Courtesy Navalta Media

When theaters across the globe shut down (the first time) because of COVID-19, theatermakers sprang into action because the show must go on . . . somehow. For many, that meant stepping a toe into the waters of cinematic arts. Fortunately for Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), they had already plunged headfirst into the deep end, and this year premiered a short film at the Sundance Film Festival. 

Artistic director Nataki Garrett explains, “Sharrifa is the reason we started doing films. Before the pandemic I had considered this digital exploration as another means of exploring the work we do performatively at [the] Shakespeare festival. It wasn’t new, it wasn’t invented before the pandemic. But the pandemic forced us to shut down our primary mode, which is live. So I asked Sharrifa Ali, who is the director of a play called The Copper Children written by Karen Zacarías that we had premiered, opened and closed in six days, and I asked her to be our in-residence artist for . . . we didn’t know what it was at the time! We ended up calling it O!”

Garrett provided director Ali with cash, space, and a platform to work. Her first film was called Ash Land. The second that premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival was called You Go Girl!, and is written by Ali, Kamilah Long, and Courtney Williams, and follows a Black stand-up comedian on an emotional journey while hiking through the gorgeous Oregon forest. 

OSF’s exploration into the digital realm continues with a collaboration with Black Lives Black Words, and with a foray into the Metaverse. Says Garrett, “In November we launched the first annual Quills Fest which is the intersection between theater and XR technology.” 

When asked about the current creative debate as to whether or not a filmed play is still a play, Garrett opines, “A play on a computer or streamed on your television is still a play. It still speaks to the world in the way that a play does. A film is a completely different way of performing a story. And so we can have both.” 

While OSF’s bold new digital future is sunny and optimistic, it didn’t always seem this way. Even though Garrett was appointed in 2019, she still has yet to experience her first full season. Just six days into the 2020 season, the repertory theater had opened five shows at once; they received the mandate from the governor to close everything down because of COVID. Garrett reflects, “What a humbling year 2020 was.” 

The $44 million theater was forced to issue millions of dollars in refunds, and eventually laid off 80 percent of their employees (roughly 500 people) with a small severance of two weeks of pay and health care. “It wasn’t enough, but that was all we had access to.”

But as it turns out, Garrett personally had access to plenty of resources. She went to work and raised $19 million through a combination of sources including the CARES Act, foundations, and individual donors, and she started a professional nonprofit theater coalition to lobby for federal funding. 

However, in many ways, the miraculous financial turnaround might be the easy part. For Garrett, as one of only three Black women nationally in a leadership role at theaters of OSF’s size, time will tell if Garrett’s and other Black leaders’ appointments have a happy ending. In the Sundance premiere of The Master starring Regina Hall, the horror elements were far less scary than the elite machinations of being one of a handful of Black faces in a Predominantly White Institution. 

Says Garrett, “I was having this conversation recently with Dominique Morriseau . . . and she said there’s an expectation to be able to siphon off the nurture of Black women and to deny the qualities of power.” Garrett recognizes that fear of racism and discrimination can make marginalized folks hesitant to step foot into theaters, especially in the predominantly white state of Oregon. Part of her mandate is to provide multiple access points to the work to provide safety. She challenges that theater is a “brave space,” not a “safe space.” 

“Theaters historically have not been very welcoming to young BIPOC people, to trans people, but that doesn’t mean that those people don’t want to go to the theater. It just means that sometimes you are sitting next to somebody who is sneering at you because they claim that you don’t belong in that theater. And sometimes their audiences can be a hindrance. And sometimes they’re not. Sometimes you just imagine that’s happening.” 

But sometimes it’s happening. Shortly after Garrett came to OSF, one of her visiting artists was detained by the police. “My first year, one of our actors found himself handcuffed to the grate of the floor of a jail cell after walking home at night from a bar.” Another actor received death threats in 2016. 

Changing culture requires shifts in thinking as radical as adapting to virtual reality. Garrett reflects on an experience of her own when she found herself sitting next to a chatty 16-year-old Puerto Rican teen during what might have been his first foray into the theater. She had to adjust her worldview to create space for him. Garrett reflects, “I’m not going to be the lady that says ‘shush.’ Even though you’re talking all the way through . . . . I had to create something in myself that shifted the rules of engagement so that I could benefit from that exchange.” 

Recognizing that those with privilege shoulder the lion’s share of work in order to provide a safer experience for everyone, Garrett starts with reframing the rules of engagement. “At my theater, I have to make sure that my known audience, the older white affluent audience, recognizes that their role is also to be ambassadors. I really hated it when I was a young person and I was in rooms with these older white people in the theater and they’d be like, ‘Welcome to our place.’ And it really just rubbed me wrong because I was like, ‘OK, this is just yours. Where’s mine that I could welcome you into?’ As opposed to, ‘Here is a place for all of us.’”