During his nine-year reign as artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre, Dámaso Rodríguez has often embraced the seemingly impossible. “Take the play Everybody—its five roles are going to be assigned by lottery every night, because it’s central to the metaphor of the play,” Rodríguez says. “Branden Jacobs Jenkins, the playwright, is just saying, ‘Do you dare do this play, this idea that I have?’”
On Thursday, September 9, Rodríguez announced a dare of his own: to step down as artistic director. It was a surprise, because Rodríguez—an affable, ambitious 46-year-old whose offstage passions include poker and the Miami Dolphins—is synonymous with Portland theater, not least because of his work on epic productions like playwright E.M. Lewis’s five-hour Antarctic odyssey Magellanica.
On the day Rodríguez’s decision was revealed, I spoke to him over the phone. As he talked, it became clear that the prospect of moving on had long been on his mind. The 20 years he has spent helping to lead theater companies—including Pasadena Playhouse and Furious Theatre in Los Angeles, the latter of which he co-founded—have clearly taken their toll.
During his time at Artists Rep, Rodriguez has dealt with financial and construction issues. As Brian Libby summarized for ArtsWatch in January 2020, Artists Rep embarked in late 2018 on a $10 million-plus capital campaign to renovate its space and rebuild it with a 250- and a 100-seat performing space. The company had sold half of its block-sized property for $9 million to a development firm that planned to build a 22-story residential tower. It also received an anonymous $7.1 million donation, plus another half-million-dollar gift. But much of that money went to satisfy debts, making the capital campaign necessary.
While Rodriguez downplays the role that the renovation played in his decision, he sounds ready to be free of the burdens that come with being an artistic director. “Consistently, across that 20 years, I’ve had the next board meeting, the next grant deadline, the next crisis,” he says. “You don’t end up doing what you hear that you need to do as an artist, which is just pause and think and be open to possibilities and not always be moving toward something.”
Rodríguez isn’t exactly standing still. He’s directing Artists Rep’s upcoming production of E.M. Lewis’ The Great Divide—a new play inspired by the 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon—and he has been hired as a vice president of Arts Consulting Group, a national firm with clients across the U.S. and Canada. He’ll remain based in Portland, and the new position, Rodríguez says, will allow him to be part of the Portland arts community without being tethered to a single organization.
While Rodríguez is ready to embrace the future, he took a moment to contemplate the past during our conversation. We talked about many topics, including the renovation, the creation of DNA Oxygen (a devising group of nine Black Artists Rep company members), and the personal revelations that convinced him it was time to leave.
“It was a transition moment to say, ‘Now that I have been given the ability to step down from this role and still stay in town, what’s the value of staying in the role or leaving?’” he says. “And so I feel like I was granted the gift of a moment where I could make a choice.”
ARTSWATCH: At what point did you start to think about stepping down?
DÁMASO RODRÍGUEZ: Over the course of the last several months, and certainly in the last year, I had lots of conversations, mostly one-on-one phone calls, with resident artists—we have almost 40 resident artists—and friends from around the country. It’s interesting how quickly those calls became kind of existential. “Why do you do this? What do you want? What’s the future look like?” I would say I started to ask myself those questions.
You know, we’re not done with this pandemic. We’ve got to figure out how to emerge from it. Then, if all goes well, our construction project will conclude in 2023. And then for a couple of years there, as fun as it will be to be in the new space, you’ve got to learn how to use it, what its strengths and weaknesses are, how to maximize it all and staff it up. That seems like a three-to-five-year journey minimum. I don’t know that it’s for the best to be in a leadership position at one place for longer than two presidential terms.
But if I was going to step down, usually for an artistic director, you need to leave. You’ll take a job in some other city. My son is in high school and my daughter’s in middle school and I didn’t want to necessarily disrupt their lives at this time. And I got recruited to join a consulting firm this summer.
The idea was that I could stay in Portland and join this national group of consultants and work in theater on strategic planning and executive search and interim leadership, things like that, but also artistic program development for other organizations. They do consulting work for art museums, opera, and all kinds of arts and culture organizations.
You mentioned earlier that you’ve been writing. What kind of stuff have you been working on?
Well, I’ve been doing a lot of research and interviews about my family history. I’m the Miami-born son of Cuban immigrants and I’m in the U.S. as a result of the Cuban Revolution. It’s funny, Andrea Stolowitz’s The Berlin Diaries, one of the reasons I was so compelled by that material was that I related to her quest to understand her family’s history and how it affects her as a storyteller and what she wants to do with that.
Even though you’re stepping down, you’re not going to be out the door instantly. [Rodriguez will remain onboard through 2021.] I know you’re directing The Great Divide. Does moving on affect that at all?
No, it doesn’t. The Great Divide is one of those projects that I hope to be able to invest even more time in now. Ellen [E.M. Lewis] has sort of been working through multiple drafts of it, sometimes starting from scratch and writing alternate versions of it as part of her residency that she’s doing with the Mellon Foundation at Artists Rep. We have a four-hour retreat about the script tomorrow.
Looking back at the past nine years, is there either a show or something you achieved in terms of helping the organization continue to grow that you feel particularly proud of?
I mean, I’m most proud of the plays. And then this last phase for me, working really closely with [Artists Rep managing director] Kisha Jarrett and creating this DNA Oxygen program … and investing in it and very intensely saying, “This is about looking at all of our systems and all of our assumptions as a theater and as a theater field and saying, Let’s disrupt all practices that have kept theaters from being inclusive and equitable spaces that we would like them to be.” We’re sort of flirting with this idea that with the DNA Oxygen program; the best outcome is that it’s not even needed in a few years because it is infused with everything we do.
What strikes me about your tenure is that there was always a desire to attack these amazing challenges that leave you in awe. I think back on a play like Caught or Everybody and I’m like, “It’s amazing that those plays happened, that they were done so beautifully.” It just seems like it’s been an exciting time in terms of swinging for the fences.
And risking a strikeout, right? In each of those plays, there was no evidence in our collective experience for how to do them. And I do think that’s something I’ve been personally drawn to, and I feel it in my collaborators at Artists Rep. That has also become part of our culture and shared ambition at the theater.
We’re okay, and in fact, we’re maybe even more interested in a piece, if we don’t quite know how to do it. But if we all get a great room of collaborators together to do this play and trust in the vision of this writer that inspired us, we’ll figure it out together. We’ve sort of consistently taken on these projects that, like you said, are almost an impossible challenge—at least until you figure it out—and it’s been really fun.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.