Image credit: Christopher Briscoe
November 6, 2022—Nataki Garrett is a trailblazer. The nationally recognized director and sixth Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is the first woman to artistically lead a $44-million theater company and OSF’s first Black female in this role.
Born and raised in Oakland amid a family of educators, artists and community organizers, Ms. Garrett developed a deep appreciation for theater and for telling the untold stories not typically seen on the main stage. Before joining OSF, she served as Acting Artistic Director at the Denver Center Theatre Company, as well as Associate Dean and the co-head of the undergraduate acting program at CalArts School of Theater.
In last week’s blog post, I provided the readers of Arts & Culture Connections with additional details behind the disturbing news reports that Ms. Garrett has been targeted with bigoted and sexist attacks, as well as death threats, despite her successful efforts to help secure funding to keep the theater in operation. If you missed Part 1, you can find the post at this link.
This week is the interview I conducted with Ms. Garrett about the impact these threats are having on her life and her resolve not to be discouraged or swayed from her purpose at OSF to “create a thriving and sustainable enterprise for now and for the future.”
Donna Walker-Kuhne: First and foremost, given the harassment and threats you’ve been experiencing, how are you doing? How is your family?
Nataki Garrett: I am grateful for the outpouring of support that I have been receiving, both locally and nationally, since the National Public Radio (NPR) article. And that support is not just for me, but also for our artists and the theater industry.
Initially, my reaction to the harassment and threats was to stay in the house. Threats are meant to make you feel isolated, and I did. But my colleagues urged me to hire security experts to review the situation. They immediately became my private security detail because the threats were that serious. As you can imagine, having security has been restrictive, as well as disconcerting for me and my family. I can’t go outdoors in the town of Ashland, Oregon, even for a walk, without them.
Unfortunately, I am not the first Black woman to work at OSF who has been threatened. I am part of the legacy of Black women in this community and country who have received threats; whose very presence makes people feel as if it is OK to respond in a violent way. As recently as 2016, actress Christiana Clark detailed on Facebook what a man on a bicycle said to her while she was out walking her dog: “It’s still an Oregon law. I could kill a Black person and be out of jail in a day and a half. Look it up. The KKK is alive and well here.”
Nonetheless, I am neither discouraged nor deterred from my purpose at OSF—to create a thriving and sustainable enterprise for now and for the future.
Donna: You’ve been at OSF since 2019. What was the reaction to your appointment?
Nataki: Since its founding in 1935, OSF has only had five other Artistic Directors. Four of those five were white men; there was one white woman. I am the first woman/person of color to hold this position. There have only been three Executive Directors during that 87-year span, and only one of them was a woman, who left after five years. So you might say some people were shocked.
I spent 4 months in transition with my predecessor, Bill Rauch, and even though my appointment made both national and local news, some people still said to me that they thought my appointment was temporary. Not too long after I became the Artistic Director, a long-time, major donor rescinded a $4-million gift because they said my hiring was not fiscally responsible. With the departure of that donor, I knew they would likely take other donors with them as well. And I was right— many of the top and second tier donors left OSF at the same time.
Donna: It is most unfortunate that none of the criticisms have acknowledged the financial crisis that the nationwide theater community had to deal with as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic nor the impact of the nearby wildfires. How did you manage during that time?
Nataki: I arrived in 2019 and produced the 2020 season. However, when it opened in March of 2020 it had to close one week later due to COVID-19.
When the pandemic hit, I began reaching out to other donors to ask for support, and several of them said they didn’t understand the direction of the theater. There was no direction—all theaters were shut down because of COVID-19. Seeing that I could not count on them, I reached out to other arts organizations that I knew were also in a pandemic-induced, fiscal crunch, including those with multimillion-dollar resources. Together we lobbied for funding from the state. OSF received $4-million. The largest arts group hired a lobbyist and they received funding from the federal government’s CARES ACT.
I decided to build on that idea for OSF and began to lobby regionally, as well as locally, for additional funding. However, it was tough going—I was youthful looking; new to the community, and new to lobbying government agencies for money. I was still unable to make a dent in the OSF debt I inherited when I took the job, and it was growing because the pandemic had closed our doors. I also was aware of the impact this closure was having on Ashland’s local economy and I felt compelled to get our doors open again in order to help keep those businesses open.
I contacted my colleague and friend, Maria Manuela Goyanes, who is the Artistic Director at Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington, D.C. We called Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation for counsel. He brought other people to the table to help us figure out what steps we needed to take to recover. We spoke with a number of people, including Laurie Baskin at Theatre Communications Group. She was already working with performing arts groups, including the League of American Orchestras, trying to solve the problem of how to save the performing arts industry.
We formed the Professional Non-Profit Theater Coalition, and hired a lobbyist to advocate for federal relief funding. Around the same time the National Independent Venues Association (NIVA) had created a “white paper” document called “Save our Stages” and began working with a lobbyist and the Broadway League to advocate on Capitol Hill. We all collaborated to literally Save our Stages and won an unprecedented $15-billion in recovery relief funding for the creative and performing arts industries.
Ultimately, I was able to raise $19 million for OSF during that time.
Amidst all of this, I also was able to help OSF successfully hire David Schmitz as Executive Director of OSF. Together we led the company during Southern Oregon’s Almeda fire, which devastated nearby communities. We mobilized relief efforts, including an onsite donation center, as well as short- and long-term housing for those impacted by the fires.
Donna: When did the harassment and threats begin?
Nataki: In 2021, I was able to receive a concession from Actors’ Equity (the actors union) to redesign what the performances would look like in light of the pandemic. We were still dealing with the impact of a total shutdown, and a tight budget was still the reality. The fewest number of actors in Shakespeare’s canon of 38 plays is 17—some range as high as 60. We were unable to open our season with a Shakespeare production because I could not get clearance from Actors’ Equity to produce a play with more than one actor and Shakespeare didn’t write any one-person shows.
Consequently, we opened the season with the one-person show, Fannie, which is about civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. That’s when people from Portland and the Bay Area started a letter-writing campaign, not only protesting the production choice, but also sharing bigoted and sexist attacks. They said things like “you don’t understand what is important to OSF” or “you’re not smart enough.” They accused me of not liking white people or Shakespeare. They called themselves the “Old White Guard.” I received at least 20 letters a week like this.
The harassment escalated to threats and promises of violence earlier this year. My father was a civil rights worker with SNCC and the Freedom Riders. There was one thing that he always said about white supremacists, especially the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council—if they are threatening you, believe them. Their warnings have historically led to violence.
While the newspaper columns written this summer did not start the harassment and threats, they definitely fanned the flames.
Donna: The direct attacks and racism in some of the recent published feedback (columns and letters to the editors) appears to be both distorted and fear-based—fear spurred by the right-wing “replacement theories” that have been used to justify violent actions against people of color.
They have made mention of your being a supporter of the “We See You…” letter and the inclusion of land acknowledgements in support of Indigenous people.
Nataki: I was a signatory of the “We See You…” letter. I have spent about 25 years in this industry, and I have witnessed that Black and Brown people are not only theater makers, but also audiences and patrons who are supporting the future of theater—from Broadway to regional, not to mention community theater. We’ve been ignored or taken for granted. The letter was a public declaration of the value of Black and Brown people to the industry, and their importance to the theater community’s fiscal life, especially recognizing the integral role they are going to play in the future of the field as this nation’s racial demographics continue to shift.
Regarding the OSF land acknowledgement, an editor of a local paper published that he would not return to OSF because he had to sit through “political diatribe” every time a play began. He was referring to our public acknowledgement that OSF is located within the ancestral homelands of the Shasta, Takelma, and Latgawa peoples, whose contemporary descendants still live in the area.
It is ludicrous to label a land acknowledgement as “political diatribe” when the longest street in Ashland is called “Dead Indian Memorial Road”. Why is it OK to memorialize the killing of Native peoples, but not OK to collaborate with them about acknowledging their land and their sacrifices that made it possible for OSF to stand on the land where it is built?
At the same time, these attitudes and actions reflect Oregon’s history of Black exclusion laws. According to the Oregon Historical Society, there were three laws that excluded Blacks from being in the state, owning property and making contracts. Oregon was on record as being anti-slavery, however it was the only free state admitted to the Union with a racial exclusion clause written into its constitution.
With pandemic-induced migration going on throughout the United States, Oregon’s statewide population of people of color still remains minute: Black people make up only 2.9-percent; Indigenous people are 3-percent, and Asians are just over 6-percent. I think this is reflective of the fact that last of the exclusion laws was rescinded just 20 years ago. It’s clear why the impact of this legacy still exists in the fabric of the state; the attitudes remain embedded in the cellular structure of the community.
Donna: Your experience also magnifies the need for more arts leaders of color to be able to bridge these cultural divides, while opening more doors to all members of the community.
Nataki: It is true—the theater industry has been employing more people of color, women of color, in leadership roles. A few years ago, there were 11 Artistic Director positions opened—I made the final round for seven of them. But I remain the “pepper flake in the saltshaker,” and the number of Artistic Directors of color at leading theaters remains less than 10.
Donna: What inspired you to pursue becoming an Artistic Director?
Nataki: I knew I had a lot to bring to the position; I knew I could do the job.
I knew I could pursue artistic leadership because of the example set by George C. Wolfe when he withstood the scrutiny and controversy stemming from his taking over the Public Theater from Joe Papp. I also remain inspired by the legacies of Kenny Leon (True Colors Theatre), Ricardo Khan (Crossroads Theatre) and Lloyd Richards (Yale Reparatory Theater and the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center). These brothers had key positions across the field.
Donna: Given all that have you have been going through, why have you decided to stay?
Nataki: This is my mandate. My mantle is saving OSF, stabilizing it and making it viable for the future. I will stay in leadership for as long as is necessary to achieve this goal.
I look at my time at OSF as a deployment to the front lines. Every day I wake up is a revolution because every action I take is pushing against systems created and designed to deny me the right to live on this land. Every artist, writer, or director on the stage—be they a person of color, a woman, LGBTQ or non-binary—each of us who does not exist within the cultural “status quo” are operating within this revolution.
I also believe my fellow BIPOC colleagues and I, who all happened to land at major nonprofit theaters around the same time–Actors Theater of Louisville, Long Wharf Theater, Baltimore Center Stage, Repertory Theater of St. Louis and Wolly Mammoth Theatre—must be the ones to not only ensure the future of theater, but also be the ones to make changes. I believe if I make changes here that are successfully reflective of the role of the arts to be equitable, diverse, inclusive and accessible, then no one can say it is impossible anywhere else.
Donna: What do you do to take care yourself amidst this very stressful situation?
Nataki: I am a praying woman and come from a legacy of spiritual, Christian women. We believe in the power of prayer and community. I am driven by purpose; this is where God wants me to be, and I am answering the call. I am blessed to have this career.
I love on my daughter as well, so I am definitely keeping my eyes on the prize. I do get out of town with my family and savor the opportunities to go get ice cream with my daughter, which is something I can’t do in Ashland because of the security issues.
Donna: What can readers of Arts & Culture Connections do to support you?
Nataki: The focus of the news coverage since the NPR article has been on the work we are doing here at OSF, which has been overshadowed by the revelation that I have received death threats. My life has been threatened because my presence upsets the status quo and because I am committed to upending the dominate power structure that supports white supremacy and creates the harmful toxic environment that BIPOC theater professionals rebelled against during the racial reckoning that followed the 2020 murder of George Floyd.
At OSF, we made a commitment to center the artists and to center Inclusion, Equity, Diversity and Access in everything we do. We committed to dismantling those oppressive systems and operational practices that harm our most vulnerable theater artists and professionals. And we committed to eradicate anti-black racism across the organization which often shows up in the biased way we market, fundraise, and operate the business structure of our organizations.
Therefore, the best way to support me and to support OSF is to commit to this work in every theater.
If you are an actor, be very conscious of the space in which you are allowing your art to be used. If you are a director or designer, you must do the same. If you are a playwright, make a decision about where your words can be shared.
If you are a patron or a donor, work to be more conscious of the impact of your dollars. If the theater you are supporting isn’t making substantive changes towards creating equitable, inclusive spaces for BIPOC theater artists, don’t put your money there. Take a look at the diversity make up of a theater’s International Alliace of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) crew.
At most theaters, the more recent hires are women and people of color. In tough economic times this means that they are the first ones who are fired. If your theater’s stage crew, scenic and custom design shops are almost exclusively white and male the theater you’re working in hasn’t done enough to uproot white supremacy from within its structure. The same is true with theaters who have volunteers working at the box office, ushers, or at the concession stand.
And if the theater hasn’t employed DEI practices or hasn’t hired a DEI specialist who has a “Director-level” title within the organization chances are very slim that they actually are engaging in substantive change. Chances are the changes they’re making will be superficial.
The bottom line is, we must all work together to make the changes we know the field must make in order to ensure its viability and survival.
Donna: Thank you, Nataki.
To date, none of the major east coast daily papers, including those in the heartland of American Theater, have reported on this issue. I urge the readers of Arts & Culture Connections to share this story throughout their networks in order to not only bring attention to the situation, but also to create a current of actions that include enforcing the laws prohibiting threats and intimidation.