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NATAKI GARRETT BEGAN HER POST AS THE Oregon Shakespeare Festival's sixth artistic director in April, and she'll officially succeed Bill Rauch in the role in August. She hardly had a chance to begin preparing for the 2020 season before she dove into rehearsals as the director of Christina Anderson's How to Catch Ovation (which opens there July 23). Garrett most recently served as acting artistic director of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) Theatre Company during its 18-month leadership transition from Kent Thompson to Chris Coleman. As the former associate dean and the co-head of the undergraduate acting program at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) School of Theater, Garrett is known as a champion of new work as well as a savvy arts administrator.

ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Congratulations! This is huge and heartening news. What are your impressions of OSF's assets and challenges? What kind of job awaits you, do you think?

NATAKI GARRETT: First, I'm really thrilled to have this opportunity. As a little girl from Oakland raised by a single parent who was a teacher, growing up under Reaganomics, this is something beyond my wildest dreams. I've watched the company grow and climb into the national spotlight, and watched the catapulting of the name of OSF, the tangibility of its brand, to the Tony, to the plays on Broadway, including plays they've developed: Indecent, Sweat, the new work they've done.

It's an important year of transformation across the industry. Here's the thing: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion work is always felt more than it's seen. There are feelings about the EDI work there that need to be reckoned with. I'm going to focus on stabilizing the organization, building a stronger fiscal foundation, developing new producing models. OSF has some financial difficulties, but they are not insurmountable. We need to look at places where we may be applying 20th-century solutions to 21st-century problems and make adjustments.

I'm also looking to where OSF can be the most impactful going forward. In 30 years, today's millennials will be in their 60s, and we need to get ready for that. I have a really great foundation for all these changes because of what Bill has been doing for the last 12 years.

OSF has beefed up its new-play work, but it still has Shakespeare in the name. Is it going to stay a classical rep company?

It has to. Shakespeare brought us to new places in all of his plays, so I think of Shakespeare as a model for how you develop new work. It's not just Shakespeare's plays but his ideas which we can apply to exploring new voices. What we're doing is providing a platform for new voices to continually develop, to deepen their ideas and impact. The playwright's voice is extremely important to me and to my practice. The work of the theatre is to listen to the playwright. Sometimes that's an O'Neill play that was written 100 years ago; sometimes it's an Ibsen play; sometimes it's a Quiara Eludes play or a Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play. I think we stoke the fire for all our work through the new work.

I've spoken to folks at OSF who admit that doing so much new-work within a repertory schedule is especially challenging.

Yes, and some of that may mean looking at the producing model, where it's leaning heavily on the process, and maybe mitigating some of the effect of that. It might mean rebalancing or removing something. There's also a lot of conversation around what's happening with our shops and our IATSE brethren. I want to make sure we're all really involved in the conversation about how we all make theatre together well. A lot of people are tied to way that OSF has done the work, and I have enormous respect for that. So I want to balance the desire to keep the things the way they are with the need to change and evolve.

Do mean with the behind-the-scenes workers or the audience?

Across the board. I think you can convince your shops and your craft artisans that there are new ways to do things; if you're a theatre artist, you're usually interested in new things. The hardest thing is going to be the conversation with the audience. They come back year after year, they come generationally, so it's about engaging in a conversation with them to make sure they know that a shift is not a way to disunite them but to enhance the experience for all.

Is what you mean by the "feelings" around EDI?

Any kind of change is going to be tumultuous. People make that sound, "EDI," those three letters, and they think they're doing whatever that sound evokes. But they've only scratched the surface of the changes that need to happen. I have not yet been in an organization where, even in the brave act of taking on EDI and social-justice work, there was not a sort of reflective tumult, where the change is not met with difficulty. What's happening there is that there are people who have been living under difficult circumstances who are being heard, and once that's in the room, you have to rebalance.

The impact of being the flagship theatre for EDI, as OSF has been, is that you're the first--you don't know what's coming. You don't know why this thing is so hard, or why that thing came easy. All you know is you're in the process of doing it. Bill really had to do that work. He brought some amazing voices of color into the organization, and provided a space for them to live in their full dynamic complexity, to make it okay to be in that community, far from the big city, in a small town of relative homogeneity, and to be vocal about their experiences and give them a space to talk about that. That's the launching of artEquity and the work of EDI.

Now that that has been established, there has to be a restoking of that energy and a look at the impact of that work, at how to deepen it and really ask: Who is not empowered? Whose voices are not being heard? Humility and empathy have to be the primary drivers of the work, and we have to bring everybody into that. Transition always makes people feel uneasy. But I believe you can really only change an organization that's in the process of changing, and OSF has been.

The nearby wildfires have had a big impact on the theatre.

You know, I lived in Southern California for 17 years; fire and wind are seasons in L.A. These are things I'm used to. Now that it's clear that fire is a season in Southern Oregon, the challenge is not insurmountable. I think the problem was the surprise--"Wait, this is happening again?" Now that we're clear that the fires are coming, there's a plan. There's a theatre where the outdoor Elizabethan shows can be taken indoors, for instance.

What do you hope your stamp on OSF will be?

I believe my stamp is going to be: to engage the generation we're going to be serving in 30 years, while still maintaining the stewarding of the audience we have now. I have to find or create the means to get to that. I don't want to say exactly what it will be, because I want to make sure I'm clear about it before I present my plan. I do know that the needs of the Baby Boomer audience and the needs of rnillennials are the balance we have to strike in the American theatre.
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Title Annotation:ENTRANCES & EXITS
Publication:American Theatre
Date:Jul 1, 2019
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