Nataki Garrett, the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is stepping down after a tumultuous period that concluded with a financial crisis so severe that the nonprofit theater warned that it was unclear whether it would be able to finish this year’s season.
One of the most prominent women of color to lead an American theater, Garrett began her tenure in August 2019. She plans to resign effective May 31; the decision was reported on Friday by American Theater magazine, and then announced by the theater.
Garrett has encountered a series of crises during her time at the helm of the organization, which has been one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious nonprofit theaters. Based in the southern Oregon town of Ashland, it is a destination theater, meaning most of its audience travels to get there, and it stages much of its work during the summer; before the pandemic, it had been attracting 400,000 patrons annually.
Garrett faced not only the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the theater, like most others, to shutter in 2020, but also the impact of climate change, which has particularly affected the Oregon Shakespeare Festival because it has repeatedly been forced to cancel performances when smoke from wildfires has worsened air quality.
She has also received pushback to her programming, which some longtime theater patrons objected to as overly left-leaning, and she hired security personnel after receiving death threats.
The organization has experienced considerable turnover during her tenure — some of the leaders she brought in to help run the festival have since left — and in January she took on the title of interim executive artistic director after David Schmitz, who Garrett had hired as executive director, departed amid a leadership shake-up. Last month the company began a $2.5 million fund-raising campaign with the dire tagline: “Save Our Season. Save OSF.”
Garrett declined, through a spokeswoman, to be interviewed, but issued a statement saying, in part: “We are at an inflection point in our industry, where outdated business models must evolve in order for our theaters to survive. But these challenges also pose great opportunities — to rebuild in a way that reflects where we are today and where we want to be in the future — with actors, staff, audiences, and artistic leaders who reflect the richness of our country’s diversity. This is what excites me. This is the work I came to do.”
The company said in a statement that a board member, the playwright Octavio Solis, “will be stepping in to help oversee and support the artistic leadership team during this transitional phase.”
The theater currently has two shows running, a production of “Romeo & Juliet,” directed by Garrett, which is described on the company’s website as exploring “the financial and class divisions of our current time,” as well as a production of “Rent.”
The theater’s board chairwoman, Diane Yu, said in an interview that the fund-raising campaign is going well and that she is optimistic that this season’s other shows, including productions of “Twelfth Night” and “The Three Musketeers,” will go forward; the theater has canceled its holiday show, and Yu said what happens next year remains unclear, but that “the board is focused on keeping this theater viable — it’s important for the region and it’s important for the American theater.”
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