Nataki Garrett – First Woman Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

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.”

Aretha Franklin, First Woman in Fact and in our Hearts

Many have paid tribute to Aretha Franklin but few have outlined all her achievements as a First Woman:

     –First Woman inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame (and second in the UK)

     –First Woman to have 100 titles on Billboard’s top R&B/hip-hop songs chart

     –First Woman to win the newly created Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. She won this award in 1968, the year it was created. The first eight years the award was given, she won every year. She later received the award three more times and was nominated for the award a total of twenty-three times. She won seven other Grammys as well.

Aretha was an innate musician. As a child she taught herself to play the piano by ear. She was ten years old when she began to sing in her father’s church. She toured on the gospel circuit and made her first secular album in 1961. Her last album was produced just last year. She has so many Grammys, degrees, and medals her mantle must have sagged from the weight—if one mantle could even hold them all.

When musicians we loved as younger people and continued to follow as adults take their final bows, we reminisce about all the joy they gave us through the songs they sang. We do reflect on their lives, their struggles, and their successes, but more often it is the music that connects us to them, and to the world. A favorite tune becomes an “ear worm,” and rather than be annoyed at its intrusion, we rejoice in all the blessings it bestowed upon us.

We remember the special places where we heard those songs played, during our first kiss, while we pondered ending a relationship, when our love was overwhelming, when our hearts were broken. We relive those times, we rejoice in them, and we regret the passing of the voice of those memories.

For me, that connection feels even stronger with Aretha Franklin. She sang words that defined who we were, that gave us power as women, that wrenched our souls. She spoke forwomen and she made us feel like “A Natural Woman.” It is as if she, through her music, did exactly what that song said, “When my soul was in the lost and found, You came along to claim it.” Aretha Franklin built us up and comforted us in our struggles. It is with enormous “Respect,” that “I Say a Little Prayer,” for her, and for me, that I might be the woman of her songs.

Ella Higginson, First Poet Laureate of Washington State

In 1931 the state of Washington named Ella Rhoads Higginson as its first poet laureate. Not its First Woman poet laureate, its first poet laureate, period. Higginson was known throughout the United States for her depictions, both in prose and poetry, of the Pacific Northwest. And yet she received only a minimal obituary in the local paper when she died, and her name was lost to history. This changed in 2014, the day that Professor Laura Laffrado discovered Higginson’s archives in a Western Washington University library.

Ella Rhoads was born in Kansas, raised in Oregon, and settled with her husband, Russell Higginson, in Bellingham, Washington. She first published a poem when she was 14. Her early poems were published anonymously, as was the case for many women. After she married, she began to write under her own name (actually her husband’s name). She wrote more than 300 poems, published short stories, a novel, a travel book, and a newspaper column. Her novel, Mariella; of Out-West, was compared to Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, and Émile Zola. Her travel book, written over four summers spent in Alaska, poetically describes this unknown land, with words like “the mists, light as thistledown and delicately tinted as wild-rose petals.” The rest of the country felt invited to this distant land that was almost foreign to them.

Higginson was also an editor, having learned typesetting and editorial writing at the age of 15, while still living in Oregon. She was an editor for the Portland, OregonWest Shoreliterary magazine and an associate editor of the Pacificmagazine in Seattle.

Higginson, like many First Women, helped other women to succeed. In 1912 she was campaign manager for fellow Bellingham resident Frances C. Axtell when she ran for the Washington State House of Representatives, even though no women had served in the legislature since the state’s founding in 1889. Axtell was elected as was Nena J. Croake from Tacoma, the First two Women to serve in the Washington State Legislature.

Professor Laffredo, the hero who rescued Ella Rhoads Higginson from the dustbins of history, has given her a new life. Not only is her work being studied by Laffredo’s students, her archives are being used as a means to teach a new generation how to do research. One can only hope that this education will lead to the discovery of more women who have been erased from history.

 

P.S. Thank you to The Seattle Times for writing a superb article about Higginson and Laffrado in their Pacific NW magazine, and for re-writing her obituary to recognize her significance.

 

Megan Ellison – Movie Producer

Screen Shot 2014-06-16 at 6.35.21 PM          Megan Ellison was the first woman producer to receive two Best Picture nominations in one year, but that was not enough to earn her a place on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2014. Only twenty-eight years old, Megan Ellison is the founder of Annapurna Pictures, a production company whose stated goal is to “produce sophisticated high-quality films that might otherwise be deemed risky by contemporary Hollywood studios.”

In an industry where, among the top 250 grossing domestic films, only 16% of directors and other executives, writers, editors and cinematographers are women, Megan Ellison is a standout. She provides what has been called a “Silicon Valley” approach to filmmaking. Her films draw in prominent directors and screenwriters but are original, even daring projects. While the major studios prefer to finance and promote blockbusters, she supports riskier ideas with sophisticated plots. Among her earlier projects were the Coen Brothers’ True Grit and Kathryn Bieglow’s Zero Dark Thirty.

Both of the films she produced in 2013 were nominated for multiple academy awards. Her, which is described as a science fiction romantic comedy drama film, was nominated for three Golden Globe nominations and five Academy Award nominations. Spike Jonze, the director won for best original screenplay in both contests. At the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, Her shared the best picture award with Gravity.

In the same year American Hustle won three Golden Globe Awards, three BAFTA Awards and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. Nominated for ten Academy Awards, the picture did not win in any category but received widespread critical acclaim.

The plots of these two movies demonstrate the unusual topics that intrigue Megan Ellison. In Her Joaquin Phoenix had a relationship with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johnsson), an intelligent computer operating system. In American Hustle, two con artists set up a sting operation on corrupt politicians, similar to the FBI’s ABSCAM operation several decades earlier.

Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures is deserving of its name. Annapurna is the name of a section of the Himalayas in Nepal and Ellison has taken her work to the heights of the movie world, in spite of her willingness to take risks and produce projects other spurn. Annapurna is also the name of a Hindu goddess who provides food and nourishment. Ellison is certainly a goddess and protector, nourishing projects that might have withered away without her patronage.

LEARN MORE:

Her filmography: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2691892/

About her style and background: http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2013/03/megan-ellison-27-producer-zero-dark-thirty

 

Ruby Dee – Actress, Activist

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 2.37.31 PMRuby Dee died this week. There are several numbers to note in her passing:

–91, her age at death

–61, the number of years she was married to Ossie Davis

–30+, the number of years she survived breast cancer

In addition to her many other accomplishments in the movies, on stage and television, and in public life, she was the first African American woman to play major roles at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut. She also starred in A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, the first play by a black woman to be performed on Broadway.