Embedding new digital work into long-term strategies
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) has been a destination venue since its founding in 1935, with roots in late 19th century movements to bring arts and culture to rural areas. Stepping into the role of artistic director in spring 2019, Nataki Garrett saw potential for the festival to build on its reputation and resources to expand into the digital arena and transform artistically, administratively, and financially.
When COVID-19 forced OSF to shut down in-person activities, Garrett saw the opportunity to actualize these plans. However, she notes, “I did know at the time that I didn’t have the team in place…there was no devoted department to this work. Right away, I was really clear that we needed to create it.” Garrett hired Scarlett Kim as associate artistic director and director of innovation and strategy. This new position and department completes an organizational model with three associate artistic directors, including artistic programming and new work. Departments regularly collaborate and communicate, embedding digital at the heart of OSF. Kim explains, “What the pandemic accelerated in my opinion is this understanding that digital engagement, and remote engagement, is not secondary to live engagement or a substitute…It actually unlocks a new way of engaging and a new way of performance.”
Over the past two years, OSF’s digital stage has served as a platform for an array of activities. The organization has commissioned short films, hosted online conversations and events, and established a Visual Sovereignty Project to commission new digital work by Indigenous artists. In 2021, OSF launched QUILLS FEST, a multi-day annual festival focused on the intersection of live theater and extended reality, in partnership with Artizen and the Museum of Other Realities. Slated for release in fall 2022, OSF’s multi-part The Cymbeline Project divides Shakespeare’s play across 10 commissions, each with bespoke technological and theatrical layers, from game to VR, puppetry, and more. As in-person programming opens up again, OSF is planning for on-site digital experiences, beginning with multimedia installations of Visual Sovereignty Project commissions across the campus.
A new strategic plan is underway as well. Digital efforts run throughout organization goals and values, playing a prominent role in centering artists, expanding accessibility and inclusivity, and embracing innovation as foundational for the future of theater. Describing digital efforts as a key testing ground for better serving both artists and audiences, Kim frames OSF’s digital expansion as “shifting the paradigm of destination to not just the physical place of Ashland, but destination in everyone’s pockets, in everyone’s homes.”
Garrett is also pursuing new partners and funders, particularly in the technology sector. She recalls, “I feel like these last 18 months have been about, how do you build a pitch deck?…So that when you’re engaging in a conversation with Yahoo, you can say, well, this is what we’ve done so far. This is what we want to do next. Do you want to hang out with us?” To cultivate this income stream, Garrett sees an additional need for changes in development and marketing, as well as perceptions of in-person ticket sales as the organization’s bread and butter. She explains, “What we’re moving towards is a model that requires us to really think innovatively about what is actually going to be paying our bills.”
Across practical steps and organizational values, Garret positions cultural justice at the center of OSF’s mission. Going beyond counting diversity via representation in audiences or leadership, this approach positions OSF’s work, including digital initiatives, as “a tool to change the hearts and minds of people…to move people towards this idea of acting on their own, to become more engaged in creating a more just and open society.”