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

Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Nataki Garrett poses for a photograph inside the Allen Elizabethan Theatre in Ashland, Oregon on Sept. 12.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Nataki Garrett poses for a photograph inside the Allen Elizabethan Theatre in Ashland, Oregon on Sept. 12.

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."

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.

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."

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 diverse, contemporary plays didn't make sense, because the majority of Ashland is so white.

Rothschild's opinion started a community conversation, said Bert Elling, 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.

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.

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."

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