Statera Seven: Nataki Garrett

 Nataki Garrett, Associate Artistic Director at DCPA. (Photo by Daniel Benner.)

Nataki Garrett, Associate Artistic Director at DCPA. (Photo by Daniel Benner.)

Statera Seven is a series on the Statera Foundation Blog about women in leadership and the path to promotion. Statera poses seven questions to past and current Artistic Directors, Managing Directors, and other women in leadership roles in the American Theatre. Statera is sharing their stories and insights in hopes of finding new ways to shift the leadership gender imbalance of America's nonprofit regional theater companies. 

Today we're interviewing Nataki Garrett, Associate Artistic Director of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. DCPA won the 1998 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre and is the nation's largest nonprofit theatre organization.

STATERA: The research on Women's Leadership in Resident Theaters presented by the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) and the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in 2016 found that there was a glass ceiling and "pipeline issue" facing women in theatre leadership. How have you improved professional development for those seeking leadership positions in the arts, particularly women and people of color?

NATAKI GARRET: First, I am fighting to ensure that future generations of women and people of color can use me as a ladder to a future in the theater that includes them. I have worked hard to earn this space, and I plan to hold it for the next generation. I have spent much of my career recruiting, training and mentoring the next generation of women and people of color in the theater. I have active relationships with many of the women and people of color who are pursuing leadership positions throughout the country. We support and mentor each other because we know that together we may be able to move the needle forward, even if only a bit. There are currently no black women leading a theater with an organizational budget of $5 million or more, and of the 25 percent of LORT theaters run by women, there are no black women among them. The glass ceiling is real, and it is much lower for black women. That's a problem - and I am pushing to change that for the next generation.

S: What is the most important single decision you have made on your journey? 

NG: My decision to attend one of the best MFA directing programs in the nation. The truth is, without the validation and networking opportunities afforded to me by my grad-school training, I never would have had a chance in this industry, and my voice surely would have been silenced long ago. Simply put: My degree validates me where my race and/or gender do not. Lately, I have heard a few people in this industry try to equate their career paths without an MFA to mine, with an MFA from a top-5 grad school — and that is simply a false equivalency. If you got your seat at the table without an MFA, it might be because you have benefited from a privilege that validates you without one.

Even with the huge debt, all my career accomplishments as a director stem from the risk I took to attend CalArts. My opportunities for leadership at the Center for New Performance at CalArts and my current position at the Denver Center, starting a theater company and receiving the NEA/TCG – Career program for Directors are a result of my attending one of the best grad programs in the nation.

S: Statistics suggest that women apply for jobs only if they meet 100% of the qualifications, whereas men apply when they meet only 40%. Has this been true for you, and how do you advocate for your experience and qualifications when they are not explicitly spelled out in a job posting?  

NG: My advice is to apply no matter what. You will never know what's possible if you don't apply. Even when an organization clearly wants someone who has had the opportunity to do the job for decades, I still apply. This stipulation is the simplest way to exclude most women and people of color from consideration. I also make a point to apply for every major opportunity because it is important that search committees consider a diverse slate of candidates. That makes it harder for them to justify a traditional hiring decision by saying there just were not enough qualified females or people of color to consider.

For the past several years, I have held the second-highest position at two major organizations, and I was also tasked with the responsibility of leading each organization for a period a time. But when I am interviewed, I have had to push for recognition of my leadership accomplishments. There are about two dozen artistic leadership positions open at present, and I encourage every woman who is thinking about applying to do so because their participation is itself confirmation that there are female candidates worth considering. The only way the Boards of these organizations are going to recognize our potential is if we promote ourselves. That's even more true for women of color and worse for black women because of systemic and pervasive racial bias. 

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S: What roadblocks did you encounter on your path to this position and how did you navigate? 

NG: It may sound strange but I look young. I'm sure I should see this as a benefit but as a woman of color in leadership I am often regarded as either some sort of prodigy who has yet to be discovered or a young upstart. I am in my late forties with more than 20 years of experience. I tend to reveal my age early in a conversation to quell any misconceptions. I have a friend and mentor who often says to me,  "Well you are just starting out", even though I am 10 years older than he was when he started. Another colleague suggested that I should stop revealing my real age because, "Men have to feel like they are discovering a woman in order to be compelled to help her get ahead in her career." 

S: If you had $10 million dollars of unrestricted funds, how would you spend it to improve the American Theatre?

NG:  I would start by providing grants to companies that are committed to developing a new subscription plan that doesn’t require theater patrons to pay for an entire season up front. The current subscriber model only attracts a tiny portion of the population because the number of people who have access to a large amount of disposable income is inherently limited. I fundamentally believe many theaters currently avoid risk by programming seasons that only appeal to their current, affluent subscriber base. Perhaps making it possible for lower-income patrons to reasonably participate in the subscriber process would also encourage regional theaters to program more inclusive seasons for the other 99 percent of their communities who are often alienated and underrepresented on and behind the stage. There are so many companies working on effective community-engagement strategies to attract new audiences to the theater, but they are not realizing their adherence to the current subscriber model is a fundamental barrier to more inclusivity.

I would also create a fund to support women and people of color who need the kind of support I could have used when I was forced to turn down an internship opportunity that I was offered at NYTW in the late 90’s. This fund would defray living expenses so candidates with proven financial need can attend an internship or apprenticeship. Preference would be given to women and people of color pursuing leadership careers. The metric to determine eligibility would not be based solely on current income, as most middle-class black people are a paycheck or two away from financial crisis. I would use debt-to-income ratio. I believe these efforts would provide some economic stability for those who need it while pursuing an administrative or artistic career in the theater.

S: Professional mentorship is a core part of our mission at Statera Foundation. In that spirit, what is the best piece of advice you have ever received, and from whom?

NG:  “This is a business of relationships.” This is my mantra. I work to create and maintain good relationships with virtually everyone I meet. The professional theater is a very small world with a constantly shifting landscape. You never know who you are speaking to at any given moment, or where they are going. I believe it’s just good practice to be decent to everyone.

S: In what ways are you thriving in your leadership role?

NG: I was hired as the Associate Artistic Director of the Denver Center but for more than a year I have been charged with the duties of the Artistic Director during our ongoing leadership transition.

The theater is a hierarchical industry where one’s title is important. Officially appointing someone as interim makes it easier for artists to know who to count on for support and guidance. I was never offered the interim title. Despite the obstacles, I persevered without the title, and that allowed me to be more collaborative. I galvanized my teams for support and empowered others with ownership of their own outcomes. With the artistic team, I was able to keep the DCPA Theater Company moving forward to the end of what is turning out to be a record-breaking season, including the most successful production in the history of the Space Theater – Macbeth, directed by Robert O’Hara, which finished $119,000 over the show’s projected revenue goal. My team and I produced a season that was fully inclusive, adventurous and at times outlandish but always sought to represent a broad-ranging view of the human condition. I also initiated and negotiated co-productions for two of our commissioned plays – The Great Leap by Lauren Yee with Seattle Rep and American Mariachi (which finished $108,000 over goal) by Jose Cruz Gonzales with the Old Globe Theatre. Neither of these would have been possible without my drive to give these playwrights additional opportunities for continuing to develop their works. It has been a gift to provide opportunities for those whose voices and stories are not often seen on our stages and to invite new audiences into our spaces through work that reflects their lives and values. My goal was to create a space where people from disparate experiences and backgrounds could rub elbows and find intersection and connection.

I was given a literal seat at the Artistic Directors’ table at the 2017 TCG conference in Portland. Not surprising, I was the only black woman in most of the rooms, and only one of a handful of other identified women of color. I witnessed the palpable reluctance many of our current artistic leaders revealed about participating in the equity, diversity and inclusion work the TCG has been engaging in for the past several years. I also witnessed the exhausting work a few artistic leaders continue to engage in, working as allies and leading the charge for change in this industry.

My personal mandate is to leave a place better than I found it. This thriving and talented community has inspired me by holding me to their high standard of leadership. They unknowingly helped me show my beloved industry what means to have a woman of color – a black woman – be successful as artistic leader of a large theater organization, even for a short period of time.


ABOUT NATAKI GARRETT

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Nataki Garrett is the Associate Artistic Director of  Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theater Company.  Since January 2017, Garrett continues to serve as their producing artistic lead during their search for and on-boarding of their new artistic director coming in May 2018. She is credited with producing the most financially successful production ever in their renowned Space Theater in the 40 year history of the DCPA. Formerly the Associate Artistic Director of CalArts Center for New Performance (CNP) Nataki is a Company Member at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company a recipient of the NEA/TCG Career Development Program for Directors and a member of SDC.

Nataki Garrett is co-Artistic Director of BLANK THE DOG PRODUCTIONS (BTD) a LA/NYC based ensemble Theater Company, which is celebrating its 10th year and is dedicated to developing and fostering new work by emerging, adventurous and experimental artists.

To read Nataki Garrett's full bio, please visit her WEBSITE.