Oregon Shakespeare Festival focuses on expansion – but is not without its critics After two years of pandemic closures, audiences are back at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, to find a season of diverse plays. But for many, change has come too soon.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival focuses on expansion – but is not without its critics

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

America's regional theaters are facing an existential crisis. If they're going to survive, they have to attract younger, more diverse audiences, which is one reason that a theater in southern Oregon appointed one of the first Black women to lead such a large regional stage company. For this chapter in our series The Next Stage, NPR's Bilal Qureshi takes us there.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Even before COVID closures, Nataki Garrett realized she was facing an uphill battle as the new artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

NATAKI GARRETT: I thought the pandemic was the hard work for maybe about 15 minutes into the pandemic. But what you realize is if you're tasked with saving an organization that's 85 years old, that's embedded in a community in which the community relies on it, that the task is actually greater than, you know, getting through a pandemic. It's about recovery and thriving. And how do we get there?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARRETT: Hello, and welcome to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

QURESHI: This is the festival's first full season in two years - eight plays in a season - from April to December - performed across three historic stages. On my recent visit, masks on, curtains up - on the mainstage, Shakespeare's "The Tempest."

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Master) Boatswain.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Boatswain) Here, master. What cheer?

QURESHI: Next door, a game of thrones in "King John."

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Bastard) Austria and France shoot in each other's mouth. I'll stir them to it. Come. Away. Away.

QURESHI: And a new play about race and power called "Confederates."

BIANCA JONES: (As Sandra) I think you can draw more concise lines between corporate America and the plantation. It's not absurd. It's just not an easy route to follow. I admire your passion, though.

QURESHI: Shakespeare scholar Daniel Pollack-Pelzner has been coming to Ashland for almost 30 years.

DANIEL POLLACK-PELZNER: I guess I was expecting to see a theater company on crutches. And I felt like what I saw instead was a theater company with wings.

QURESHI: Nataki Garrett was just beginning her first season as artistic director when the pandemic began. For a company with an almost $40 million budget, she saved the Oregon Shakespeare Festival from financial freefall, raising $19 million through government and foundation funding as donors and audiences disappeared. The festival's survival is critical to the entire southern Oregon economy. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival - or OSF, as it's also known - is not just a regional theater. It's a destination theater located in the Rogue River Valley, nestled among mountains, vineyards and many cute cafes.

The festival, like most American theaters, is also a historically and overwhelmingly white institution, located in a county that is 80% white and in a state with a history of racism, says Portland State University professor Daniel Pollack-Pelzner.

POLLACK-PELZNER: It's a state founded with a racial exclusion clause in its constitution, a state with a history of unfair labor conditions for migrants who have come to work there and an active KKK presence well into the 20th, if not the 21st century.

QURESHI: Nataki Garrett sees theater as a place for reflection and racial progress. But she says the regional theater system and its economy have been designed differently.

GARRETT: The American theater has relied for decades on that one demographic of people - over 65, affluent, white. It's the sort of breadbasket of the industry.

QURESHI: During the pandemic, 300 theater artists across the country signed a letter called We See You, White American Theater.

GARRETT: You know, there was this so-called racial reckoning across the country. And the theater community responded by saying, that racial reckoning for us means that we're not moving back into theater systems that are oppressive.

QURESHI: Garrett has changed labor practices at OSF to build more humane conditions for her performers and crew. She's reduced ticket prices and introduced more digital programs to expand access. The company's new artistic team is programming provocative and innovative new work. That includes this season's all female and nonbinary production of Shakespeare's "King John," directed by Rosa Joshi.

ROSA JOSHI: It's radical for a festival that is so deeply rooted in the tradition of doing Shakespeare in the U.S.

QURESHI: But not everyone supports the company's new direction. Herbert Rothschild is a longtime OSF subscriber and a local columnist.

HERBERT ROTHSCHILD: My concern is that they have decided to essentially remake the Oregon Shakespeare Festival into something it wasn't - instead of building on its strengths, really turning their back on its strengths. If so, I think they're going to drive it into the ground.

QURESHI: Rothschild's editor at Ashland.news is Bert Etling, who says the columns began an ongoing community conversation.

BERT ETLING: People don't want to lose control of things that are important to them. And if they feel that something's being taken away, then they're going to protest that. They're going to make their discomfort known.

QURESHI: But some of the criticism has gone much further than artistic difference of opinion. There have also been death threats. And Nataki Garrett now makes all public appearances with a security team.

GARRETT: I'm the only artistic leader that I know of in the American theater that's having this experience. But to be quite honest, I'm just not free to live here, you know, in the way that other people are.

QURESHI: The security team was with her in the theater for the premiere of a new play she's directing this season.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONES: (As Sandra) I like to say that I'm not averse to images of slavery - no shame in my own enslaved heritage.

QURESHI: Written by Dominique Morisseau, "Confederates" is about the way American history haunts the lives and the freedom of Black women. The play ended with a rapturous standing ovation, with Nataki Garrett joining her actors for a triumphant curtain call - soundtracked by Beyonce.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAK MY SOUL")

BEYONCE: (Singing) You won't break my soul. You won't break my soul. You won't break my soul.

QURESHI: Galen Williams was in the audience.

GALEN WILLIAMS: I love that, like, you know, that their curtain call is to "Break My Soul" by Beyonce - and freedom of expression, Black love, Black pride, Black liberation, which I feel like this play is also about.

QURESHI: After the long closures of the past two years, there is defiance and celebration in the air at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. But this has not been an easy recovery season. COVID outbreaks and smoke from wildfires have led to several cancellations. Audiences have not returned to full capacity. With less than 50% attendance, the company recently announced that it will have to reduce the length of its next season and cancel two plays. Despite those setbacks, Nataki Garrett tells me the changes she's making at OSF are non-negotiable and essential.

GARRETT: I want OSF to exist, you know, well beyond me and, you know, 25 years from now, 50 years - a time when I'm not even going to be on the earth - I want it to still be here. And that means that I have to - right now my mandate is to shift the practices and to rethink the way that we do things.

QURESHI: Next season, Garrett will direct the company's flagship Shakespeare production, her interpretation of "Romeo And Juliet," inspired by the making and the failings of the American West.

Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASHLEY HENRY'S "INTROSPECTION")

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