Dámaso Rodriguez and the politics of collaboration

Artist Repertory Theatre's new artistic director search found a partner

Dámaso Rodriguez

Dámaso Rodriguez

As if to lead by example, Artists Repertory Theatre last week named a replacement for its artistic director of 25 years last week, after a deliberate process that involved a representative chunk of its community in a months-long search.These things go so much better when your arts organization is in good shape, financially and artistically. And so we learned that Dámaso Rodriguez, 38, an actor and director from Los Angeles, who had applied for the job in April and visited the city a few times to talk to staff and board and patrons, would take over Allen Nause’s job.

Nause didn’t leave under bad terms. In fact, he’s still at the helm, where he’ll be for six months to help Rodriguez transition into the job and the city. And he participated in the selection process, which is fitting given his vast contribution to the company during the last quarter century, during which it evolved from one of many scrappy little theater companies in the city, operating out of a big upstairs room at the downtown YWCA, into Portland’s second-largest company, with its own building and two fine, intimate theaters that it fills with productions of a high order.

How did Artists Rep manage this transformation? Well, that’s a story of its own, a case study awaiting a researcher to detail the tens of thousands of decisions that were made along the way. Put simply, the company always operated in a very conservative way on the administrative side of things (to an exasperating extent for me at times, I have to admit), built its community and level of support over time, and allowed Nause and associate artistic director Jon Kretzu to program adventurously within their budget. And it understood that all of these things were linked at the deepest possible level.

It sounds so simple. But Rodriguez’s ascension to artistic director at Artists Rep was obscured by the travails of Oregon Ballet Theatre, where the artistic director, Christopher Stowell, just resigned over his board’s decision to impose a new budgeting discipline on the company. That’s a complicated story, too, of course. But it wouldn’t have happened at Artists Rep, not with Nause and his staff and board.

Yesterday, Bob Hicks and I talked to Rodriguez for a bit, and from that conversation I’m guessing that it wouldn’t happen with Rodriguez, either.

Rodriguez used the word “partnership,” frequently as we talked, and he said that faced with budget restrictions, he was sure he could find smaller-scale and less expensive plays that would interest him just as much to do as more ambitious productions he might have on his bucket list of plays he wanted to do. Figuring out this balance, this partnership, is absolutely critical to the success of American arts groups, even solid ones like Artists Rep.

To be adaptable takes trust sometimes, of course, and I’m not here to compare OBT and Artists Rep. The two art forms are entirely different to begin with: It’s easier to adjust a budget at a theater company than at a ballet, for example, because the number of resident artists at the ballet is so much greater. But preoccupied as we are by the problems at the ballet company, maybe a glance in Artists Rep’s direction is a good idea. It IS possible to build a cohesive culture with an arts organization that solves serious problems and manages transitions in an orderly way.

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All of this is a long introduction to our conversation with Rodriguez. (Our intention was to make it a podcast, but technical difficulties—er, operator error—made that particular idea a non-starter.)

Going in, I wanted to know a few specific things about Rodriguez (Marty Hughley had gotten some of the basics out of the way in a story last week: born in Miami, grew up in Dallas, went to Texas A&M, moved to Chicago to work in theater with his wife Sara Hennessy, migrated to LA, found success with a company he co-founded and the Pasadena Playhouse, etc.). My questions: Where was his heart as a theater artist? What experiences in LA was he bringing with him? And what ideas to he have for Artists Rep?

What came through most clearly was the affection that Rodriguez has for artistic ferment bottled by companies like The Group and Steppenwolf. He mentioned them several times—artist-driven ensembles with a political side to them (more explicitly with The Group), known for their vivid acting (The Group helped popularize The Method in New York in the ‘30s and ‘40s, for example). When he started the Furious Theatre Ensemble with five friends (including his wife) in LA ten years ago, Rodriguez said they all had those companies in mind, and the production history of the company is loaded with new, challenging plays (some of them have been produced here by our more experimental companies: “The Pain and the Itch,” “Hunter Gatherers,” “Grace,” “The Shape of Things”).

Then Rodriguez became an associate artistic director with the famous Pasadena Playhouse, which was a successful regional theater company before the regional theater movement started. He knows its history well, even though his stay there was relatively short (2007-2010). We’ll pick the history up from there: Dogged by a big debt, the company was taken to its knees (closure and bankruptcy) by the Great Recession: “No one was buying any tickets (at the end of 2008) or doing end-of-year giving,” he said. And then a familiar tale: the credit line maxes out, calls for emergency help from donors are accepted at first and then not returned, the payroll can’t be met, and a huge liability (tickets bought in advance and the carry-over on the debt) sinks the ship entirely.

Fortunately, the Pasadena Playhouse (and the US economy) got better, thanks to the patience of ticket-holders and bankruptcy proceedings. Once the debts were erased, donors came back, and the company is operating as a regional theater company should these days, under artistic director Sheldon Epps.

But when I asked Rodriguez what theater companies he thinks are doing it right, after Steppenwolf he mentions Studio Theatre in Washington, DC. It’s a company founded by theater artists (just as Artists Rep was) that has kept its commitment to intimate theater even as it has grown over the years. Its complex has three different theaters in it, all around 200 seats (along with a rough studio theater). It leans heavily on new plays and modern classics, and it has an important education component, the Actors Conservatory, for both children and adults. Artists Rep has two intimate theaters, and (though it doesn’t have a conservatory program) its budget isn’t as large, but the comparison is an interesting one.

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Though their tastes are different, Rodriguez said, “I really did apprentice under Sheldon Epps.” According to Rodriguez, Epps has two traits he’d like to bring to his new job. The first sounds a lot like Nause: “He [Epps] is masterful at creating a supportive environment for the artist.” Epps took great satisfaction in “empowering somebody else,” Rodriguez said. And he was good at getting out into the Los Angeles community.

As we might surmise from the attraction of the Steppenwolf ensemble and the Furious collective, Rodriguez sees himself as very collaborative, especially with actors in the theater-making process (“I trust actors”), though it’s clear that for him this extends to relationships of all sorts. For example, he’s hoping to expand Artists Rep’s company of affiliated artists from its current four actors to include playwrights and designers, too, though what form that might take is up in the air. “A group of artists working together again and again get better and better,” he said. And as I’ve already mentioned, he expects to be in a partnership with the business side of the company and executive director Sarah Horton (and he was having dinner with board president Kris Olson after our interview).

Expanding the artistic circle of the company sounds right in line with Steppenwolf and Furious, too. And that is a way to solve two of the challenges American theater companies face these days, the two Rodriguez brought up when we asked him about it.

The first has to do with the blurring line between commercial productions and not-for-profit, old-fashioned regional theater. How can a company like Artists Rep live up to the ideals of the regional theater movement, with its emphasis on great acting and important plays, if its survival depends on box-office success? Everyone who cares about theater as an art form is working on that one, and it’s connected to another problem: the graying of the audience.

“People my age don’t go to theater,” Rodriguez says, at least not in the numbers needed to build the sort of support necessary for the long-term health of theater. How can we make theater accessible and affordable (and I’d add important) enough to attract younger audiences? Artistic directors by themselves aren’t going to figure out how to make theater part of the fabric of a city.

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The instinct of arts groups is to endow their artistic directors (of whatever sort: curators, music directors, etc.) with too much power, from my observations over the years. The wise ones spread that power among other collaborators, understanding that one note, one point of view,  can become monochromatic. That’s fine for one event, but over a season and then season after season, it’s not enough to build an audience large enough to support a big company.

I think we have entered a more collaborative time in the arts. The time of the great idiosyncratic founders of institutions, the great dictators who brooked no opposition, may not be over, but it’s in decline. The challenge for the current artistic director is to figure out how to convene the most creative congress of artists possible and then test, improve and implement their ideas. And, of course, do it in tandem with the business side of the operation.

If this sounds more like a job for a politician, well, maybe politics is a better metaphor for an arts group than any other right now. Fortunately for Artists Rep, I think they’ve found someone who thinks like that. Right now, I’m staring at my notes and here’s the Rodriguez quote that comes  off the page at me, never my mind the context: “I need to build relationships with people.”

NOTES

Aaron Scott interviewed Rodriguez for Culturephile and produced a handy Q&A.

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