Exclusive — Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Nataki Garrett Alienated Longtime Donors, Audiences, and Actors with Woke Lectures

MORRISON, CO - JUNE 27: Kirkaldy Myers (L) and Nataki Garrett of the Denver Center for the
Jason Bahr/Getty Images for SeriesFest

For decades, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has ranked as one of the nation’s preeminent theater institutions, drawing hundreds of thousands of theatergoers each year to scenic Ashland to see the classics performed. But that sterling reputation is in jeopardy as the company teeters on the brink of Chapter 11 bankruptcy following a troubled tenure by its recently departed artistic director, Nataki Garrett.

Longtime time ticket holders and other insiders with knowledge of the situation told Breitbart News that Garrett’s woke sermonizing and aggressive focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion alienated large swaths of the festival’s faithful audience as well as many of its small donors whose contributions collectively helped keep the organization afloat.

“Some former donors have changed their wills to remove bequests to OSF,” one source said, adding that others have been “withholding donations until they knew she was out.  Other donors view the board itself as culpable in this mess and want to see changes at the board level.”

Many actors who have performed at the festival for years no longer feel welcome because they are white, two sources told Breitbart News. While OSF has long used non-traditional casting, Garrett accelerated the trend to such a radical degree that white actors are now the minority in many productions.

As a result, some actors who put down roots in Ashland are now leaving because they can no longer find work.

Breitbart News attempted to contact Garrett through her New York agent but didn’t received a reply. OSF also didn’t reply to requests for comment.

Garrett joined the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2019 following a tenure as associate artistic director at the Denver Center Theatre Company. She also served as associate dean of the CalArts School of Theater in Valencia, California. As OSF’s first black artistic director, she was heralded as a major coup for the institution and for Ashland in general.

Some of the problems early in her tenure were beyond the company’s control. The one-two punch of the coronavirus pandemic plus wildfires in Ashland in 2020 threw the company into crisis mode from which it is still emerging.

But sources said the problems that followed were largely self-inflicted, starting with Garrett’s decision to put diversity, equity, and inclusion at the center of the festival’s mission, even hiring a staff dedicated to spreading the woke values throughout the company.

OSF’s official site currently says the organization is “committed to co-liberation through radically inclusive, accessible, and collaborative practices, serving as an industry leader in IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility) work.”

The statement represents a radical change from as recently as 2019, when OSF’s bylaws stated the company was “dedicated to presenting dramatic productions of high professional quality,” primarily focusing on William Shakespeare.

During her tenure, Garrett began programming more contemporary plays by minority writers championed by theater elites in New York. Some were audience hits, like the recent Confederates by Dominique Morisseau. But others were unpopular, like Revenge Song, a “queer” musical from playwright Qui Nguyen.

She also initiated the playing of a recorded tribal land acknowledgement before performances that blames “Euro-Americans” for the suffering of Native Americans.

The hard left turn rankled many of OSF’s core audience, many of whom are white, retirement age, and upper middle class. While many are politically conservative, many others are left-of-center to progressive.

“A company that wants to keep and grow its audience can’t sell false stories — it can’t fall prey to politics like Oregon Shakespeare and so many other woke theaters have,” Mary McDonald-Lewis, an Oregon-based  theater director, producer, and dialect coach, told Breitbart News.

The turmoil finally boiled over when Garrett started giving interviews to outlets including NPR late last year in which she claimed to have received death threats as well as racial harassment, and as a result, needed personal security.

Ashland’s police department told Breitbart News that Garrett filed a police report about the alleged incidences. But the department said it couldn’t verify her allegations based on the evidence she provided, which included e-mails that the department said amounted to criticism of her leadership.

Garrett’s public rhetoric continued to inflame the situation. In some publications, she accused OSF of harboring “anti-black racism” and even insulted OSF’s audience by associating them with “white supremacy.”

Amid growing chaos, Garrett resigned from the company earlier this month. While the OSF board publicly said she would stay on through the end of May, a source with knowledge said Garrett has already departed the company.

The organization she has left in her wake is in almost complete disarray. Planning for the 2024 season has been scrapped and the company has initiated an emergency fundraising campaign that still needs to raise $1.5 million by June.

“They may not make it through the season,” a source told Breitbart News. “They are looking at the possibility of Chapter 11.”

Longtime patrons said Garrett’s departure was unfortunate but ultimately for the best.

“I think it was a mistake by the board to hire her,” Dennis Kendig, an OSF patron of more than two decades, told Breitbart News.  He said OSF alienated a lot of dedicated volunteers and donors by closing the Tudor Guild , which raised more than $5 million for the company and ran the festival’s gift shop.

“They tried to get in touch recently with those donors but they didn’t even have a list of them.”

Garrett simply wasn’t a good fit for Ashland, said Paul Arnold, another faithful ticketholder.

“She’d been making sounds like Ashland is an old, white, racist town and I’m not comfortable here,” he said, recalling that she once said she wasn’t there to cater to the OSF audience.

Theaters “should be geared toward the audiences,” he said. “You don’t have to serve them pablum. Serve them challenging food.  But you have to serve the audience.”

Follow David Ng on Twitter @HeyItsDavidNg. Have a tip? Contact me at dng@breitbart.com


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.