Rody trip: Ortega in Prague

Sound designer and composer Rodolfo Ortega gets a surprise bonus for his stellar work on "Magellanica": a trip to the Prague Quadrennial

The curtain falls, the lights go down, a season comes to an end. The artists have done their work, the audiences have received it, the critics have had their say. The awards ceremonies come and go, met — as always — with equal parts elation, pride, anger and derision. As the dust settled on Portland’s 2018-19 theater season at last week’s Drammy Awards ceremony, 5,000 miles away Rodolfo (Rody) Ortega, composer, musician, and sound designer nonpareil, was receiving recognition of a very different sort: He’d been invited to exhibit his work at the Prague Quadrennial.

What’s the Prague Quadrennial? Ortega had the same question when Stephanie Schwartz, a scenic designer he was working beside on E.M. Lewis’ epic Magellanica at Artists Repertory Theatre, where Ortega is a resident artist, suggested he should submit his compositions from that project to the festival.

Rodolfo Ortega, designer deluxe.

 “‘I have no clue what you’re talking about,’” Ortega remembers saying. “I had never heard of the Prague Quadrennial. So, I started doing a little bit of research and basically it’s this showcase of a variety of different artists from the entire planet that are particularly on the technical side of theater. That is, costume design, scenic design, sound and lights and music composition.”

The Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space (or the “PQ,” as it refers to itself) takes place every four years, and this year ran 11 days. It “was established in 1967 to bring the best of design for performance, scenography, and theatre architecture to the front line of cultural activities to be experienced by professional and emerging artists as well as the general public,” according to its web site. In other words, this is a festival by design professionals, for design professionals.

The PQ features “performances, exhibitions, symposia, workshops, residencies, and educational initiatives” that “serve as an international platform for exploring the practice, theory and education of contemporary performance design in the most encompassing terms.”

E.M. Lewis’s Megallanica, in its premiere at Artists Rep: an icy blue huddle at the bottom of the world. Photo: Russell J Young

Ortega cobbled his submission together at the eleventh hour. “Literally the night before the competition submission ended,” he recalls, “I threw in some of the cues for Magellanica and submitted an application for it.”

If one is going to submit one’s work to a worldwide arts festival, Magellanica is the perfect project to go with. Lewis’s play, which had its world-premiere production at Artists Rep in January and February 2018, is a five-hour saga about a group of scientists trapped in the most inhospitable region on the planet, Antarctica. Among other things, Magellanica was a technological marvel. It was one of the most demanding and rewarding projects Ortega had ever worked on. “It was big,” he recalls. “Over a thousand sound cues in that show that were delivered on a nightly basis. It was a pretty epic show in that regard.”

The word “epic” comes up again and again when talking about Magellanica: It suits not just the narrative, but the production itself. “You could not have a traditional tech process,” says Ortega, “because traditionally, you tech the first hour of the show the first day, the second half the second day and call it done. But for Magellanica, you tech the first hour of the show on day one, the second hour of the show on day two, the third hour of the show – it just kept going. Then by the time you got back to the opening cue, it was like, I don’t know, I’m making it up but it felt like two weeks later. It wasn’t just the tech team. The actors were like, ‘How did this show start again?’” He laughs. “It’d been so long since we’d actually run it. That proved to be a big challenge.”

Simply keeping a project that large cohesive was its own challenge – “trying to tell the story over a large arc,” as Ortega puts it. “Usually, when you’re looking at a smaller arc, it’s a little bit easier to manage. But when you’re looking at a larger arc like that, managing what the music and the thematic material says throughout becomes more challenging.”

E.M. Lewis, author of Magellanica. Photo: Russell J Young

In one way or another, Magellanica drew on a number of aspects of Ortega’s considerable skill set and experience. “Predominantly it was music,” he remembers, “but it was also a score in which I deployed this technique where I would take different sounds and convert them into playable instruments through some of the software that we have. So, the Magellanica soundscape is predominantly music-based but also heavily scored with sounds, too. We utilized a lot of sounds to create that score.”

Artists Rep Artistic Director Dámaso Rodríguez, who directed Magellanica, remembers Ortega’s contribution like this: “Almost the entire play was scored by Rody’s stunning composition and the play featured two songs, plus a cinematic soundscape. Rody made it all look effortless without ever compromising a choice and pushing himself to make the production everything it might be.” 

“I honestly didn’t think anything more about it for several months,” remembers Ortega, “and then I got an email that said, ‘Hey, congratulations. You’ve been selected amongst a handful of people from the United States to represent and you will be featured artist at the Prague Quadrennial. And I said ‘Wow. Cool.’” Dozens of designers from literally all over the world – but only a handful from the United States, and Ortega was one. A grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council underwrote his trip to the Czech Republic.

The PQ invitation is a big deal, but for a man with six Drammy awards and three PAMTA musical-theater awards to his credit, it was only the latest – albeit brightest – feather in the cap. Ortega, one of Portland’s most renowned theater artists, has designed more than 300 productions over his illustrious career, and many of Portland’s best and most exacting directors return to him again and again. The more demanding the project, the more necessary he becomes.

Dámaso Rodríguez: “Rody made it all look effortless.” Photo: Shawn Lee

Not just at Artists Rep, either. In Portland, this has been going on for years. For Jane Unger, founder and leader of Profile Theatre for fifteen years, Ortega was “consistently the most reliable, thorough, prepared, professional” artist that she worked with. After the first time they collaborated, she never went in another direction. That added up to 20-30 shows the two worked on together.  “It would have been more,” she laughs, “if I’d known about him sooner.”

Which is kind of a repeat refrain you hear when directors talk about Ortega. “The reason he’s got all the work,” says Northwest Children’s Theatre leader Sarah Jane Hardy, for whom Ortega has helped create six original musicals (Hansel and Gretel, Pinocchio, Snow White, The Little Mermaid, Peter Pan, and El Zorrito) as well as a whole host of sound designs, “is because everybody wants him.”

Indeed, over the past few years, besides the work he’s done at various houses around town, Ortega has also done work all over the country, at Cleveland Playhouse, South Coast Rep, the Denver Center, and elsewhere.  

What sets Rody Ortega apart? Not the least among many factors is his flawless work ethic. “The thing about Rody is, he always gets the job done before any other designer,” says Unger. Hardy remembers of her first time meeting with Ortega: “It was one of the most fulfilling design meetings that I’d ever had. He asked all the right questions, he clearly had read the script and had lots of ideas and input, but he wasn’t overly pushy about any of it.”

Ideas, Ortega has. And then some. He tests as a genius. That’s not an exaggeration. “He’s truly a renaissance man,” says Unger. “He does so many things and he’s so good at all of them.” Indeed, in the rest of his life, Ortega is a professional airline pilot and has been a professional chef. (If you’re ever lucky enough to be invited to his house to eat, you’ll find him an elegant and immensely skilled host.)  

When that mental acuity is turned toward theater, it can be a formidable tool. “What sets Rody apart is his intelligence” says Antonio Sonera, who Ortega counts as one of his best friends, and with whom he’s collaborated on 18 productions. “He understands the world of the play and how to serve it through sound.” Likewise, Hardy says, “Even when he’s not creating music for a show, even when he’s creating ambient or environmental sound or something more abstract, it’s rooted in this basic understanding of this connection between human emotion and sound.”

Sarah Jane Hardy: “He understands the world of the play and how to serve it through sound.” Photo: Roger Porter

Artists Rep’s Rodriguez, who’s worked with Ortega on 14 productions, puts it like this: “He possesses all the technical skill and up-to-the minute sound design technology, while being a classically trained musician with an enormous range.”

With Ortega, it always comes back to music. He has a master’s degree in piano and composition from the Manhattan School of Music. This makes him a formidable triple threat. “You get three artists in one with Rody,” observes Unger. “You get a sound designer, you get a composer, and you get a musician.” All three come into play whether or not Ortega is actually creating a composition for a particular project. Says Hardy: “I think the fact that he is first and foremost a classical musician and composer, and that he started in that world and learned about theater through the heart and mind of a musician – for me, that really lends itself to the kind of work that I’m interested in doing. Even when he’s not creating music for a show, even when he’s creating ambient or environmental sound or something more abstract, it’s rooted in this basic understanding of this connection between human emotion and sound. “

Sonera concurs. “What really makes [Ortega] a special theater artist is the fact that he is a musician first. His talent as a musician translates into composition for the stage that enables the storytelling to be elevated. It’s his ability as a musician to compose the right music to elevate the storytelling.”

Hardy points out this skill as well. “We were talking about transitions from scene to scene,” she remembers. “It was sort of like, ‘Well, this is where we ended up emotionally and this is where I wanted to pick it up emotionally in the next scene—‘ ‘and then he’d be like, ‘You mean like this–?’”  She laughs. “And I’d be like, ‘Yeah, absolutely like that–!’”

Magellanica created a world of sight and sound in the extreme. Photo: Russell J Young

In this way, Hardy also learned something else that comes up a lot when talking about Ortega: As a sound designer, he’s able to make everyone else better. “I learned very early on that Rody works very efficiently,” explains Hardy. “He’s very quick. So, when I work with him, I make sure that the ideas for the overall production are planted early because he is just going to grow and bloom at a crazy pace. That can be really good discipline for a director. Get your ideas in order for that initial conversation with Rody because he’s going to turn it into something magical – which is what he does every single time.”

This brand of virtuosity enables a versatility that not every sound designer has. “He’s an expert (or quickly makes himself one),” says Rodriguez, “in a seemingly impossible range of musical styles. Our collaborations have taken us on stage across a few hundred years of history and around the world; from 19th century Irish folk, to music from our shared Cuban heritage; from 1970s horror-sitcom satire, to an operatic Italian Renaissance choral score.”

Any one of these things, in another designer, would be enough. But it doesn’t end there with Ortega. A lot of composers, even very good ones, don’t make great sound designers. One wonders if, back in the day, even Ortega was surprised that not only did he have a knack for theater, he also gave a damn about it. “What’s even more important than his talent and skill is how much he cares for the art,” says Unger. “He has a really strong – really strong – ethical compass that guides him and it informs all his decisions as an artist: the way he deals with people, the way he deals with actors and of course, the way he creates his music.” Adds Rodriguez: “He’ll often walk into a meeting or rehearsal still in (pilot) uniform, having just flown to PDX.  He’s so committed to theater that he makes his flying schedule conform to his theater tech and dress rehearsal commitments.”

This passion doesn’t waver when he’s working with children, Hardy says: “When you have an artist of the caliber of Rody choosing to spend time with a children’s theater, and choosing to produce the best that he can produce and not scaling it down, not dumbing it down, not thinking of it as secondary – he shows up literally to do his best work – and the fact that there’s four-year-olds in the audience? That just inspires him to do it even better. He’s not mailing it in because it’s kids.  He’s doubling down on excellence because it’s kids, and because he recognizes the value of those kids experiencing the very best work that he can do.”

If you know Ortega or have worked with him, you know he’s a man who, shall we say, does not suffer fools lightly. He can be intimidating, even for adults. (Of her first creative exchange with Ortega, Hardy laughs, “I remember feeling really intimidated by the whole thing. I was very, very prepared for that meeting.”) But with young people, he has a surprising generosity of spirit, which illuminates a more nuanced facet to his personality. “I’ve said to him, more than once,  ‘Why do you work here?’ “ says Hardy. “And he’s like, ‘Because I love working with the kids. I love doing it.’ It makes him feel optimistic. It’s the future. It’s its own reward for him, working with kids. And kids know that. Kids know when they’re being respected.”

In one of the world’s harshest environments, a community forms. Photo: Russell J Young

These driven, passionate, demanding directors don’t just appreciate Ortega, they love him. There is something palpable about the way they speak of him: You can almost reach out and touch it with your hand. All of them had something to say about Ortega that had nothing to do specifically with sound design or even music; some story they wanted to share about that moment when Ortega went above and beyond his relatively limited duties as a sound designer. “He’s a mensch,” says Unger (which means “”a person of integrity and honor” in Yiddish). “He always cared about the whole show. He always was able to step back and see the big picture and be there for the sake of the production. It was more than just doing his job, which he did exceptionally well and professionally, but he was always there for the needs of the production.” Rodriguez says succinctly, “Rody is one of a kind.”

Genius intellect. Prodigious talent. Passionate commitment. Generosity of spirit. When an artist brings this many gifts to the table, a project like Magellanica seems to come looking for them. And when an artist this gifted gets hold of a piece like Magellanica, there is a chance he can make the world take notice. When the world does take notice, that’s how a local artist gets invited to the Prague Quadrennial. And being seen (and heard) at the Prague Quadrennial officially designates Rodolfo Ortega as “world-renowned.”   

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