What’s Happening in Oregon Could Change the American Theatre | Playbill

Interview What’s Happening in Oregon Could Change the American Theatre Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director Nataki Garrett has put initiatives in place to change her company and the larger theatrical landscape.
Nataki Garrett Kim Budd

In August 2019, Nataki Garrett assumed the artistic directorship of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a premiere regional theatre that has served as a launching pad for such recent works as Paula Vogel’s Indecent, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Sweat, and the Robert Schenkkan dramas All the Way and The Great Society. Having previously served as associate dean at CalArts, Garrett continues to live by her philosophy as an educator: Being at the top isn’t about transmitting mastery, but discovering how one can be of service.

As one of the few women of color in leadership roles in the American theatre, this idea of service includes fighting the kinds of biases Garrett has faced her entire career. “I believe my role is to be a ladder,” says Garrett. “Part of what I’m doing here is to provide a sturdy platform, a foundation for the next generation of theatre artists.”

One of the reasons Garrett was attracted to OSF is that the theatre, previously under the leadership of Bill Rauch, already has a foundation of equity, diversity, and inclusion. “I don’t have to be codified,” says the artistic director. “I can have my own ideas about how to move through those tenets and I can place the kind of pressure that I feel is important, because they’ve been doing this for so long. They’re prepared for a greater deal of complexity.” This baseline allows Garrett to have an expansive artistic vision when it comes to diversity and inclusion—she’s able to focus on the things she’s passionate about, such as inviting younger theatregoers to fall in love with theatre.

“Theatre wasn’t created in a segregated space; the commodification of theatre has segregated it—especially generationally,” says Garrett. “If we want to shift that, we have to shift our mindset.” At OSF, she loves to observe high school audiences and see how their experience of a show impacts the older theatregoers in the crowd. Garrett hopes audiences engage cross-generationally, enthusiastically and frequently. “It’s so OK to engage. Or even just feel each other’s energy and breath together. To get out of this cocoon,” says Garrett. “We’ve spent 50 years privatizing that moment, making it a singular, forced perspective.”

Garrett’s vision doesn’t stop there. In the next few years, she plans to push technology-driven initiatives, like the launch of a digital archive and an OSF app. She’s also developing a residency for artists across different mediums as well as forging an alliance of West Coast theatres. As she marches toward her one-year anniversary, Garrett continues to think about OSF’s expansion and catalyzing larger shifts in the American theatre.

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