Earlier this year Nataki Garrett was appointed the First Woman Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. A bit of history about the Festival will put the significance of this accomplishment in perspective.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival began presenting plays in 1935, beginning with Twelfth Nightand The Merchant of Venice. Angus Bowmer, the Southern Oregon University drama professor who founded the festival, directed and starred in both productions. His wife Lois created costumes and scenery.
The city of Ashland helped fund the first productions as part of their Fourth of July celebrations but was fearful the festival would not be profitable, so they convinced Bowmer to include a boxing match. The rowdiness of the match suited Bowmer’s Shakespearean mindset, so both events were held. Charging $1 for reserved seats, and $.50 for adults the theatre festival made money—and covered the losses of the boxing match.
The Festival has been in continuous production since (except for a few years during World War II). During the 1950’s performances were abridged and presented on radio as well as on stage in Ashland. By 1971 the festival had entertained one million visitors. All 37 of Shakespeare’s plays have been presented multiple times. Several decades ago other classic plays were introduced and now at least one original play is presented each season. In its 85 years of performances, it has had only five directors, and Nataki Garrett is the First Woman.
Garrett is a director, producer, playwright, educator, activist, and arts administrator, all skills that will be required to run this extensive theatre empire. She is a graduate of the California Institute of the Arts with an MFA in directing, a skill that has taken her to theatres throughout this country and to other countries as well.
In the past she served as associate dean at the California Institute of the Arts School of Theatre, and acting artistic director of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. She is a champion of new works and has collaborated with Seattle Repertory Theatre and the Old Globe. Her passion is presenting new works and she continues to include those in the Festival’s programming. She believes it is important to consider the needs of the traditional audience, usually older patrons with time to travel to Ashland and the means to sustain an organization, but also to attract young audiences. She likes to “create spaces where both can rub elbows with each other.”
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has blossomed during its history. Founded to present the works of a male playwright who used only men as actors, it has grown to include traditional and new plays, with casts of all genders, even women portraying “male” roles. Today more than 20 million people have attended performances in Ashland. Each year there are 750 to 850 matinee and evening performances in three theatres. Between five and eleven plays rotate six days a week. The festival has 675 paid staff, about 700 volunteers, and budget of $44 million. Garrett’s responsibilities will be significant, but she says it best, “As a little girl from Oakland raised by a single parent who was a teacher, growing up under Reaganomics, this is something beyond my wildest dreams.”