Part 1: Nataki Garrett takes on Oregon’s Culture War

Image credit: Christopher Briscoe


October 30, 2022—In the spring of 2019, the New York Times published a profile of six new Artistic Directors—women and people of color—who had been chosen to lead six of the nation’s top regional theaters, which marked a dramatic shift from a position that previously has been held almost exclusively by white men.

The article made special note of the appointment of Nataki Garrett as the Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), which is located in Ashland, Oregon, a community that is 91-percent white. At the time, the Tony-winning nonprofit had a budget of $44-million and an annual “destination audience” of 400-thousand.

Flash forward three years, and Ms. Garrett is once again making news. Unfortunately, it is not because of her amazing accomplishments at OSF, but rather because of harassment and racist death threats. She now must have a private security detail whenever she is in public.

That means Ms. Garrett has a security detail most of her working week because the role of the Artistic Director requires that she spend time in public. She is not only responsible for choosing and overseeing OSF’s season and theatrical productions, but she also is responsible for hiring and coordinating the artistic staff. And Ms. Garrett shares in the responsibilities for fund-raising, audience development, as well as marketing and communications.

Next week’s blog will feature an interview with Ms. Garrett. But I think it is very important for the readers of Arts & Culture Connections to first know some of the background.

Ms. Garrett has had many obstacles since becoming OSF’s sixth Artistic Director in 2019, including a donor rescinding a multi-million-dollar contribution because she disapproved of her appointment. Six days after the opening of her first full season as Artistic Director, OSF was forced to close five productions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She then had to oversee the process of reducing expenditures and maintaining a humane connection to the OSF’s company during the process of furloughs and layoffs.

Over the course of the next six months, Ms. Garrett successfully raised $6 million for the company while also supporting the successful hiring of OSF’s Executive Director, David Schmitz. Together they led the company during Southern Oregon’s Almeda fire, which devastated nearby communities. Ms. Garrett and Mr. Schmitz mobilized relief efforts including an onsite donation center, as well as short- and long-term housing for those impacted by the fires.

During this time, Ms. Garrett, together with a cohort of Oregon arts leaders, secured $8-million for the state’s performing arts organizations from the federal relief fund package that Oregon received. By the end of 2020, Ms. Garrett had raised a total of $19 million from federal, state, foundational, and individual donations.

She is currently leading the charge to mobilize theater organizations across the nation to procure long-term federal government support for the industry’s post-pandemic reemergence.

The Flashpoint

The flashpoint for the current harassment and threats appears to be a two-part local newspaper column, which ran in mid-August, about OSF’s season and future line-up of plays. Here are a few of the points that were made in the second column published on an Ashland news website about what the columnist referred to as a “treasured arts organization” that has “a major place in Ashland’s economy and national identity:”

“…While, in general, Shakespeare’s audience is not confined to old white folks, old white folks probably represent the largest single component of OSF’s audience, and a large majority of those who travel from other places to see the plays. I suggest that this is because of the cost…

“How shall we respond to such a reality? Shall we view it through the lens of our current culture wars, resent white ‘dominance,’ and gamble that a different OSF will attract audiences of equivalent size but different demographics? It’s unlikely that such a strategy will succeed for OSF, because there is so little racial and ethnic diversity locally. And even if that strategy fills the seats in OSF’s three theaters, it won’t fill the hotels, restaurants and shops that depend heavily on visitors.

“…I urge people to keeping talking about this subject — among yourselves and with OSF management as well as in this publication. The stakes for Ashland are high. I’d bet on Shakespeare.”

These comments cannot be viewed in isolation from Oregon’s history of memorializing racial segregation in its state constitution and its current connection to white nationalist organizations. While Ms. Garrett has said there were threats and harassment proceeding the column, the call for comments and letters to OSF management appears to have escalated the situation.

Neither column mentioned the pandemic; the expenses related to producing Shakespeare productions at a time when OSF and theaters nationwide are fighting to recover from the pandemic; the securing of state funds; the ongoing effort to get federal funds, or anything about the service to the community during the wildfire.

Last month, National Public Radio was the first to report the threats against Nataki Garrett. Within days, the Dramatists Guild, Theater Communications Group and the Shakespeare Theatre Association issued a joint statement condemning “the unconscionable harassment and death threats” that she has received as Artistic Director of OSF. I am publishing the statement below because it strikes at what I believe are the key issues in this deeply disturbing situation:

“Nataki’s expertise and vision steered OSF, one of the most prominent regional theatres in the country, through the pandemic, surviving under unprecedented financial pressure caused by an industry in lock down. The theatre not only survived; it thrived as she presented a vibrant first season, which included productions of Shakespeare that employed diverse casts as well as new plays by a diverse group of brilliant contemporary writers. Many subscribers and theatergoers were thrilled with what they saw. But, as a leading advocate for diversity, equity, inclusion, and access in the American theatre, and the first Black woman to direct such a celebrated performing arts organization, she became the target of death threats, which have forced her to travel with a security team in public.

“This violent response to her artistic choices strikes right at the heart of who we are, not just as members of the American theatre, but as citizens. If, by producing writers of the global majority, an artist like Nataki Garrett can be subjected to death threats, what does that say about the precarious situation our theater industry is in?  In the face of violence, how will systemic change ever occur? We urge the industry to treat writers fairly, and to dismantle gatekeeping systems that stifle the expansion of the theatrical canon, impacting whose stories get told, how they get told, and by whom. Everyone of good conscience must stand together to reject hate and to embrace empathy; it is the only path towards systemic change.”

This was followed by PEN America and OSF statements of support. And Diane Yu, chair of the OSF Board, also offered unequivocal support in a local news interview. She was quoted as saying: “Over time, people will see that Nataki’s vision and choices are really sound; they’re exciting, they’re bold. She’s mixing classics, Shakespeare, and also new work. She’s also experimenting with new technology, new platforms… I think that some of the worries about the demise of OSF are premature.”

The glare of the national spotlight also propelled the mayor of Ashland to read a statement at a City Council meeting several days after the initial NPR report. Mayor Julie Akins ordered the Ashland chief of police to “investigate and neutralize the threats” against Ms. Garrett. She also said the city would hire a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion officer. She was quoted by the local newspaper as saying, “It’s job one to keep all of our residents safe. It’s vital we do anti-racism work. It cannot be reserved for later—it must be now.”

What does anti-racism work look like in situations as these? First and foremost, Ms. Garrett’s safety, as well that of her family must be guarded—that is the responsibility of OSF and the local police. Industry leaders who have spoken out about this issue also must take action to ensure the success of their Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Access efforts, within their own organizations, while also publicly working to uproot the delusions and lies that people of color are not qualified to do their jobs.

Most important, insidious culture-war attacks like these must not be tolerated. They not only threaten the target of their ire, they also serve to sever people from the sanctity and safety of cultural and arts institutions; they separate people from the inspiring and empowering value of the arts.

Culture wars are based on fear of “other,” as well as fear of change. We must never let fear win!

As always, I would like to know what you think. I invite you to share your thoughts and comments about this issue, and urge you to return next week to read my interview with Nataki Garrett.

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