The Final Frontier Is the Audience

Nataki Garrett and Bill Rauch in Conversation, Part II

Nataki Garrett: Can I ask you another question?

Bill Rauch: Yes.

Nataki: There’s a lot of leadership change happening in the American theatre, and for better or for worse a lot of that change comes with new leaders who have had positions of leadership and power within organizations but have never actually run an organization. We are in a different time than when you came to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in 2007—politically, socially. What is your advice for how to begin in this time, especially as you are onboarding into something a new position at the Perelman Center in New York City? What can you offer those of us who are also starting new roles, like me, who is taking over the artistic director position at OSF?

Bill: My immediate advice is something you already know: take a deep breath and listen, and then listen some more, and then keep listening, and then follow your heart. Something I’m constantly trying to relearn is that when I’m most annoyed by what somebody’s trying to communicate to me, when I’m just over whatever it is they have to say, that’s probably when I should do my deepest listening. I think this theatre will challenge you in that way more than you can even begin to imagine.

You talked about the different moment in time, in history, in society, that you are entering this leadership position in. When I transitioned to this job, I had run Cornerstone Theatre Company in Los Angeles; our largest operating budget was 1.5 million dollars. I went from running that community-based theatre, which was almost exclusively reliant on contributed income, to running OSF, which was at such a different scale, almost entirely reliant on earned income. It didn’t make sense on paper. But I think the most inspired leadership choices are ones that don’t necessarily make sense mathematically or are part of a clean career-ladder narrative.

Nataki: Yours was inspired. They were doing something with you, and we all knew that in Los Angeles.

Bill: It was surprising.

Nataki: It was surprising for everybody, and so we knew they were doing something, and they did it.

Bill: There’s actually nothing surprising about your selection, except the fact that it actually happened.

Nataki: Yes.

Bill: That’s the surprise: For a woman of color to run a theatre of this scale, given all the opposition embedded in the patriarchy and white supremacy. Do you know what I mean?

Nataki: I know exactly what you mean.

Bill: And that’s beautiful.

I think the most inspired leadership choices are ones that don’t necessarily make sense mathematically or are part of a clean career-ladder narrative.

Nataki: OSF is so much further advanced than a lot of other theatres, and I don’t know if it always sees what it’s doing. Hiring you meant they were looking for a way to bring the value that you bring to theatre into this midst, right? Bringing it is tough, and the challenge of it is tough, but they were calling for it, and that’s how you got here. I feel the same about myself.

Bill: Absolutely.

Nataki: Perhaps what I bring is something they can’t get in any other way, just like with you.

Bill: That’s why I’m so profoundly happy you’re here.

I have another piece of advice. It’s the same advice that Libby Appel, OSF’s previous artistic director, gave to me: pace yourself.

Soon after my appointment, I had chest pains and was admitted to Ashland Hospital. I had to miss a rehearsal, and Libby came over to the hospital and really let me have it. She was like, “You could be in this job for twenty years if you choose to be, but you could also burn yourself out very quickly and end up having to quit or be fired, and you have to pace yourself.”

There are mistakes I’ve made in my life that I will never get a do-over on. I missed a child’s first day of kindergarten to be at a first rehearsal for a play on the other side of the country. That was a terrible choice. The crazy thing was I easily could have said, “Can we start rehearsal a day late?” and I know the artistic director would’ve said yes, but I felt like it was unprofessional. That’s just an absolute no-brainer example.

Running an organization of this scale, you are going to have micro and macro moments of truth about trying to find balance in terms of how you spend your time and how you spend your precious life force, and trying to find that balance between your husband and family and your colleagues and all the different people who need things from you. Give yourself permission to pace yourself because it’s so easy to not do that.

Nataki: In the end, the play goes on, the theatre survives. We know that intellectually, but there’s something about the way we train that says we have to sacrifice in order for it to be worth it.

I’ve had enough mentors and bosses who, for all of their strengths, suffered from and supported workaholism. I’ve had to really place value on what was important to me, but also on how I spend my day and how many breaks I need. If I have to take a walk, then I do, and it’s okay. In fact, we all want me to take the walk, don’t we? Because then I come into the room and can actually be a person. But it was hard to get to a place where that was okay.

I think of pacing also in terms of how the ideas come and how many. I have never had creative energy like this in my life, and you’re right: pace is going to be integral to even making any of it make sense. The path I take, the process I create to employ any of those ideas. What helps with pacing is listening.

Bill: Absolutely.

Nataki: It’s like when I direct. I give my idea, and then I shut up, and I wait for my collaborators to take that idea and build it into something I could never have imagined. I create the space so that they come to me and say, “Let me try something.” I’m fascinated by that.

My secret sauce is that I’m in this game because I like to watch the process unfold, and I like to create a space in which people are constantly discovering. I know where it’s going, and I am pushing and pulling at the same time, but I love the moments of discovery. Please say to me, “I want to try something.”

My secret sauce is that I’m in this game because I like to watch the process unfold, and I like to create a space in which people are constantly discovering.

Bill: I have a question for you that connects to relinquishing. If I try to put myself back into my mind and my heart when I was appointed in 2006, and then I think about what we’ve achieved in the last almost thirteen years, the progress we’ve made in terms of equity around whose stories we’re telling and who’s interpreting those stories, and who’s working at our theatre to create and support that work, has been more dramatic than I could have dreamed in 2006.

The progress in terms of who’s in the audience to experience the stories has been more painfully slow than I ever would have imagined, and that’s a hard part of my relinquishing moment now because I love every single member of our audience individually. Every time I get to meet somebody and learn their story and learn how the work is affecting them, I am so moved by it. But the fact is, in terms of racial diversity and socioeconomic diversity of our audience, we have not moved the needle as dramatically as I would have hoped. How does hearing me say that impact you, and how does it relate to your own ambitions looking ahead twelve, thirteen years from now for this theatre?

Nataki: I think the final frontier is the audience. There have been all kinds of movements in the American theatre to try to shift what has become the normalized audience. I have spent the bulk of my experiences in theatre bearing witness to other people’s truths as opposed to having the privilege of having the stage reflect my class, my race, my age, and my gender. What I want to offer future audiences at OSF is the opportunity to witness more and reflect less.

When you reflect, you see something on the stage that’s like you and that is in line with your values and your experiences. When you’re witnessing, though, what you get to do is watch somebody who’s not like you experience a challenging circumstance and the consequence of that circumstance in the way they would, and you have to bear witness to their existence and their complexity and search for space within your own heart to access your empathy and better understand the complexity of their existence.

two people sitting onstage

Nataki and Bill announcing OSF's 2020 season. Photo by Kim Budd.

The next frontier is to open it all up. I followed you here because you’ve diversified your stages and your staff. The company has actually done something in Ashland to make sure the community is conscious of the shifts that need to take place. But our audiences have to be a place where young people and old people, where people from all different identities and backgrounds and genders and abilities—all of these people have to be able to come into a space and breathe the same air.

I’ve had so many meetings with some really amazing people who love this theatre so deeply who’ve been coming for thirty years. They have been saying: “When is it going to look less like us?”

Bill: The audience?

Nataki: The audience. When you start to advance your skills around how you invite people who don’t look like you and don’t live like you and weren’t raised like you and don’t want to live like you—when those people feel like they can come into these rooms, sit next to you, be themselves, and bear witness to who they are, that’s how we know the doors have been fully opened. I can’t do it by myself. I need my stewarding audience to help.

Bill: Have I mentioned lately how happy I am that you are the artistic director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival?

Nataki: Thank you, Bill.

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Thoughts from the curator

The US and Canada are in the middle of an unprecedented turnover of artistic leadership in the nonprofit theatre. This series aims to put a range of voices, issues, and ideas in play that can inform and reflect this historic changeover. 

The Changeover

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this is a very special dialogue. Thank you for publishing it, HR. Bill and Nataki, thank you for sharing it. Wishing you both love and success in the transitions ahead.