Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s new artistic director is optimistic for the future
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's new artistic director has started his new job. Tim Bond spent 11 seasons from the mid-'90s to the early 2000s at the Ashland-based festival. Now he's returning to become the artistic leader at a time of serious turmoil for the repertory company.
Tim Bond took over as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s newest artistic director on Friday. The company also announced on Friday a $2 million gift from the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation to go toward ensuring a 2024 Season. Earlier this summer, the company announced a $2.5 million fundraising effort to “save the 2023 season.”
Bond joined “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller to talk about what comes next for the nearly 100-year-old organization. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Miller: You’ve directed and worked all over the world and all over the country — in Seattle, the Bay Area, Syracuse, Milwaukee, Dallas, Louisville and on and on. What do you think is unique about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival?
Bond: Well, this place has always been called a gathering place. It was sort of the meaning of the whole area from way back when it was only Indigenous people here. It’s always been an important meeting spot. And so there’s some energy here that says this is a place for people to gather in a social place to tell stories, to experience music, and now to experience drama. The Chautauqua was here way back in the 1800s. And then Angus Bowmer decided that he thought the shell of the old Chautauqua building might make an interesting replication of the Globe Theater from Shakespeare. And it has gathered people now for 88 years to see amazing Shakespeare productions and other works. And people come and they also go and go hiking in the area in the mountains and they go rafting. It’s just a really special place to give yourself a theater vacation and experience the great outdoors and great shops in town and all that kind of stuff.
Miller: In some job interviews the interviewee has as many questions for their prospective employer as the employer does. Was that the case here?
Bond: Oh, always, for me. You always want to find out how things are going, where things are at. Of course, things have changed here and evolved in many wonderful ways and there have been challenges as well. My main goals were trying to find out what direction the theater was wanting to move in and where we were financially and all those sorts of things. And the answers I got were not surprising given what I knew from both the news and from friends who are still here. But it felt very encouraging in those conversations about the direction we’re moving in and what the potential still is here.
As we’re all recovering from the pandemic in the theater community across America, every theater I know is having their challenges and OSF is not unique in the challenges we have. We share them with many, many other companies right now and we’re all looking to find ways of bringing audiences back. The great news I can tell you is that we are getting a much stronger return of audience this season compared to last season. We think we’re gonna end up with about 15,000 more tickets sold than in 2022. And student groups are coming back. That was a big, big blow for many theaters and OSF as well because when COVID happened, schools shut down field trips and all that. But we’re getting student groups back. We’re gonna have twice as many students this season as we saw last year. So the trend is moving in the right direction.
Miller: So did the Board then give you some indication of the direction that they would like to see the Shakespeare Festival take in the coming years?
Bond: Yes, but they also very much have entrusted myself and our interim Executive Director, Tyler Hokama, who joined the company about three months ago, with being able to analyze where our challenges are and where we wanna go. We both also know the company, through decades, and are gonna be returning some programs that the board was really excited to hear that we wanted to return to. One of them being getting back our vital and robust and impactful education programs and engagement programs. The Fair Program, is a program that deals with training the next generation of theater artists and administrators, keeping a strong emphasis on Shakespeare in the programming, and continuing our new work development. Those are all things the board was interested in and was absolutely in alignment with what my goals and interests were. So it was a match right off the top.
Miller: Nataki Garrett, the last artistic director, made a concerted effort to broaden the kinds of plays put on there, including more plays by long marginalized voices.
And just because there’s only so many stages there, even though you can actually do more than most theaters, five or six plays at any given week, it also meant fewer plays by Shakespeare, which led to, as I know you know, complaints by some longtime supporters, in local OpEds. And it got much worse than that. Nataki Garrett received death threats and she was forced to hire a security team. I’m curious what all that looked like to you in the last few years from the outside?
Bond: Well, I have the deepest respect for Nataki and think she’s incredibly talented and I wasn’t here during that period. So it’s a little difficult to speak about it because I wasn’t around. But I can just say that any form of discrimination and form of attacks, whether verbal or physical, are unacceptable. So I got to acknowledge that off the top and, and say that, you know, I’m coming into this role with an open heart and with optimism that we can come together for a greater purpose, ensuring that this beloved theater is around for generations to come. I have a lot of love for this community. I raised my family here. I love this company and these voices that came out saying the negative things they said — this is happening all over the country. I mean our former president and other politicians have sort of ignited culture wars that have given permission to people to say all sorts of terrible things and create a lot of difficulty. And I find those kinds of comments unacceptable and really divisive.
So I won’t get too much into it other than to say that the kind of programming, actually, that my predecessor was doing, and the artistic director before her Bill Rauch, and back when I was there Libby Apple, have always been moving more toward becoming inclusive of voices that have been marginalized. I think the challenge that happened came out of the pandemic, which was the bulk of the time that Nataki was here. There were fewer shows able to happen and less money able to be put toward productions because of audiences not coming back. And so those smaller shows, by necessity, were not Shakespeare immediately.
And then this season, which was programming Nataki has, two out of the five shows are Shakespeare. So I think it’s actually getting back on track already and I’m gonna continue to build on the long legacy we have of Shakespeare and other plays all living together in conversation.
Miller: So let me put it to you this way. I mean, how much do you think the complaints, in recent years, have been about the demographics of the person at the top, the fact that it was a black woman who was the leader?
Bond: Well I can’t speak to people’s motivations. I think it’s a very difficult situation coming out of the pandemic when you’re going from what was 10 or 11 shows a season, down to one show, done in 2021. There were five shows done this season. When you have that few compared to what had been, there’s just a general sense of loss. And I don’t mean to put anyone down, but I don’t know that audiences necessarily really are able to look at the whole picture when they’re reacting to how they feel about what they see or don’t see. There’s no way you can produce more than two Shakespeare’s out of five with the economy we currently have, and be balanced in the ways we used to be. So I think those criticisms are taken a little out of context.
Miller: Let’s turn to money then in the time we have left because, in April, the company announced a $2.5 million fundraising effort to “save the 2023 season.” You’re the artistic director now, not the executive director, so more focused on the content — the stuff — as opposed to the money. But there is a connection between everything. I’m curious what you heard in the questions that you asked that made you say ‘yes, I will take this job on now. I trust that there will be shows that I can be the artistic director for.’
Bond: Oh there’s such an incredible upswell of support for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that came out when people became aware of some of the challenges we faced. And we have an amazing amount of people, from not just in the state of Oregon, but from California, from Washington state and across the nation, who really stepped up to support us. The board of directors is very involved in this support. Tyler Hokama coming on as executive director made a big difference for me, knowing that he was gonna be here. And that the whole leadership team and staff, the theater, are top notch artists and technicians and administrators.
And the board is really being clear that there’s gonna be a lot clearer oversight of making sure that we are financially responsible and sustainable in our programming. And all of that felt like music to my ears. This is an organization who’s really paying attention to how we’re going to be sustainable and continue to provide excellent world class theater going into the future for the next 88 years. So I felt really good about it.
Miller: You took over at your previous job, as artistic director of TheaterWorks Silicon Valley in March of 2020. It is hard to imagine a more challenging time to start a performing arts job right before everything ended. What did you learn from that timing and from that time?
Bond: [I learned] how much I love live theater, and being in the same space with the audience that we’re performing for, and how essential that immediate interactivity is between performer and audience. I’ve always known it’s the reason I didn’t go into TV and didn’t go into film. But boy did we miss that. And coming back, I can’t tell you, there was not a performer and not an audience member that I witnessed when we started performing live again, that did not break into tears really early on in the performance, realizing how much they missed this interconnectivity or what I also call, molecular connection with each other.
Theater is needed more now than ever because of what’s going on with AI, because of our separations from each other that were caused by the pandemic, and [because of] our fractured democracy right now. Our democracy is built on us being in the same space with each other and coming to some agreements about how to be with one another. And we are in a very difficult moment in this country and in the world. And I think theater is needed more than ever. That’s what I learned.
Miller: Those are some big lessons. Can you give us a sense for what audiences can expect in next year’s season?
Bond: Well, I think they’re gonna see world class theater. They’re gonna see at least 30% Shakespeare out of a mix of that and some new work and some other classical work. And some of our long-time favorite actors and directors are coming back to do work with us. I think they’re gonna feel a homecoming in many, many ways. I’m excited about it. We’re in plans now. I don’t know when we’re gonna be able to announce, in the next month or so. But we will and I think people will be pleasantly surprised and feel really welcomed back to Oregon Shakespeare Festival to see a lot of what they’ve been hoping to see. And I think we’re just gonna be building on the legacy of what’s been here for the last 88 years and they’re gonna dig it.
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