Nataki Garrett

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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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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DramaWatch: Standing on a Rock

What was and what is, from Sacagawea to Standing Rock, in Mary Kathryn Nagle's time-traveling tale "Crossing Mnisose"

A bit of banter between a couple of young indigenous protesters at Standing Rock drills down wryly and comically on one of the key issues in Mary Kathryn Nagle’s new time-hopping play Crossing Mnisose: the way that many white people either venerate or underestimate nonwhite people, falling back on shopworn assumptions rather than taking the time to listen and learn and simply respect.

Carey (Nathalie Standingcloud), a young woman from nearby Bismark, and Travis (Robert I. Mesa), a key student activist in the 2016 fight to stop the Dakota Access oil pipeline that poses a threat to reservation land and burial sites, break into an impromptu comedy routine about the ways that white New Agers approach them as embodiments of mystical indigenous powers. The mimicry’s spot-on, and only a little exaggerated, which makes it all the funnier, in a shoulder-shrugging, with-friends-like-this sort of way. It’s almost a courtship dance, tough and affectionate and satiric and seductive all at once.

Robert I. Mesa and Nathalie Standingcloud, flirtatious at Standing Rock. Photo by Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory

Time warps in Nagle’s plays, or rather, overlaps. The past is prologue to the present, an enduring chord within a freshly written song, the sins of the fathers visiting generations to come. Nagle’s play Manahatta, which premiered last season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and opens next month in New York, bounces between the stories of a Lenape woman in the 1600s, when Dutch settlers began to take over Manhattan, and a modern-day Lenape woman who is a high-powered securities trader on Wall Street, which sits on land from which her ancestors were evicted.

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DramaWatch: Imago flies again

Plus: New boss in Ashland, Ferguson comes to Center Stage, Portland Playhouse's Crowning glory, a rolling "Jump," Just play "No," and more

What’s up at the theater? Funny you should ask.

Last May a wonderfully peculiar vision flew onto the Portland theater scene, and far too quickly, before all but a few people had had a chance to see it, flew off again. Well, spring’s arrived, and To Fly Again, Jerry Mouawad’s dancerly swan of a play, has landed at Imago Theatre again. It opens Friday for another brief run as part of Imago’s Next Wave Festival, and you should try to catch it before it flies the coop yet again on April 6.

The dusty dancers in Imago’s “To Fly Again.” Photo: Jubel Brosseau

I reviewed last year’s production, which had the same cast as the current one (you can read the full review here), and here’s what I wrote, in part:

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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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