratory.

The 2020 season, which opens Friday and continues through Nov. 1, has more than usual to celebrate, or at the very least to consider noteworthy. It is the festival’s 85th anniversary season, of course, an impressive achievement for any American arts organization, especially one in a small Northwestern town. This season also is the first under the full-time leadership of Nataki Garrett, who last August became the festival’s sixth artistic director, replacing Bill Rauch, now the inaugural artistic director of the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center in New York. (Garrett recently spoke with ArtsWatch for an interview published separately.)

The current festival leadership also includes interim associate artistic director Evren Odcikin (currently in Portland directing Portland Center Stage’s upcoming production of Nine Parts of Desire) and acting executive director Paul Christy, a retired U.S. government economist.

And in addition to being an anniversary and a celebration in its own right, this festival season is a part of the Jubilee

The Wars of the Roses are seeded in Bring Down the House, a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

In the works since 2015, the Jubilee is, as the program’s website describes it, “a yearlong, nationwide theatre festival featuring work generated by those who have historically been excluded — including but not limited to artists of color, Native American and Indigenous and First Nations artists, women, non-binary and gender non-conforming artists, LGBTQIA2+ artists, Deaf artists, and artists with disabilities.” Providing a clear, tangible goal to help along the cause of diversity and inclusion, the Jubilee involves a commitment from numerous theater producers across the country — from professional companies to high schools — to put previously marginalized voices at the center of their programming for the 2020-2021 season. In addition to OSF, participating Oregon companies include Portland Center Stage, Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble and Corrib Theatre.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: dark & stormy nights

Frankenstein, Día de Muertos, tribute bands, dinosaurs, warps & wefts, and a Dope Elf: Welcome to the art week.

TODAY IS BOTH HALLOWEEN AND THE BEGINNING OF DÍA DE MUERTOS, two holidays that have distinct backgrounds and meanings but are often linked in the public mind, because they occur each year at about the same time and because they deal, in their own ways, with the souls of the dead. Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which begins today and continues through Saturday, is a celebration that began in central and southern Mexico and has spread broadly from there. It’s a time for remembering friends and family who have died, and helping them along their spiritual journey.

Carlos Manzano as Bombón in the Día de Muertos-inspired play Amor Añejo, at Milagro Theatre through November 10. Photo © Russell J Young 

Milagro Theatre’s current show, Amor Añejo, gives you a good sense of the spirit of Día de Muertos. Bennett Campbell Ferguson, in his review for ArtsWatch, Into the Beyond, with Pain and Laughter, calls it a “tale of bereavement and rebirth.” “It’s an elegy—and more,” he continues. “The story flows from a single death that leaves everything from pain to joy to absurdity in its wake. Amor Añejo’s fullness of spirit makes it an unmissable play. At once profoundly soulful and gloriously silly, it invites us to touch the life of Hector, a painter who refuses to accept the death of his wife, Rosalita.” Naturally, that’s only the beginning.

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DramaWatch: Linda Alper’s place at the table

A staged reading of the veteran actor/writer's "The Best Worst Place" highlights this weekend's Proscenium Live showcase of new plays

“God is closest to those with broken hearts.”

— from The Best Worst Place, by Linda Alper

A decade ago, an American actor named Joseph Graves, artistic director of Peking University’s Institute of World Theatre and Film, hired some actors from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to teach workshops in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Taipei. A year or so later, one of those actors, Linda Alper, her appetite whetted to return to Asia, landed a Fulbright grant, allowing her to spend a year in Taiwan teaching Shakespeare at Soochow University and National Taiwan University.

Though her students mostly were fluent in English, the metaphor and symbolism of Shakespeare, she said, were a big challenge. Among the ways she made things clear?

I’d put signs on things.”

Signs and symbols and China all loom large in Alper’s new play, The Best Worst Place, a fascinating blend of coming-of-age story and historical fiction, with a dash of espionage thriller. Being developed as part of Artists Repertory Theatre’s Table|Room|Stage new-play program, The Best Worst Place gets a staged reading this weekend in PSU’s Lincoln Hall as part of Proscenium Live, presented by Portland Shakespeare Project and Proscenium Journal.

Linda Alper with Michael Mendelson in Artists Repertory Theatre’s 2013 production of Ten Chimneys. Photo: Owen Carey

This will be the fifth year for Proscenium Live, and as usual it draws on a wealth of Portland theater talent. The Best Worst Place, Saturday evening’s reading directed by Jane Unger, will feature Claire Rigsby, Jason Glick, Foss Curtis, Barbie Wu and Joshua J. Weinstein. On Sunday afternoon, Portland Shakes co-founder Michael Mendelson directs Kelly Godell, Agatha Olsen, Murri Lazaroff-Babin, Sharonlee McLean, Lolly Ward and Proscenium Journal editor-in-chief Steve Rathje in Water From Fire, Sue Mach’s extension of the story of Hermione from The Winter’s Tale. That evening, Seattle playwright Carl Sanders’ Mercer Island Misalliance, which transposes George Bernard Shaw’s pointed political template to the 2016 Presidential election, fairly overflows with Portland stage favorites: Sharonlee McLean, Olivia Weiss, La’Tevin Alexander Ellis, Kelly Godell, Bobby Bermea, Dave Bodin, Jim Vadala and David Sikking, with Mendelson again directing.

All that sounds promising. But I’m most excited for Alper’s play.

The Best Worst Place takes place in the shadow — and in the dark, world-wide wake — of World War II and the Holocaust. The story’s central character is Eva, a Jewish teen whose family flees from their small German town before the war. Refused entry to the United States and many other countries, they join a teeming, tumultuous international refugee community in Shanghai, where occupying Japanese authorities soon force them into a fetid ghetto. There, Eva struggles  — with the cramped conditions, with her attempts to learn Chinese, to maintain friendships, to understand her parents and herself and an increasingly chaotic world. Some of Alper’s most resonant writing in the play relates the uses and deciphering of signs and symbols, whether they be anti-Jewish restrictions posted around Germany, clues to meaning in the strokes of logographic Chinese characters, the coded communications of resistance networks, or even the behaviorial hints of romantic interest.

“It can’t just be like a newsreel,” Alper says, in a video above from the Artists Rep website. It’s also about what “any young person goes through growing up in those years of their life and becoming an adult, in all the ways that we all do. And so how is that different in an extraordinary circumstance? And how is it the same? There’s a lot of information that people left, that people wrote about.”

That Alper, too, has written about it is a sign of good things.


FILE UNDER: BITTERSWEET



OPENING


Now 70 years old and still a marvelous model of the American musical,  South Pacific, the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic about Americans stationed overseas during World War II, delivers romance, trenchant social commentary and a treasure trove of memorable songs such as “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” and “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.” Sad to say, its theme of the poisonous effects of racial prejudice remains painfully pertinent. Clackamas Repertory Theatre stages the sturdy crowd-pleaser, directed by  Jayne Stevens and Wesley Robert Hanson. 

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The highest goal of human freedom and justice is the ability of teenagers to go dancing. Well, at least that notion appears to be the dramatic engine moving this stage-musical adaptation of the hit 1980s movie Footloose. Peggy Tapthorn directs a cast featuring the marvelous Malia Tippets, as Broadway Rose helps you “kick off the Sunday shoes.” 

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Though set in a forest (mostly), As You Like It should work fine at a vineyard. Portland Actors Ensemble in collaboration with Willamette Shakespeare Company presents Shakespeare’s comedy — directed by Sara Fay Goldman with an extra emphasis on the fluidity of gender roles — at Stoller Family Estate in Dayton. After its initial weekend, the production moves to other area wineries and to Reed College.

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“Now I lays me down to sleep

 I prays de Lord me soul to keep

 And if de cop should find me — den

 I prays he’ll leave me be. Amen.”

That “newsboy’s prayer” from the late 1890s gives a glimpse of the meager life and street-urchin argot of the youngsters who peddled penny newspapers around the big cities of the era. However humble their circumstances, their 1899 strike against millionaire publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst  eventually inspired a Broadway musical by Harvey Fierstein (based on a dud Disney movie). Plucky little guys bravely defy injustice! Plus: dancing!

Newsies gets a community-theater production by Journey Theater in Vancouver.

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The Oregon Coast boasts plenty of attractions to lure folks on a summer weekend. But why don’t we add theater to that list. Red Octopus Theatre Company in Newport has On Golden Pond on the boards right now and a variety of intriguing selections for the coming months.


CLOSING


Director Brenda Hubbard’s The Comedy of Errors, which started a few weeks ago at the West Side Shakespeare Festival in Beaverton, concludes its run at Torii Mor Winery in Dundee.

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Summer is for Shakespeare in parks. But Shakespeare in a cemetery has its place as well. Portland Actors Ensemble’s The Tragedie of King Lear, directed by Patrick Walsh, winds up its residence in the fitting setting of Southeast Portland’s Lone Fir Cemetery, with Jim Butterfield as the aging king and such terrific supporting actors as Paige McKinney (Goneril), Jill Westerby (Regan) and Gary Powell (Gloucester). 


THE FLATTENED STAGE (A LITTLE SCREEN TIME)


in the late 1990s I had the privilege of spending a year on a National Arts Journalism Fellowship, a program funded by the Pew Charitable Trust. At one point, all the participating arts critics and associated academics gathered for a few days in New York City for a round of meetings, museum tours, performances and such. This was a group of folks accustomed to speaking with famous people, to artists and civic leaders (a different fellowship gathering included a tour of Pixar Studios, at which we were greeted by none other than Steve Jobs himself). And being culture mavens in NYC, we spotted a lot of celebrities that weekend. No big deal.

There was one moment, though, where I saw a ripple of nervous excitement go through our ranks, the uncontrolled thrill that comes with the sudden combination of hero worship and physical proximity. Several of our ranks went to see a Broadway production of The Little Foxes, and as we made our way from the lobby into the auditorium, there he was — not onstage, but among us, just a few feet away, another member of the audience, yet so much more: Wallace Shawn!

The play was excellent, but what we talked about afterward was that we’d seen Wallace Shawn!!

This is a column about theater, about art on the stage; but the screen has its virtues. One of which is that we can watch, repeatedly, something such as this, Shawn as Uncle Vanya, in Louis Malle’s film version Vanya on 42nd Street:


BEST LINE I READ THIS WEEK


“Music is a moment. But life’s a long time. In that moment, when it’s good, when you really swinging — then you joined to everything, to everybody, to skies and stars and every living thing. But music ain’t kissing. Kissing’s what you want to do. Music’s what you got to do, if you got to do it. Question is how long you can keep up with the music when you ain’t got nobody to kiss.”


— James Baldwin, from “The Amen Corner”

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

Earlier this month I landed in Ashland to see the first five plays of the 2018-19 Oregon Shakespeare Festival season, Bill Rauch’s last as artistic director.


The plays under inspection here include:

  • the vastly popular stage version of the John Waters film “Hairspray”
  • Lauren Yee’s instantly (and deservedly) popular “Cambodian Rock Band”
  • an “As You Like It” that preserves the “Shakespeare” in the “Oregon Shakespeare Festival” and also interprets the play in a progressive way
  • the world premiere of long-time festival favorite Octavio Solis’s “Mother Road”
  • and “Between Two Knees,” a seriously pointed sketch comedy by the Native American improv group The 1491s and another world premiere.

Last season I made a similar trip to see a similar batch of new productions, relatively soon after the announcement that Rauch was heading for New York to become the first artistic director of the Perelman Center in New York City. What struck me then was how far the festival had evolved during Rauch’s tenure: “Suddenly, they [the plays] became a sort of emblem of the changes that Rauch has brought to the festival—and to American theater in general—during his run at OSF, which began in 2007.

What changes are we/was I talking about?

Jessica Ko and Roman Zaragoza in director Rosa Joshi’s production of
“As You Like It” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2019. Photo: Jenny Graham.

“Rauch was ahead of the times at OSF, although he was also drawing on important changes initiated by previous artistic directors Henry Woronicz and Libby Appel. From the beginning he explicitly linked the festival to social change, both internally and onstage, embracing diversity, feminism and social justice, well ahead of other regional theater companies and even national equality movements—#blacklivesmatter, #metoo, #occupy. During his tenure accessibility projects flourished, sharpened their focus, and had a real effect on how the festival does business and what it puts onstage.”

This first round of plays in the 2019 season follows and extends the programming developments Rauch began in 2007. The productions themselves retain the high-end production values the festival is known for, and they are populated with persons of color, tell stories about communities the festival (along with most of the rest of American theater) once neglected and have the edgy energy that new plays, new voices, new actors and directors can bring.

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Ashland picks new artistic leader

Nataki Garrett, who directs this season's "How To Catch Creation," will become the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's sixth artistic director

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced a new artistic director in a Tuesday morning release. Nataki Garett will be the Ashland festival’s sixth artistic leader, replacing Bill Rauch, who is completing his final season before taking over as the first artistic director of the new Ronald O. Perelman Center for the Performing Arts at the rebuilt World Trade Center in New York.

It’s a plum job, one of the top posts in the American nonprofit theater, and one of several nationally that have been open in the past year. And it marks a sweeping change in leadership, with top positions across the country going to women and people of color, as The New York Times details in today’s editions.

Garrett most recently was acting artistic director for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts during its 18-month leadership transition. Chris Coleman, who was artistic director of Portland Center Stage for 17 years, was appointed to the permanent post in Denver. Coleman was replaced by Marissa Wolf, who moved from Kansas City Rep to take the reigns last September.

Garrett, who holds as MFA in directing from California Institute of the Arts, has worked for more than 20 years as “a theatre administrator, director, producer, playwright, educator, activist and mentor.”

Nataki Garrett, new boss at OSF. Photo: Bill Geenen

“I am absolutely thrilled to be named incoming artistic director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival and it is an honor and privilege to inherit such a wonderfully rich and dynamic legacy of artistic excellence in partnership with a dedicated board, staff, company and local community,” Garrett said in a prepared statement. “I am equally excited and inspired by OSF’s dedication to expanding our worldview and look forward to maintaining our commitment to the revolutionary spirit of Shakespeare and classical text, while continuing to explore and expand opportunities for new voices and narratives through new play development.”

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2018: A roller-coaster arts ride

Baby 2019's raring to get rolling. But first, a stroll down memory lane with Old Man 2018 and his slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Well, that was the year that was, wasn’t it? Old Man 2018 limps out of the limelight with a thousand scars, a thousand accomplishments, and a whole lot of who-knows-what. The new kid on the block, Baby 2019, arrives fit and sassy, eager to get rolling and make her mark. She’s got big plans, and the ballgame’s hers to win, lose, or draw.

New kid on the block: 2019 rolls into the picture, fit and sassy and ready to start fresh. (Claude Monet, “Jean Monet on His Hobby Horse,” 1872, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)

On the Oregon arts and cultural scene, 2018 entered the game with similar high hopes and then handled a lot of unexpected disruption, holding his ground and even making a few gains even as his hair grew thin and gray. He can retire with his head held high, if he’s not too busy shaking it from side to side over the things he’s seen.

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