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The Future of American Theater: A Conversation with Nataki Garrett

When Nataki Garrett took the job of artistic director at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the future looked bright. That was 2019. By March 2020, COVID-19 forced the festival to shut down; later that summer, raging wildfires filled the skies around Ashland, Oregon with thick smoke, worsening the organization's revenue situation.


Garrett was hit with criticism, even death threats. In June 2023, she left her job and seriously questioned how live theater could remain viable.


"If we don't turn to bringing in an intergenerational audience, there will be no audience for theater in 30 years."

Join Vivian and Marcie for this sobering conversation about Garrett's experiences at OSF and her thoughts about how nonprofit theater organizations like OSF can persevere and thrive in the future.



Middle-aged Black woman with honey colored braids in a vibrant orange dress stands in front of a brick wall and smiles at the camera
Nataki Garrett

ABOUT THIS EPISODE'S GUEST


Nataki Garrett is a change-maker, trailblazer, and nationally recognized artist and Artistic Leader, who was the first Executive Artistic Director and the sixth Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) and the first Black female in this role. She is the first female and person of color in the country to lead a $44M fully producing theater company. Amongst her many accomplishments, Nataki worked to save OSF during the pandemic closure in 2020 by raising $19M from government, foundational, and individual donors. Nataki used her platform to organize the Professional Non-profit Theater Coalition (PNTC) – a national coalition organized to help professional non-profit theaters advocate for the $15B Shuttered Venue Operators Grant of historically unprecedented funding from the federal government. While at OSF, Nataki created and produced “Quills Fest,” the first of its kind fully immersive digital event intersecting XR and Theater. She also served as executive producer for the 2022 Sundance award-winning film YOU GO GIRL! and the film ASHLAND, both by Shariffa Ali.

Nataki’s work as a multi-hyphenate artist can be experienced across Film, VR, and Live Theater. She is the recipient of the 2023 Bronze Telly Award; OMPA Creative Innovation Award 2022; the first recipient of the Ammerman Award for Directing from Arena Stage in 2019; and the 2022 United States Artist Fellowship, among other recognitions. Raised in Oakland, CA, Nataki comes from a family of artists, educators, and civil rights organizers. Her vision is to support artists; to manifest innovation; to inspire creativity and to ensure the future of performance by centering artists as thought leaders and change makers who transform culture.


Garrett is frequently sought after for her thought leadership and expertise. She can be read, watched, or listened to regularly across regional and national news media. Learn more at natakigarrett.com.


 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (00:00):

Hey, I'm Vivian Phillips.


MARCIE SILLMAN (00:01):

And I'm Marcie Sillman. And this is, double


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (00:06):

Exposure


MARCIE SILLMAN (00:06):

Exposure. <laugh>


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (00:15):

DoubleXposure is a podcast where we plumb the deepest depths and the tiniest cracks of our world to understand how culture and creativity shape our lives.


MARCIE SILLMAN (00:27):

On this episode, Nataki Garrett talks about her very challenging tenure at the artistic home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (00:44):

Hey, Marcie, it's so good to see you as always. How you doing?


MARCIE SILLMAN (00:48):

Oh, I'm doing fine, Vivian, fine. Although, I've been reading a slew of articles about problems facing American regional theater companies. I mean, here in Seattle, Book-It Repertory Theatre recently closed down after 30 years. And that hit me hard because founders Myra Platt and Jane Jones were long acquaintances of mine. And it had been a wonderful institution, but that's just one of many, that was one of the smaller ones that, that have shut its doors. Behemoth that's facing a lot of problems right now is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival down in Ashland, which for me has been this magical vacation destination, or had been before the pandemic.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (01:33):

I know that what, just a few weeks ago, that Tim Bond who had been associate artistic director, if I have that correct, at OSF and had gone off to do some other things, including come back to Seattle and was at the University of Washington, has now been appointed the artistic director at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. But we spoke with Nataki Garrett and she's got some interesting history at OSF.


MARCIE SILLMAN (02:02):

Yeah, she came just before the world exploded in 2019. I interviewed her at KUOW, my former job, and she was very excited. She's a woman with a ton of different kinds of theater experience, and she was really excited about taking, this is a big theater. There are, uh, four different venues, including the largest, which is a beautiful outdoor you've been, there are a beautiful outdoor theater where you're in the summer, you can watch comedies and the stars are there. It's just a wonderful place to see theater. It's like a magic town where everybody's excited about the same things. Unfortunately, for Nataki, not only did she come less than a year before a global pandemic shut everything down, but once the theater reopened, even before, but once when she was in charge, the smoke from wildfires in southern Oregon in the Rogue River Valley, which is where Ashland is, forced the closure of that large theater because you can't sit outside and toxic smoke. And so it was like this one, two punch for the theater company. And Nataki got like every other artistic leader in America have had to deal with huge financial, I mean millions of dollars of financial shortfalls, which everybody had. She was also getting a lot of pushback from longtime donors, which she talks about in this interview. And from people who really thought that she was, I'll use the Ron DeSantis term, you know, too woke.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (03:42):

Too woke? Was she too woke?


MARCIE SILLMAN (03:42):

Woke? That's what, that's what he might say. She was black <laugh>. Yeah. She was a Black and a woman and she was not doing any really different kind of programming than what had been going on at OSF, but she got at least one death threat. And, uh, she's a mother. She was worried she had to take out security. And so she, we talked to her about four weeks after she quit. She left permanently the end of May of this year, 2023. Um, because she, she's wounded and you hear that in this interview. You hear the pain that she is carrying.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (04:24):

Absolutely, and I think rightfully so, and I having had the opportunity to talk with her and understand how much she loves theater and has loved theater since she was, I think she said since my 13th year I've been optimistic about the future of theater. So when you have someone who is that dedicated, that passionate, that educated, that prepared, and someone who says, listen, I would never apply for a job that I didn't think I could actually do. And to know that she gave that theater all she had and raised the money, she actually raised the money that was necessary. And she created and thought about the fact that it would be more forceful as a collective act of advocacy that she kind of led. And it was a situation as I can look at it as a Black woman from a distance where it didn't matter what she did, she was just not going to be right for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival period. So they got woke to hire her, but they slept <laugh> on, the, uh, task of keeping her there.


MARCIE SILLMAN (05:44):

Let's talk about that a little bit later, because that is the huge challenge, I think, in this post 2020 era where we heard a lot of talking about structural change and, yes, we did, dismantling white supremacist values that had governed big organizations like OSF. But anyway, let's walk it back, because we were really curious how Nataki actually discovered this art form.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (06:14):

Nataki Garrett, thank you so much for joining us on doubleXposure. I know that some people will know you and know your name from your recent position as artistic director at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, but you've worked in theater for quite some time before that. And I'd love for you to tell our audience how you got into the field and what has attracted you to theater.


NATAKI GARRETT (06:39):

Hmm. That's interesting. So, I don't know. I've been doing theater since I was 13 years old. I was a dancer and, um, I was also a swimmer and I decided I didn't want to really do either one of those things, um, when I was in high school and a friend of mine invited me to the Producer's Club and I went, the Producer's Club was the club that sold baked goods so that we could have a, you know, stuff at our cast party. And that was sort of the rest is, is sort of history. That's my like, sort of my early start when I went off to college, I told my mom that I wasn't going to, you know, I wasn't gonna do theater. I wasn't gonna study theater. She told me that I couldn't go for, um, a theater degree. She said, that's not practical.


NATAKI GARRETT (07:18):

My mother's, her background's in education. So, she was like, you know, do something practical. And so I was like, but I'm not gonna do it at all because if I get into it a little bit, I'm gonna, that's all I'm gonna do. And so, I decided not to do anything. And um, I happened to go to a school called Virginia Union. It was in Richmond, Virginia. It's a HBCU. And, uh, my mentor there, um, who, the man who later became my mentor, Dr. Williams, restarted the drama program that same year and was like, why don't you just come do something with us? You don't have to act, you know, of course <laugh>, the theater junkie that I am, I just jumped on and, um, I've been just going strong ever since.


MARCIE SILLMAN (07:59):

Did you start out acting or did you start out directing or were you just selling refreshments for so that you got a party?


NATAKI GARRETT (08:06):

Yeah, I think I started off with the refreshments, but like soon after that I was taking drama classes and, you know, most, most of us start, if you start that young, you start acting.


MARCIE SILLMAN (08:15):

So, when did you switch to directing? And I, I'm sort of curious how difficult or easy it was to establish yourself in that realm?


NATAKI GARRETT (08:24):

So I directed what I was in high school as well. So it wasn't actually that much of a shift for me except for when I went off to college. I kind of found myself being really conscious of the fact that I was, um, when I, whenever I was acting, I was really just trying to get the other actor to react to me and not necessarily in my own body having my own experience. And so, I think aside from like the, the formal directing, you know, like the actual standing in front of a group of people and, um, helping to lead them where they, where they are trying to go, uh, that I did in high school. I think I was doing that as an actor as well. I think that was my primary focus was like, if I do this, then you might do that. You know,


MARCIE SILLMAN (09:04):

Born director, you had director in you. Were there challenges to establishing your career as a director?


NATAKI GARRETT (09:12):

Yeah, I'm a Black woman. And so, I remember when I went off to grad school, I went to Cal Art School of Theater, I got my MFA in Directing and I was like, let me just see what happens because I do work in a field that really could care less whether or not I became a professional, professional director. And so I'm like, I was, I was always really conscious of the fact that anything that I was, anything I built, I created myself. I wasn't, there was no like program that led me, you know, like I, after undergrad, I went off to an internship program, uh, at the Alliance Theater, and I was a, a directing apprentice and a, and a stage management intern. I did both of those. 'cause I was interested in both. 'cause I was like, you have to have the practical, so I did the stage managing, I don't know why I thought the stage managing is practical.


NATAKI GARRETT (10:02):

And then I decided to move to New York. I was, so, I was at the Alliance during Kenny Leon's early days as an art artistic director. I don't know if I was conscious of it, but I witnessed that, like those first couple of years. And I don't know, you know, like it would be a kind of a great story to be like, it planted a seed and I knew right away, but I didn't, you know, I was mostly like, there are Black people in leadership roles, you know, that means that I, there's a chance, you know, maybe I should, I should pursue this. You know, there are black people directing, maybe I should pursue this. I wasn't even thinking about it in terms of specifically in terms of leadership. And then when I got to New York, I scheduled a meeting randomly with Linda Chapman, who was the associate artistic director at New York Theater Workshop.


NATAKI GARRETT (10:47):

And, um, you know, I kind of marched into her office and announced that I was, my name was Nataki Garrett, and I'm a director. I just moved to New York and she didn't make fun of me and she didn't treat me badly. You know, she tried to give me an internship and that's actually when I first started to become conscious of what the, what the difference is. Like, there were some people who have resources and so for them saying they wanted to take an internship, living and working for free, you know, even at the Alliance, I, I held a full-time job while I was doing that. And I, and I did two, I did the internship and the apprenticeship, but in New York, they were like, we need you like 40 hours a week, seven days a week. And I was like, this is, I, there's, I I have to work in New York.


NATAKI GARRETT (11:30):

I can't, I don't have the resource to just take an internship. And she tried twice to give me an internship at New York Theater Workshop. That would've completely shifted the way my career went. But because I just, I just, like, my mother was a school teacher. I didn't, you know, by that time she was a principal. But even then, you know, I just didn't grow up with that kind of resource. And so, I had friends who were like, oh yeah, I'm in this internship and I, you know, what are you doing? Well, I just used my, my parents' credit card. And I was like, wow, that happens.


MARCIE SILLMAN (12:00):

So it was gender, race, and class.


NATAKI GARRETT (12:02):

Yeah, yeah. All three. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Well, none of the people who had access to to resources while they were interning were, were people of color. All the people of color were like me. At least that was my experience, you know, every, everybody was like me.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (12:16):

Well, we hear this a a lot, I think from artists, you know, this kind of divide between the practicality of a career that their parents think they should be pursuing versus the true interest that might be at the heart. And, and I, it's, it's fascinating to hear you say exactly that in real simple terms.


NATAKI GARRETT (12:39):

Well, you know, my mom, so my grandmother grew up during the depression. My mom's a boomer. I'm 51 years old, like being practical in, um, 1990, I went to school, uh, on loans and scholarships. You know, like there was no extra resource. My mother is the last generation of kids to go to college for free. And so, it just, like, it wasn't practical. And I was in New York, right, where you, you spend $5 just to get out your door, you know? And that this was back in the nineties, so you know, now it's even harder.


MARCIE SILLMAN (13:12):

You were having to work, you couldn't take these internships. Tell us how you, you leapt that gulf from eating and sleeping and having a roof over your head to pursuing your passion.


NATAKI GARRETT (13:23):

Well, I guess the way is like, um, I figured that was my path, and so you just do it, right? So I went off to grad school because after I couldn't take the second internship offer with Linda Chapman, uh, she told me I had to go to grad school. And I was like, I'm, first of all, I don't have any money. I can't go to grad school. But the second thing is like, no, I just got to New York and I, I'd like to, you know, try to, she was like, there's no way. She was like, you're young, you're a woman and you're Black. Nobody's gonna take you seriously. You have to go to grad school.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (13:56):

When you, um, answered Marcie's question about the difficulty of really pursuing that path, and your immediate response was, yeah, I'm a Black woman. One of the, the things that I think comes up a lot as well for us is understanding what the interest is of a Black artist. And if Black artists are relegated to only creating work that is representative of the Black experience, or if an artist is simply an artist first and then happens to have, you know, a diversity of interest. My question to you in that kind of realm, or what kinds of plays are you drawn to? What kind of work are you most drawn to?


NATAKI GARRETT (14:41):

I think that shifted for me when I went off to grad school. So, I decided I was gonna go to grad school and I applied and I got into Cal Arts. And I, the reason why I thought, you know, I was, was I was like, everybody goes to Yale, so I should go to Yale. But when I got to that place, I didn't really want to go there. When I got to Cal Arts, the thing that was most exciting was, um, the guy who became my, my second mentor, Travis Preston, said, you know, I'm, I'm in the development of the future of the, of the vision of theater, right? I'm, I'm interested in your particular vision and, and helping you to, uh, evolve that vision because I believe that it is important to the future of the field. And I was like, okay, do I get a degree at the end of all of that?


NATAKI GARRETT (15:21):

That sounds great. But that's where, so two things happened there. I got my, I got to, uh, stretch myself artistically in ways that I could never have imagined. I got to try things that I would never have tried in the real world, or being somebody's assistant director for five years. And then the second thing is I got to understand a little bit more about what my process is, like, why I do what I do. And I used to say when I answered that question, oh, I'm interested in the big idea play, and I like the things that are impossible. I think in some ways I still like things that are impossible, but I think that the scope of what's what is deemed to be impossible is, uh, has shifted for me. So, you know, in my early professional days, I was directing plays by Brandon Jacobs Jenkins, which who I, whom I love and, and is a close personal friend of mine.


NATAKI GARRETT (16:09):

And those plays seem to satisfy something in me that, that really wanted to deny the conventional, really wasn't interested in conventional, you know, Cal Art School of Theater is a, is a decisively a an experimental program. And what that means is that you're, it's more scientific, it's more rigorous than like making sure that you know how to direct in a proscenium. And it's more like, what are these ideas and how can you justify them? And did you do your research and unpack these things and deconstruct that? And, and I was like a kid in a candy store and that kind of a thing. 'cause I was already doing that. So as a, as a director, I, now, what I find to be impossible is, you know, very rarely do you see stories about non-white male people that are just about people.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (17:00):

Not tragic, not yeah, just living their lives. Yeah,


NATAKI GARRETT (17:04):

Just woke up in the morning and went to bed at night, you know? And then what are the, what are the, what does it cost you to, to do that, to wake up in the morning and go to bed at night? I was an acolyte of the sort of, you know, the sort of wild play. And now I think I find a good balance because I have that wild in me when I come across a play that's sort of quietly talking about experience or, or life or circumstance. I'm a little bit more curious.


MARCIE SILLMAN (17:32):

Nataki, I don't know if you remember, but I remember interviewing you right after you got hired at OSF you came up to Seattle for, uh, the Grand Tour. And one of the things we talked about was that balance that you already had between really promoting new work and then, you know, going to lead the Shakespeare company that had a mix of, of Shakespeare, which can be produced in an in new and experimental ways. Uh, OSF has always done that, but I'm curious how that balance informed what you're talking about now, about where you sit with the kinds of plays that attract you.


NATAKI GARRETT (18:12):

You know, it's weird 'cause now now we're like, post pandemic, the American theater, and so I think I have a different point of view than I did before, because many of our theaters are just going back to mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I don't know what back is. I don't know what they imagined it was like before, but some nostalgic space in, in the theater memory is saying there's a, there's a, before we started doing these other kinds of plays. Yeah, I don't know how to answer that question because I'm a little disillusioned by my field right now. And it's, uh, insistence that somehow paying attention to stories that are by or about non-white, non cis male people is somehow, uh, a departure. Somebody said to me once, I don't know if I can, if I can market these plays because, you know, my audience, the people who buy tickets are cisgendered white women who are married to cisgendered white men. And I was like, this is a story about a mariachi, you know, <laugh>, it's about a girl who's trying to become a mariachi. Why is this so, like, I, I was like, I don't, I was like, I just don't understand why this would be a difficult show to market.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (19:26):

I'm sorry to interrupt, but I wanna ask you, do you find that in the theater when those stories are being told about people who are non-white male cisgendered, that there's an expectation that one, traditional audiences or the audience that have traditionally come to the theater will reject that? And number two, that there's also a co-expectation that it's going to automatically draw a huge crowd of people who mirror that ethnicity?


NATAKI GARRETT (20:04):

So I still believe that, that, um, because I am often asked to come into a theater and witness the experience of people who are not like me. I believe everybody has that ability. And so I don't, I actually, I deny this idea that somehow there, there are people out here who don't have, who can't do that. You know, most of the time, the feedback that I've gotten as a leader from people who were upset because the plays didn't represent them, nine times outta 10, if they came to see the show anyway, they didn't feel like that when they left, because that's not how plays are made. I can read a Shakespeare play and be like, oh, my life is a little bit like this. I'm not a queen or anything, but I get it, you know? And I, and I can go see any kind of play.


NATAKI GARRETT (20:45):

I can see movies. I can see television. I can go on the VR space, I can do, I can see any story in the world and find a point of entry, and I can, I can figure out whether or not my job in the moment of witnessing is to witness, bear witness, to see what somebody else's life is like or to reflect, oh, my life is like that too. And we all have that ability. And so I, I think what has actually happened is something worse, which is if you've been taught that your story is the only story, anything outside of that story feels like it's wrong, or like somebody's trying to teach you a lesson and give you a better understanding of the world. Why can't we just go see plays that make us feel good? I'm just like, I can't, I just don't. I like Odette's, I like O'Neill as my favorite playwright. I like Hurston. I'm a big fan of Brandon Jacobs Jenkins. You know, I sometimes like Wilson, you know what I mean? Like, I just don't understand why people are so afraid. I think what they're mostly afraid of, um, is that they're gonna, they're gonna be in a room and all of a sudden everybody in the room is gonna be different than them. And that's not the case.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (21:53):

Or do you think they're afraid that if they learn something new, then they have to act like they know something new?


NATAKI GARRETT (21:58):

Or they're afraid that that's what the, the goal is, is to teach you something when it really isn't? I, I mean, when, when really what it is is an opportunity to experience something that you haven't experienced before.


MARCIE SILLMAN (22:19):

Our conversation with Nataki Garrett continues in a minute.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (22:24):

Our music is courtesy of Big World Breaks, many thanks.


MARCIE SILLMAN (22:29):

And this year we welcome our sponsor, LANGSTON, cultivating Black Brilliance from their home at Seattle's Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in the historic Central District.


I feel like we're dancing around your personal experience at Oregon Shakespeare Festival here, because you took that job, you came at in the worst possible global time. You stepped into a job, you had a pandemic, you had climate change, and then you got slammed for all this stuff that we're just talking about. How much were you scarred by that, I mean, talk a little bit about everything that happened in your tenure.


NATAKI GARRETT (23:21):

So, until my last day, I don't think I was conscious of should the things that have happened in totality, I think I was like, this is the thing I have to fix today. I just went to work, you know, like, I was like, oh, okay, a few months after I start, we have a pandemic. Great, let's raise the money. Let me go to the top 1% donors. Oh, you all don't wanna give them money. Let's find, find some other money. Great, let's keep moving. We found the money. Let me figure out how I'm gonna, I'm gonna shift my entire industry and do something that as an industry we have never done, which is collectively advocate for resources. We've never done that, right? So I was like, why don't we do that? That's it makes sense. Let's figure out we do it in Oregon. Okay, we're gonna do it there.


NATAKI GARRETT (24:05):

We should probably then do it in, in, go up to cap up to the Capitol Hill and, and get federal dollars for that, right? Oh, maybe if I do that, these top 1% donors will want to give us the money, you know, down the line. So I, for me, it was like, I do know after years of leadership, validators tend to be foundational or governmental for women. So if I can raise the money in those those ways, usually it validates, uh, with your top 1% donors. Usually what it says is you're capable of, of, you know, accessing. I had a different experience, you know, at OSF people, um, seem to be upset that I got the money that way, you know, like, I can't really speak to that because that's really their own thing. But my experience was, you, you know, you raise the money, you save the theater, you save the field, and then you start, you know, the process of opening the theater again. And the theater that I I took over was actually the theater that I continued to run. So it wasn't a different.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (25:06):

Nataki, we are aware, I mean, of course we've obviously read a lot about your departure and there are a lot of different perspectives around what led to that. But I think at the end of the day is that you face some personal and professional threats, and I'm sure you didn't expect that that would be the outcome.


NATAKI GARRETT (25:28):

I would never have taken the job <laugh>.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (25:31):

Yeah. So how do you recover from something like that? Or do you even, do you even attempt to recover from that?


NATAKI GARRETT (25:39):

I think you have to recover from that. You know, I don't wanna be the version of myself... I don't want my daughter to have that be her primary experience. You know, like, I just really didn't want her to always, you know, always have to have some big burly man standing around while we went, you know, to the park. You know what I mean? Some people want that. They were like, you know, it makes them feel famous. Um, somebody said that, um, that I, uh, hired security because I wanted to feel famous. <laugh>, I was like in Ashland?


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (26:15):

In Ashland of all places. I love that.


NATAKI GARRETT (26:18):

I never brought my security detail never came to, to, to New York with me, LA, never to San Francisco, only in Ashland or if I was in Portland, not even Seattle. Right. And so I, it just, it's so, people are so cynical about other people's pain, which is we go back to the conversation about what kind of plays, right? People are so cynical about other people's experiences and pain. All I'm doing now is just trying to, you know, take my time and come back to some sort of version of myself, because the sort of pretzel that I had to become in order to continue to just, you know, I, I did what I, I was, I actually, I have a friend, um, who works there now, and when she first started, I was like, you know, girl, you need to stop. You think that if you master this thing, it's gonna solve the next thing.


NATAKI GARRETT (27:10):

It's not, there's a dozen things like this that are coming, right? And I think that's, that's because that's how I started at OSF too. I was like, master this, solve this, save this, do this. And I was just at work, like, just going to work every day. Looking back, I'm like, oh, if I would've just slowed down a little bit, I might've actually seen the direction this was heading. You know, I don't know if in the, at the end of the day, if there was a way for me to be involved, um, at the level that I desired with that organization, without this sort of constantly solving these, these, these problems to, to help it exist.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (27:48):

So I wonder, Nataki, how much of this has to do with power and who holds power? Because at the beginning of the pandemic and you know, the event around the murder of George Floyd, we saw a lot of the entire entertainment industry, specifically the theater community, making pledges to do better. Not voluntarily, obviously, they were pushed to do that, but we're seeing some of that unravel, you're part of that unraveling now. So, can you speak to how you might see that as a real challenge to who holds power, who wields power, who makes decisions, and whose fate the future is actually in?


NATAKI GARRETT (28:40):

I have such an opinion about this. As you can see in my face, I, I have a deep opinion about this. I won't say who my colleagues were, but I remember being on a national call with a group of colleagues who are running major theaters across the United States. And everybody was like clutching their pearls because they might be called out by the, we see white American theater people. Oh no, what if they post that? I am. And I, and I actually had to stop everything. And I, I tend to be as frank, I tend to be frank, you know, I tend to just sort of say what it is I need to say. And I was like, I don't know why you all are so stressed out. You know, about five months after all this is over, you're just gonna go back to the way it was.


NATAKI GARRETT (29:19):

I wasn't joking. I knew at the time that a handful of people would have to continue to hold that line, right? Robert Berry Fleming at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, you know, uh Hana Sharif, who was at St. Louis Rep and now is moving to the arena stage, you know, Jamille, Jude, Maria Guana, Stephanie Barro, who just left Baltimore Center Stage, took a work at at Ford. A handful of people were actually gonna still be able to have to hold this line. And everybody else was just gonna go back, because theater is not outside of the, of the experiment that is America. Theater is right inside of the experiment that is America. And America was already swinging back when all that started, you know? So I'm, I remember thinking like, I mean, we spent 20 minutes, oh God, we're just, uh, and I was like, what are you doing? Can we move on to something? How are you saving your theater right now? What are you worried about? You don't have an audience right now anyway, and as soon as you have that audience back, it's gonna go back to A Doll's House. Stop. Don't worry about it. You're gonna be fine.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (30:19):

How much of that, if you can say you may not be able to, how much of that do you think played into the outcome that you had your experience at OSF? Do you think you had too much power?


NATAKI GARRETT (30:31):

I don't even know what that means. 'cause I'm not sure like where is the, what are the parameters, right? I was the artistic director and so I had the power that I had,


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (30:41):

But that kind of power had never been shared in that way before.


NATAKI GARRETT (30:46):

Well, you mean with a Black woman?


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (30:47):

Yes Ma'am.


NATAKI GARRETT (30:48):

Still though, how do I know? 'cause I'm only in my own body having my own experience. So the the sort of outside looking in, I don't know why that, if that perception is that or not. In my perception, I applied for a job, I was appointed that position. I had the skill sets because listen, I love my industry too much. I would never apply for a job that I wasn't capable of doing. Full stop. So I'm going to work every day. I don't know what too much power is. It's not like I ran a government like I, it’s a theater. Right?


MARCIE SILLMAN (31:23):

One of the things that I've been thinking about as somebody who was before the pandemic, a long time patron of OSF, was that preceding you, there was a mix of plays, there were a mix of performers, there were a mix of stories that were told. I get the brochures, I see what you were programming, and I didn't, nothing felt markedly revolutionary. You are pointing to your face and your skin and, and yourself and I, that's where I'm going with that. It, to me, it seemed that everything was in place for what you wanted to do artistically. And that this really wasn't a shift, but that you are not a white male in charge.


NATAKI GARRETT (32:07):

I think that's part of it. I also feel like, um, oh, how do I say that? I think that, I think that where, where people are in their heads about what kind of plays I'm doing or what kind of plays I wasn't doing, I think that that much time away allowed people to sort of coagulate their own ideas about what was happening. And so I don't, again, I don't know, you know, the feedback I was getting, it wasn't a series of threats, it was a threat. And the problem, this is what the FBI said, the problem with the threat is that the only way you know that it's a real threat or not is if it's acted upon. So you have to act like it's a real threat. But even in that, there was a sense that somehow I wasn't, we hadn't even produced anything and I was automatically not doing what I was supposed to do, but there was no, no instruction.


NATAKI GARRETT (32:56):

I wasn't serving the people of Ashland. And I was like, I don't know. I wouldn't even know where you're, where's this list from? I think often what we forget in this country is that when people want women to shut up, you threaten them with violence. So it was so normal that, uh, and the people were like, how dare she express that this is what's happening? I don't, I'm just saying that this is what's what my experience was. You know? And there were some really great people in Ashland who were like, we wanna walk with you. You know, we wanna make sure that we're with you and you should know how much we support, you know, you and the work that you're doing. 'cause I think there are a lot more people than Les that actually appreciated that I was continuing the work as before. The truth is, I hadn't even really begun the work because we were only a year off the pandemic.


NATAKI GARRETT (33:45):

And so, 2022 was like, you know, it was like the little engine that could, I think I can, you know, every step was like, oh, I don't know if this is gonna work. And uh, you know, ‘23 was like, okay, if we do it like this, it might work. We learn from our mistakes from before. I think the questions are like, who's allowed to make mistakes and who's allowed to, I mean, more than power, I think it's like who's given the room to evolve over time, right? And that's just not, you know, um, I'm hoping that Hana Sharif, as she takes over Arena Stage, is given that opportunity. I don't know if that would've been my opportunity at OSF I had to make some decisions about how I wanted to be as a human being. And those decisions were based on my circumstance. They were not outside of the circumstance. I can say that when I have been given the chance, the opportunity, the resources, which was the big deal, you know, my top 1% donors had decided from the very beginning that they didn't wanna give. OSF cannot run without top 1% donors. It just doesn't have the ability to do it. And so if they didn't wanna support my leadership, this, it is what it is.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (35:00):

Yeah. Doomed. I wanna talk about what's next for you. I wanna be inspired from this point forward <laugh>. I wanna hear what's inspiring you. I wanna wanna sit in this depressed state of, uh, your departure from OSF. I think we learned a lot and we, unfortunately you were the sacrificial lamb for actually showing what's really happening in that world. But what's next for Nataki Garrett?


NATAKI GARRETT (35:30):

So, I'm working on, on a couple of projects and I'm, you know, I'm excited about this, uh, intersection between, um, health science and art. A couple of people have gotten me interested and I'm in a conversation about that. You know, I, I wanna raise my kid, you know, be able to walk her to school. You know, those are the things that I'm working on right now. And I'm, I'm on on a bit of a, I'm taking a little break from my, from my field because I'm watching what it's doing, the truth about the American theater, I have a really good friend whose name I won't mention, you know, he says to me, you know, I have this like, really bad theater addiction. I don't know why I do it all the time because it treats me so badly. He's a Black man. And I was like, oh God, I wish I hadn't said that out loud. Um, but it's so true that if anything, my goal as a leader is to try to create a theater or a space to do theater in which I don't have to survive it every day.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (36:28):

But you can thrive.


NATAKI GARRETT (36:30):

Yeah. And so that's, you know, like if I come back to do some work in the American theater, it'll be at spaces where, where I can definitely thrive. But I will know never go back to those spaces in which it's not possible to, to thrive.


MARCIE SILLMAN (36:44):

Do you have hope for the American theater?


NATAKI GARRETT (36:47):

From my 13th year on this earth when I wasn't aware of the way that it operated, you know, I've, I've always had hope. It is the space. If you can, if you can let yourself be in those spaces and allow yourself to experience what's, what other people's circumstances are, like, you know, you can really shift the dynamic of our thinking and change our minds. But you have to participate in that, you know, and if you don't wanna participate in that, I, I think we have to wear it out a little bit. You know, I think that, um, unfortunately my fear for this industry is if we don't now turn towards, um, bringing in a multi-generational audience, there will be no audience for the theater in 30 years. And or there will be, it just will be a tiny little group of people. And maybe that's what it needs to be.


NATAKI GARRETT (37:38):

Just because you send a kid to go sit on their hands and watch a play in middle school doesn't mean that they'll become an audience member later unless you invite them. And if your invitation is like a condition, you know, come, but don't bother us and don't act like you're here. Don't laugh too loud and you know, don't shift your body, don't have your phone out and don't, don't be in the space if you're, if you, if the experience is like that, now I can watch theater on my phone. I don't really need to come into a theater. And so I think, um, our industry has to really think about what its goals are. I think I've given a lot in, in terms of that, like a lot of ideas so they can take 'em or leave 'em.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (38:18):

Well, this has been a great, great opportunity to get to interact with you, hear from you, and share that with our audiences. You know, I was so excited when I think I read in the American Theater, is probably where it was, about your appointment at OSF and I was so excited that once the pandemic was over, I was gonna come back to Ashland. Well, I'm not <laugh> that's not happening right now.


NATAKI GARRETT (38:48):

If you were, this season that's up right now is really representative of my leadership aesthetic. So if you did, there's some good stuff to see up there. I don't know after that, that'll be up to somebody else. But this is really my season.


MARCIE SILLMAN (39:02):

Nataki, I wish you some healing thoughts. I'm sending them from Seattle to California where you are.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (39:08):

Well, I think you're gonna be just fine. It's gonna take some time, but I can't wait. <laugh>, I can't wait. Thank you so much.


NATAKI GARRETT (39:17):

I appreciate this conversation.


MARCIE SILLMAN (39:19):

Vivian, one of the things that occurs to me listening to this interview that we did with Nataki at the end of June is that I haven't heard a lot of her side of what went on. You know, the Shakespeare Festival goes on, they've announced the hire of Tim Bond, completely capable human being, as many in the Seattle theater community know from his long history here. But you just have to think about, well, okay, so he's not a woman, but he is a Black man. Is that gonna be enough? And what does it mean for OSF? I mean, have they, they've decided that being Black is enough, so we'll just find another Black person that can lead the organization.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (40:05):

Interesting question. What an interesting question you posed, Marcie. And I was thinking that maybe Tim Bond, and this is not to cast any aspersion on Tim, because, you know, we know Tim from his long history at the Group Theater, which was touted as one of the nation's most diverse theaters and very progressive back in the way back days, <laugh>, you know, but I, I was thinking about this and thinking, you know, the difference that is easy to identify is that Tim Bond is the Black man they know. Nataki Garrett was the Black woman they did not know, and they didn't seem to be willing to get to know her.


MARCIE SILLMAN (40:47):

I've been, uh, for a different story that I'm working on, completely separate from doubleXposure, um, really digging into what has to happen for real change, to be rooted, and to really move a big organization, a big mainstream theater. Like OSF.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (41:06):

Tell us more, tell us more what ne what's necessary <laugh>.


MARCIE SILLMAN (41:10):

It's not just hiring faces. Oregon Shakespeare Festival, for those of you who haven't gone down there, has a very diverse artistic retinue. The actors, the artists, the playwrights, the directors. I mean, this has been a core value long before Nataki Garrett. This has been part of the mission of what I'm sure, maybe not at the beginning, but definitely in the recent decades. So, we see that, but clearly board work, donor cultivation, um, the administrative structure, the supports that are in place, the cultural, I don't wanna say acceptance, but that is what I'm thinking, that it's not business as usual with a different color put on the face.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (41:56):

Surprising, right? <laugh>, you're Black, but you're gonna run this exactly the same way we've always done it. I mean, there, that's a problem, that's a reality and that's a problem. What I'm most excited about is when these things happen and someone like Nataki Garrett can take some time to correct her own course. So, it's interesting to, to hear more about her experience and how she got into the field.


MARCIE SILLMAN (42:30):

One of the things that really fascinated me, she said, theater is not outside of the experiment. That is America. America, right? Yeah. She then went on to talk a little bit about how there was that little door open in 2020. The door swung open, and then from her perspective, the door was already closing by 2023, right? 2022. You know, there was that little window where people said, change, change. And then it was like, oh, maybe not that much change.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (43:02):

<laugh>, right? I think one of the things she did say as well is, you know, when we think about power, who actually has and is given the room to grow. So, you know, I thought about that long and hard and how you know, the color of your skin, is such a stupid thing for people to focus on. I guess that's my, my summation.


MARCIE SILLMAN (43:31):

But it's also gender. And I can't believe I'm going to reference Barbie, the movie here, but I am gonna rere. Did you say Barbie? I did. I went to see Barbie.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (43:41):

Everybody’s seen that movie.


MARCIE SILLMAN (43:42):

I have to say that I have many feels and thoughts about that movie. Some good, some bad. But one of the things that's very interesting is that a human character in the middle of it gives this big speech and, and she talks about how women never think they're good enough. We have to be healthy, but not too fat. We have to be, age gracefully, but not show it. We can't be loud, we can't be angry, we can't be forceful. There are all these things. And I think in addition to skin color, I think gender for her also played into it.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (44:19):

Yeah, you're right. You're probably absolutely right.


MARCIE SILLMAN (44:21):

If she pushed back, people would just say she was an aggressive b*tch


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (44:26):

Angry Black woman.


MARCIE SILLMAN (44:27):

Vivian, this, this is most thought-provoking, this conversation. And now what should we be thinking about with the next interviews?


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (44:35):

These are the things that almost everyone that we know in our sphere they're concerned about, they're thinking about and looking at ways in which they can play a role in affecting positive change.


MARCIE SILLMAN (44:49):

Thanks for listening. DoubleXposure's Executive Producers are me, Marcie Sillman,


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (44:58):

And me, Vivian Phillips, associate producer Hilary Northcraft.


MARCIE SILLMAN (45:03):

If you like what you're hearing on this episode of DoubleXposure, be sure to follow us on your favorite podcast app and check out our website, doubleXposurepod.com.



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