How are the arts playing a role during this critical time?
The arts reveal the meaning of being a human being — the joy, the pain and everything in between. We are now experiencing isolation and collective chaos simultaneously. In these moments, the arts bring joy and collective accomplishment — look at the Zoom calls of people singing and making music together that went up within days of this starting. What a gift. And humor, good humor, laughs that fill your lungs and your belly. Such great medicine. It’s a real proof of the essential nature of what we do that so many people, who wouldn’t consider themselves artists, are finding part of their salvation by making their own art. If TikTok hadn’t already been invented, it would have spontaneously sprung up from all that artistic energy.
But it’s also important for us to acknowledge that isolation and chaos aren’t new to the human experience, or even new to this country in our lifetimes. They are two of the defining experiences of people in poverty, people who face bigotry, people who are othered and preyed on for so many irrational reasons. What is new for us is how widespread it has become so quickly. So, then what? What do we learn? How do we change? What do we value? Who are we? Who is “we”? The arts must and will provide a path through these questions, a path that has always been essential and now is paramount for us to survive and thrive.
What has been the most notable / most unpredictable / most challenging impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on your organization? Biggest financial challenge?
The pandemic hit us at the beginning of our 2020 season only a week after our first five openings. The financial impact of that timing cannot be overstated. We’re in a cash crisis, but unlike some of our other sister theaters, had not hit the peak of our income cycle for the season that would buoy us through to the other side.
The process of working through the financial challenges of this pandemic also reignited the understanding of our responsibility to our regional community. We are part of an ecosystem of Southern Oregon connected to the other people and businesses. We account for $128 million dollars in business for the region. Our survival has significant impact on our local partners in government and business. We will be rebuilding together.
To date, what steps have you taken to mitigate that impact?
Our first area of focus was our employees. Regrettably, we had to lay off 80% of our employees, including our full roster of 2020 Season artists., When we did, we ensured two weeks of pay and health care through the end of May. We know that’s not enough. We launched a $5 million emergency relief fundraising campaign, Dare to Dream, to provide critical support for OSF during this time. Inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the line “We are such stuff as dreams are made on…”, Dare to Dream galvanizes our community to step forward themselves and allows them to inspire their communities to give by hosting online fundraisers. We are exploring ways to stay engaged with our audience while we are not able to gather in person. When I applied for the job of artistic director, I talked about OSF turning its imagination and determination to digital, virtual reality, and immersive experiences. We had started working last summer, receiving targeted funding and talking with artists, tech companies and other theaters about what was possible and what we would make possible. It’s about the sheer joy of artistic invention, of course— artists love looking over the horizon line. But it’s also about access, which has become a key need at this juncture. Theater, at its best, is an experience with its arms wide open. These efforts open our arms wider.
Last week, we launched O!, our digital platform, featuring new talk, new art, and discovering our past through archival material: https://www.osfashland.org/digital. It will only expand from here. And, of course, we are aggressively planning possible scenarios for our Festival coming back, including shows and our engagement, educational and community experiences. Each of those scenario plans need contingencies that also need contingencies. Navigating a sea of unknowns is complicated, but I am surrounded by great minds here at the Festival. We will come through.
What kind of innovation in management has developed for your organization, and what challenges have you encountered when implementing new innovative ideas?
In 2011, when a support beam in the Angus Bowmer Theatre broke, rendering the venue unsafe, a full schedule of shows were remounted and performed from a stage erected within a 600-seat tent in Lithia Park. Since 2013, OSF has experienced challenges emerging from smoke and wildfires that have forced the cancellation or rescheduling of performances in the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre, culminating in 26 performances affected in the 2018 season. I was not at OSF when all this began, but get chills when I learned of what artists, staff and the Ashland community did to keep the shows going, to ensure the vitality of and connection between this 85 year-old organization and its inspiring audiences. When the global pandemic crisis hit, I experienced the deep, determined, competent calm of hundreds of people understanding intuitively what needed to be done, and then taking action. Live theater, like life, always has an element of improvisation, no matter how much you plan. But the ability to confidently face, with our values intact, these multiple, profound threats to our field and profession, year-over-year, speaks to an extraordinary level of fortitude that all those involved possess. Theatre is never finished, and is born of innovation that will continue to enable, expand and uncover new areas of excellence.
What are the short-term and potential long-term effects of this shut down for your organization and the arts in general?
The short term is obvious. The long term is full of unknowns. One of the biggest unknowns is how soon and in what conditions we will be allowed to come back and when our audiences will want to come back. This is about timing, not whether. But the one thing we know is that we will have to be smaller, leaner, and more efficient when we do come back. If this crisis has taught us nothing else, it’s taught us that human beings want and need to be with other human beings. Theater is one of the best ways to do that.
As to the arts in general, I go back to my answer to your first question: the arts reveal meaning. Humans thrive on meaning.
What is a positive collaboration or initiative born as a result of this situation within your organization or that you’ve seen from your peers and colleagues in the arts industry?
I am on calls with arts leaders around the country constantly. This is a moment where folks must step outside of their silos and reach out for partners as shared problems create the opportunity for shared solutions. Some of this collaboration will happen through formal organizations, both pre-existing and those springing up. Theater is about the collective, so at this moment of collective need, we know what to do.
What is the biggest lesson learned as a leader during this crisis?
My goal in coming here was to flatten out unnecessary hierarchies, create efficiency, and redesign structures so everyone can do their best work. I believe in meeting people where they are— it’s the only thing that works. This crisis makes me double down: lead through respect.
Understanding that the future is hard to predict, how might the lasting impacts of COVID-19 change your upcoming season? Should the tone of pieces or performances change?
Theater is always about what artists want to say when, which is shaped by so many things, including how audiences hear from moment to moment. I don’t think there are easy “shoulds” in art. And we know there is never one tone or approach that fits for everyone all the time. To oversimplify it, one day I will want to laugh, and one day I will want to cry. Art finds its way.
Regarding the creative process, what has been a source of inspiration for you/your organization at this time or how has your creative process changed and evolved? What outlets or channels have you sought out to continue to express your creativity, personally and/or professionally?
In my art, my leadership and my life, I am a behaviorist. The insight I have comes from watching what people do alongside what they say. Right now, all my creative process is invested in moving OSF forward to rebuilding, imagining our best future and making it happen. Justice, love, and the power and beauty of the collective have always been my north stars. That won’t change. Plus, I like a funny cat video as much as the next person.
What message do you have for the artists and fellow art leaders in our community today?
You are more than enough.
When looking to the future, what brings you hope?
We are more than enough.
About Nataki Garrett:
Nataki Garrett is Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s sixth artistic director. As the former associate artistic director of CalArts Center for New Performance, Garrett has been hailed as a champion of new work as well as an experienced, savvy arts administrator. 2019 was Garrett’s first season at OSF, where she directed How to Catch Creation. At CalArts, Garrett oversaw all operations of conservatory training and produced mainstage, black box, developmental projects, plays, co-productions and touring productions. She is currently on the nominating committee for The Kilroys, and she recently served on the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust Distinguished Playwright Award nominating committee and the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship panel.
Garrett’s forté and passion are fostering and developing new work. She is responsible for producing the world premieres of The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson, Two Degrees by Tira Palmquist, Zoey’s Perfect Wedding by Matthew Lopez, The Great Leap by Lauren Yee, and American Mariachi by José Cruz González. She also directed the world premieres of BLKS by Aziza Barnes and Pussy Valley by Katori Hall, and the U.S. premiere of Jefferson’s Garden by Timberlake Wertenbaker. She is well-known for her work with MacArthur Fellow winning playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, having directed the regional premieres of several of his plays, including Everybody at California Shakespeare Theater and An Octoroon at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
Garrett also directed the first professional production of Jacobs-Jenkins’ acclaimed play Neighbors at the Matrix Theatre Company in Los Angeles. Garrett’s production received five Ovation Award nominations—including Best Production. Garrett most recently served as acting artistic director for Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) during the $66 million organization’s 18-month leadership transition, working in partnership with the chief executive officer, managing director and board of directors to oversee all artistic operations for the theater company. During her tenure, she produced a very provocative Macbeth. The play was the most successful production in the Space
Theatre’s 40-year history. She also initiated and negotiated the first co-world premieres in 10 years for two DCPA-commissioned plays—The Great Leap with Seattle Repertory Theatre and American Mariachi with The Old Globe.
Garrett is a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts and Theatre Communications Group Career Development Fellowship for Theatre Directors and a member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. Garrett is also a member of the board of directors for Theatre Communications Group, a company member at Woolly Mammoth and an advisory board member for Mixed Blood Theatre. Garrett is a graduate of California Institute of the Arts with an MFA in directing.