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Oregon Shakespeare Festival focuses on expansion – but is not without its critics

After two years of pandemic closures, audiences are back at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, to find a season of diverse plays. But for many, change has come too soon.

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Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Nataki Garrett stands inside the Allen Elizabethan Theatre in Ashland, Ore. She recently programmed her first full season but not everyone has embraced her new approach.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Nataki Garrett stands inside the Allen Elizabethan Theatre in Ashland, Ore. She recently programmed her first full season but not everyone has embraced her new approach. Michael Sullivan for NPR

After two years of pandemic closures, audiences are back at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Founded in 1935, it is one of the oldest and largest non-profit theaters in the country.

But things aren't the same as they were during the pre-pandemic 2019 season. The audience now wears masks even during outdoor performances, and vaccinations are required. Like most theaters across the country, the audience is diminished; less than 50% have returned to OSF's reopened stages. Throughout this season, several performances on those stages have been canceled due to smoke from Oregon's wildfires and COVID-19 outbreaks. And most importantly, new artistic director Nataki Garrett has programmed her first full season.

"Recovery season," as Garrett calls it, includes Shakespeare stalwarts like The Tempest, but with a diverse cast, and King John, which in this production is an all-female and nonbinary cast performing a story about male power in imperial Europe. The season also includes a new play by MacArthur Prize-winning playwright Dominique Morisseau called Confederates, commissioned by OSF in collaboration with St. Paul's Penumbra Theater. It is a story about the way American history haunts the lives of Black women, showing the parallels between two women who live a century apart; one in a slave cabin during the Civil War and one on a contemporary college campus.

"I guess I  was expecting a theater company on crutches," Shakespeare scholar Daniel Pollack-Pelzner told NPR. He's been coming to the theater in Ashland, Ore., for almost 30 years. "What I saw instead was a theater company on wings."

Bianca Jones (left) and Erica Sullivan perform in Confederates at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore.
Bianca Jones (left) and Erica Sullivan perform in Confederates at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore. Jenny Graham | Oregon Shakespeare Festival

That kind of sentiment is good news for OSF, because changing demographics mean that theaters must work to expand their audiences to survive. But like many regional, non-profit American theaters around the country, this theater has been faced with a mostly white subscriber and donor base — which is aging.

"The American theater has relied for decades on that one demographic of people ... over 65, affluent, white. It's sort of the bread basket of the industry," Garrett said.

Ashland, Ore., home of the festival, is itself about 91% white, according to the 2020 census. Portland State University Professor Daniel Pollack-Pelzner pointed out that Oregon has a bleak history of racism.

"It's a state founded with a racial exclusion clause in its constitution ... unfair labor laws for migrants who have come to live there and an active KKK presence well into the 20th if not the 21st century," he said.

But over time, the theater has transformed what was once a small, rural town into an international tourist and arts destination, filled with cafes and shops, and bringing people in from all over.

Garrett has for several years been a leading voice for change, inclusion and equity in American theater. When OSF hired her in 2019, she became one of the first Black women to lead such a large, legacy performing arts institution.

Garrett is focused on putting on stage both new works and new approaches to older works, because attracting and reflecting younger and more diverse audiences is fundamental to the entire ecosystem's survival.
Garrett is focused on putting on stage both new works and new approaches to older works, because attracting and reflecting younger and more diverse audiences is fundamental to the entire ecosystem's survival. Michael Sullivan for NPR

But the cessation of theater in March 2020 and an indeterminate return date meant she had to focus on the theater's survival. Donors and audiences disappeared, so she campaigned to raise $19 million through federal, regional and foundation funding. She said those days trying to save a legacy institution from total collapse were terrifying and clarifying.

"I thought the pandemic was the hard work for maybe about 15 minutes into the pandemic," Garrett said. But then she realized "that the task is actually greater than can getting through a pandemic ... it's about recovery and thriving. And how do we get THERE?"

That's partly why she's focused on putting on stage both new works and new approaches to older works — because attracting and reflecting younger and more diverse audiences is fundamental to the entire ecosystem's survival.

But not everyone likes the new approach.

"My concern is that they have decided to essentially remake the OSF into something it wasn't ... instead of building on their strengths, really turning their back on its strengths," said Herbert Rothschild, a longtime OSF subscriber and local columnist, told NPR. "If so, I think they're going to drive it into the ground."

People who love OSF but don't love the new mission have posted on Facebook and participated in letter-writing campaigns. But some of the criticism has gone much farther and Garrett has received death threats.
People who love OSF but don't love the new mission have posted on Facebook and participated in letter-writing campaigns. But some of the criticism has gone much farther and Garrett has received death threats. Michael Sullivan for NPR

Rothschild said in a column this summer that he admired OSF's diversity efforts, but thought the drop in the number of Shakespeare plays it produced showed that the theater no longer trusted Shakespeare to draw audiences. In a second column, he added that he thought programming so many diverse, contemporary plays didn't make business sense, because the majority of the Ashland audience is white.

Rothschild's opinion started a community conversation, said Bert Etling, who edits Rothschild's column at Ashland.news. People who love OSF but don't love the new mission have posted on Facebook and participated in letter-writing campaigns to Garrett's office.

"People don't want to lose control of things that are important to them and if they feel that something is being taken away, they're going to protest that and they're going to make their discomfort known," Etling said.

Some of the criticism, though, has gone much farther than artistic difference of opinion.  Garrett has received death threats, and now travels with a security team in public.

Cyndii Johnson (left) and Erika Rose perform in Confederates at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Cyndii Johnson (left) and Erika Rose perform in Confederates at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Jenny Graham | Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Yet Garrett is moving forward. The current season is designed for "collective impact," Garrett said. Besides The Tempest, King John and Confederates, there is also a production of the Tony Award-winning musical Once On This Island, here set in Haiti, and a raucous queer musical called Revenge Song by Qui Nguyen. Next season, Garrett will direct the company's flagship Shakespeare production, which will be a Romeo and Juliet that's inspired by the making — and the failings — of the American West.

Behind the scenes, Garrett has been changing the company's labor practices, restructuring everything from payment systems to rehearsal hours in order to ensure a more humane workplace that can attract and maintain workers of all backgrounds. There is an entire new division built around inclusion, equity and access led by Anyaniya Muse, who was recently promoted to the role of Managing Director. Plus, to expand to audiences beyond its usual subscription base, OSF has reduced ticket prices and is building upon its digital programs that began as a substitute for in-person performance.

Behind the scenes, Garrett has been changing the company's labor practices, restructuring everything from payment systems to rehearsal hours in order to ensure a more humane workplace that can attract and maintain workers of all backgrounds.
Behind the scenes, Garrett has been changing the company's labor practices, restructuring everything from payment systems to rehearsal hours in order to ensure a more humane workplace that can attract and maintain workers of all backgrounds. Michael Sullivan for NPR

Because Oregon Shakespeare Festival's full audience has not yet returned and federal funding has run dry, next season will be a reduced one. But Garrett said these longer-term changes she's implementing to expand the festival's mission are non-negotiable and essential.

"I want OSF to exist well beyond me, 25 years from now and a time when I won't even be here on Earth, I want it to still be here," Garrett said. "And that means that my mandate is to rethink the way we do things."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Clarification: October 2, 2022, 11:00 PM
This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the argument that Mr. Rothschild made in his second column. The columns did not invite death threats; Garrett has been receiving them since before Mr. Rothschild's column was published.

Transcript :

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

America's regional theaters are facing an existential crisis. If they're going to survive, they have to attract younger, more diverse audiences, which is one reason that a theater in southern Oregon appointed one of the first Black women to lead such a large regional stage company. For this chapter in our series The Next Stage, NPR's Bilal Qureshi takes us there.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Even before COVID closures, Nataki Garrett realized she was facing an uphill battle as the new artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

NATAKI GARRETT: I thought the pandemic was the hard work for maybe about 15 minutes into the pandemic. But what you realize is if you're tasked with saving an organization that's 85 years old, that's embedded in a community in which the community relies on it, that the task is actually greater than, you know, getting through a pandemic. It's about recovery and thriving. And how do we get there?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARRETT: Hello, and welcome to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

QURESHI: This is the festival's first full season in two years - eight plays in a season - from April to December - performed across three historic stages. On my recent visit, masks on, curtains up - on the mainstage, Shakespeare's "The Tempest."

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Master) Boatswain.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Boatswain) Here, master. What cheer?

QURESHI: Next door, a game of thrones in "King John."

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Bastard) Austria and France shoot in each other's mouth. I'll stir them to it. Come. Away. Away.

QURESHI: And a new play about race and power called "Confederates."

BIANCA JONES: (As Sandra) I think you can draw more concise lines between corporate America and the plantation. It's not absurd. It's just not an easy route to follow. I admire your passion, though.

QURESHI: Shakespeare scholar Daniel Pollack-Pelzner has been coming to Ashland for almost 30 years.

DANIEL POLLACK-PELZNER: I guess I was expecting to see a theater company on crutches. And I felt like what I saw instead was a theater company with wings.

QURESHI: Nataki Garrett was just beginning her first season as artistic director when the pandemic began. For a company with an almost $40 million budget, she saved the Oregon Shakespeare Festival from financial freefall, raising $19 million through government and foundation funding as donors and audiences disappeared. The festival's survival is critical to the entire southern Oregon economy. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival - or OSF, as it's also known - is not just a regional theater. It's a destination theater located in the Rogue River Valley, nestled among mountains, vineyards and many cute cafes.

The festival, like most American theaters, is also a historically and overwhelmingly white institution, located in a county that is 80% white and in a state with a history of racism, says Portland State University professor Daniel Pollack-Pelzner.

POLLACK-PELZNER: It's a state founded with a racial exclusion clause in its constitution, a state with a history of unfair labor conditions for migrants who have come to work there and an active KKK presence well into the 20th, if not the 21st century.

QURESHI: Nataki Garrett sees theater as a place for reflection and racial progress. But she says the regional theater system and its economy have been designed differently.

GARRETT: The American theater has relied for decades on that one demographic of people - over 65, affluent, white. It's the sort of breadbasket of the industry.

QURESHI: During the pandemic, 300 theater artists across the country signed a letter called We See You, White American Theater.

GARRETT: You know, there was this so-called racial reckoning across the country. And the theater community responded by saying, that racial reckoning for us means that we're not moving back into theater systems that are oppressive.

QURESHI: Garrett has changed labor practices at OSF to build more humane conditions for her performers and crew. She's reduced ticket prices and introduced more digital programs to expand access. The company's new artistic team is programming provocative and innovative new work. That includes this season's all female and nonbinary production of Shakespeare's "King John," directed by Rosa Joshi.

ROSA JOSHI: It's radical for a festival that is so deeply rooted in the tradition of doing Shakespeare in the U.S.

QURESHI: But not everyone supports the company's new direction. Herbert Rothschild is a longtime OSF subscriber and a local columnist.

HERBERT ROTHSCHILD: My concern is that they have decided to essentially remake the Oregon Shakespeare Festival into something it wasn't - instead of building on its strengths, really turning their back on its strengths. If so, I think they're going to drive it into the ground.

QURESHI: Rothschild's editor at Ashland.news is Bert Etling, who says the columns began an ongoing community conversation.

BERT ETLING: People don't want to lose control of things that are important to them. And if they feel that something's being taken away, then they're going to protest that. They're going to make their discomfort known.

QURESHI: But some of the criticism has gone much further than artistic difference of opinion. There have also been death threats. And Nataki Garrett now makes all public appearances with a security team.

GARRETT: I'm the only artistic leader that I know of in the American theater that's having this experience. But to be quite honest, I'm just not free to live here, you know, in the way that other people are.

QURESHI: The security team was with her in the theater for the premiere of a new play she's directing this season.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONES: (As Sandra) I like to say that I'm not averse to images of slavery - no shame in my own enslaved heritage.

QURESHI: Written by Dominique Morisseau, "Confederates" is about the way American history haunts the lives and the freedom of Black women. The play ended with a rapturous standing ovation, with Nataki Garrett joining her actors for a triumphant curtain call - soundtracked by Beyonce.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAK MY SOUL")

BEYONCE: (Singing) You won't break my soul. You won't break my soul. You won't break my soul.

QURESHI: Galen Williams was in the audience.

GALEN WILLIAMS: I love that, like, you know, that their curtain call is to "Break My Soul" by Beyonce - and freedom of expression, Black love, Black pride, Black liberation, which I feel like this play is also about.

QURESHI: After the long closures of the past two years, there is defiance and celebration in the air at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. But this has not been an easy recovery season. COVID outbreaks and smoke from wildfires have led to several cancellations. Audiences have not returned to full capacity. With less than 50% attendance, the company recently announced that it will have to reduce the length of its next season and cancel two plays. Despite those setbacks, Nataki Garrett tells me the changes she's making at OSF are non-negotiable and essential.

GARRETT: I want OSF to exist, you know, well beyond me and, you know, 25 years from now, 50 years - a time when I'm not even going to be on the earth - I want it to still be here. And that means that I have to - right now my mandate is to shift the practices and to rethink the way that we do things.

QURESHI: Next season, Garrett will direct the company's flagship Shakespeare production, her interpretation of "Romeo And Juliet," inspired by the making and the failings of the American West.

Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASHLEY HENRY'S "INTROSPECTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.