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Theater artist Diane Rodriguez on the role of activism on- and off-stage

by Cameron Kell, John Horn , and Oscar Garza | The Frame

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Diane Rodriguez, associate artistic director of Center Theatre Group and a White House appointee to the National Council on the Arts, interviewed by The Frame's John Horn at KPCC's 2016 Leadership Circle Brunch. Debra Padilla

The National Council on the Arts is the advisory group that oversees the National Endowment for the Arts, the arts agency of the federal government. Members of the council are appointed by the president and they include artists, activists and philanthropists.

One of President Obama’s recent appointees is Diane Rodriguez. She’s been an influential member of L.A.’s — and the nation’s — theater community for many years. She’s currently associate artistic director at the Center Theatre Group, which operates the Ahmanson Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum and the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

When Rodriguez joined Frame host John Horn at KPCC's 2016 Leadership Circle Brunch, she talked about mistaken priorities in America's theater system, and how she tries to balance her past in grassroots theater with her current work, which occurs on a national scale.

Interview Highlights:

How do you manage now to keep one foot in your past in grassroots community theater, while also working on a national level, not only at the Center Theater Group but also with other arts organizations? Why is it important to have both?

This is a big conversation that we have nationally. We're talking about non-profit theater — theater institutions nationwide are based on that non-profit model. That model has a mission. If our theaters are not adhering to that mission, then they're not doing their job.

Even at Center Theatre Group, and so many theaters across the country, you'll sit at artistic staff meetings and talk about the box office. We worry, because we have to stay alive that way, but yet we always have to pull ourselves out of that conversation and talk about how we're achieving our mission.

What happens is that, in non-profit theater, we've become more about giving people privilege. We have development departments that take up the whole top floor of our area to serve the donors. That's so wrong. And yet, you're giving your money because you believe in the trajectory of how this company, this organization, serves the community.

So instead of you being a VIP because you give money, the VIP should be that person who walks into the door and has never attended the theater before. That's the VIP. And it's just a different way of looking at the non-profit structure.

So what does that mean when you're figuring out your programming? You obviously have donors and subscribers, and they're often interested in seeing a certain kind of show. And then you have what you want to do, which might be a little more challenging or political. Often, those shows are not one and the same. So how do you go about putting together a season that will satisfy that constituency while doing something that's more interesting and provocative?

I've been at [CTG] for 21 years now, and I started as a resident artist and the director of the Latino Theater Initiative. And I just didn't [understand] the Ahmanson. Now, I have totally embraced it, because I understand that the work that we do there sustains us and feeds the other two theaters. I'm able to do more adventurous work at the Douglas, and even at the Taper, if the Ahmanson's doing well.

There's probably a well-known bias from East Coast people in the theater community against the West Coast, especially from people on Broadway who might say, What you're doing is somehow inferior or not as good as what we're doing. What's the specific problem with that bias, and what would you say to people who don't appreciate the breadth and depth of theater in L.A.?

[laughs] I go to New York all the time, and currently you'll hear from artists on the ground that they can't even afford to live there any more. So many people are making their way out here, so I feel like, just real estate-wise, we have a lot to offer and people are realizing that.

The small theater scene in Los Angeles is enormous. There's over 250 small theaters, and they're going through a transformation as we speak. It's not an easy one, but I believe that what will come out of it will only be better and we'll only have stronger companies.

We have theater companies and presenters like Kristy Edmunds at UCLA and Mark Murphy at REDCAT. These two individuals are highly respected nationally, and they bring the top talent to Los Angeles, while also nurturing the top talent here. So I just feel like we're really burgeoning and everyone's looking to us for the new work that's actually going to the stages in New York. 

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