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Setting the stage

Oregon Shakespeare Festival theaters, dark since the end of October, come to life Feb. 28 when the first of 11 productions previews in the Bowmer Theatre.

Nataki Garrett, new OSF artistic director, said she is pleased with how the season is shaping up, especially the four plays that open the 2020 season.

“In ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ there is the power of the language along with its beauty and magic,” Garrett said. “‘Copper Children’ is one of those pieces that moves and illuminates. ‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ is rollicking fun. It’s not just for children but for all of us — what we need to discover our inner child. And ‘Bring Down the House, Parts I & II’ has an amazing company of women,” she said.

“Midsummer” previews Feb. 28 in the Bowmer Theatre. Intrigued by the theory that Shakespeare wrote the play as a wedding gift, director Joseph Haj probes the pitfalls and payoffs of relationships, be they budding or eternal, in a production laden with comedy and music. Haj directed “Pericles” in 2015.

“Copper Children” previews Feb. 29 in the Bowmer. Based on the history of orphan trains that transported immigrant children (mostly Irish) to homes in the West, this world premiere takes a look at the collision of good intentions and bad behavior with a blend of humor, tragedy and unsentimental social commentary.

“Peter and the Starcatcher” previews March 1, also in the Bowmer. Adapted for the stage by Rick Elice from the 2004 novel “Peter and the Starcatchers,” by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the play provides a backstory for the characters of Peter Pan, Mrs. Darling, Tinker Bell and Hook. The play won five Tony Awards during its Broadway debut. Not a traditional musical, it’s described as a play with music, composed by Wayne Barker.

“Bring Down the House, Parts I & II” previews March 3 in the Thomas Theatre, with Part I at 1:30 and Part II at 8 p.m. Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy is performed in two parts with a diverse all-female and non-binary cast. Adapted by Rosa Joshi and Kate Wisniewski, it is also directed by Joshi, who helmed “Henry V” in 2019.

Although music is a big part of many 2020 productions, this year there is no musical, per se.

“Some people think I don’t like musicals,” Garrett said. “Not so. It’s just that we couldn’t afford a musical this season. Musicals are very expensive to produce.”

Although she didn’t choose the plays for the 2020 season, she agrees OSF needed to contract around the work this year.

Garrett is directing “Confederates” this season, which debuts April 8 in the Thomas. An American Revolutions world premiere, it was co-commissioned with Penumbra Theatre. It examines the struggles of two Black women in Civil War times and takes an unflinching look at the ongoing legacies of institutional racism and gender bias in today’s America — leaping back and forth between the two periods.

Garrett said the play speaks pointedly about Black female existence, and in particular what it means to be a woman in leadership.

“I have a history with that idea,” Garrett said. “And the challenge for me is it’s very reflective. There is a sense of having to reveal important and private parts of me.”

She said she looks forward to the challenge — and to learning what others take away from the play.

When Garrett heard about the OSF artistic director job becoming available, she said her response was, “I’m going to apply for it, of course. I have to. But there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that I’m going to get that job.”

She was attracted to the idea of being part a big platform, with the chance to make a large impact in all the ways she wanted to serve the industry.

“I was drawn to the tremendous opportunity to focus on how you intersect classical text and new work by centering it around the revolutionary spirit of Shakespeare,” she said.

She is particularly interested in expanding OSF’s presence in the digital landscape.

“It’s always kind of odd to me that if I look up a video of a Shakespeare performance, I’m going to, invariably, see a British actor,” she said. “I love British actors, but our actors are just as good, if not better, at telling those stories today. We must get our work online and make it available to the largest possible audience.”

Garrett also believes she can have an impact on stability at OSF.

“I have a fiscal responsibility. I have to be conscious about how we make art,” she said.

“For instance, we can make a $10,000 dress, or we can make a $200 dress that looks like a $10,000 dress,” Garrett said.

It’s clear to her that one of the most important things she has to do is create a sustainable foundation for OSF.

“That’s not only fundraising, although that’s a big part of it,” she said. “I also have to look at inefficiencies within the organization and really investigate why they exist.”

On the fundraising front, Garrett said OSF is making progress on its goal to increase donor income as a percentage of total income. OSF expects donor income to reach 37% soon, aiming toward a benchmark of 41%. In 2014 donor income was 26%.

Ticket sales are a challenge in most theaters in America. However, unlike some of its sister organizations, OSF has not seen a decline this season.

“We’ve seen a flatline in ticket sales,” Garrett said. “The good thing is we have an opportunity through our marketing to increase sales at the box office during the season.”

A number of performances already have sold out, both early and later in the season.

Other plays to be produced at OSF in 2020, and dates of first performances, include “The Tempest,” May 26, Allen Elizabethan Theatre; “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” May 28, Allen; “Black Odyssey,” May 30, Allen; “Poor Yella Rednecks,” July 2, Bowmer Theatre; “Everything That Never Happened,” July 21, Bowmer.

For more information and to purchase tickets, see osfashland.org.

Jim Flint is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

OSF Artistic Director Nataki Garrett speaks at a Legacy Dinner. In addition to her AD duties, she also will direct "Confederates" in the 2020 season. Kim Budd photo.