Nataki Garrett has been called a visionary; a force of nature. She’s spent the past two decades leading theater companies and making artistic connections around the world — everywhere from Dallas and Denver to Paris, Italy, Rwanda and Uganda.
And now she’s landed in Southern Oregon, taking the helm of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to continue its legacy as a top theater destination.
“My hope is that we’re able to come together as a community and figure out the best way for businesses to thrive, for Ashland to thrive and the festival to able to make the best plays under the sun,” says Garrett, who grew up in California’s Bay Area.
Garrett comes to Oregon at a time when theater is seeing a major revival among newer, more young and diverse audiences internationally. “I’m part of a generation of leaders not like the generation that precedes us — mostly women and people of color moving into positions of leadership,” she says. “What [the public will] see is in some way the consequence of the national conversation that’s going on.”
And in that conversation, Oregon Shakespeare Festival (which runs March through October 2019) is a national leader, Garrett says. “People look to us to see what to do in their own theaters. I have to see myself as part of a leader of change — connecting to a younger audience, continuing to evolve and support ways to reward the audience; finding innovative ways to deliver theater.”
Whether you’re a Shakespeare Festival newbie or veteran, Garrett promises that she isn’t here to shake things up, but make subtle changes, honing its excellence over time. “I kind of work like an octopus, with all my fingers in different places,” she says. “You won’t necessarily be able to say that’s when the change came.”
Amidst a backdrop of heated political divisions and other issues of the day, theater has always been an entertainment escape valve — but it’s also, more than ever, an outlet for social change, Garrett says. The way she frames it is: “What can it do for the public good and the world?”
Local and national groups are now showcasing more diversity than ever in its themes and talent, as with “Cambodian Rock Band,” “La Comedia of Errors,” and “Between Two Knees,” a co-commission with the New Native Theatre in OSF’s 2019 lineup.
Biting social and political commentary is in full effect, showcased in plays such as “How to Catch Creation,” Garrett’s directorial debut at OSF. Written by Christina Anderson, it follows the connections between four artists in the Bay Area, including a black queer feminist writer from the 1960s. The story is “so simple, it’s almost revolutionary,” Garrett says. “Often, plays about people of color become ‘issue plays.’ [Anderson] removes any sense of that by not casting the audience as a part of the antagonist, which causes people to be victimized. … I love Christina’s simple way of exposing the complexity of life and love and longing, and the desire to make your impact on the world simply through relationships.”
Many don’t know that Oregon Shakespeare Festival includes non-Shakespeare plays as well. It’s part of Garrett’s focus to ensure that burgeoning playwrights — many of them local — share the stage, as with the 2019 season’s “Mother Road,” written by Southern Oregon playwright Octavio Solis.
Yet fans of the Bard need not fear that classic Shakespeare will disappear. “Shakespeare was kind of the Steven Spielberg of his day — to be able to reach a large sector of people, and also a champion for the work of his peers,” Garrett says. “We’re looking for [playwrights] who connect to the values and ideals [represented by] Shakespeare — a revolutionary spirit and capacity to do extraordinary things as he dealt with the human condition.”
Garrett is thrilled to continue leading the evolution of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which continues forging ahead as a national model. OSF will be one of the many theaters across the United States celebrating The Jubilee in 2020-2021 that make a commitment to producing plays by individuals in marginalized communities.
“What I find to be so fascinating is there’s a collective clapback at the world right now,” Garrett says. Theater, she says, “is an undercover way to have this conversation about the great leap — what happens when you allow tyranny and oppression to rule; how we move and breathe and make decisions about love.”
If You Go:
Oregon Shakespeare Festival has both indoor and outdoor theater spaces, so don’t let weather conditions slow you down. Call the theater or check the website for updates before you go.