Dámaso Rodriguez, who has served as co-founding artistic director for LA’s ever-adventurous Furious Theatre Company since its origin in 2002, is helming his last LA production before he relocates to Portland, Oregon. He recently began his new job as artistic director for that city’s distinguished professional group, Artists Repertory Theatre.
Rodriguez’s farewell as an LA-based director is an encore production of Matthew Leavitt’s sexy comedy, The Boomerang Effect, which Rodriguez staged in its April 2012 premiere at the Odyssey Theatre. The new production of Boomerang opens Saturday at the Zephyr Theatre.
The prolific Rodriguez is quick to point out that this move by no means signals that he is severing his ties to the LA theater community. During the past few years, besides heading Furious, Rodriguez has established a fine reputation as a local freelance director. He plans to continue to do that in LA periodically, and to tap some of his colleagues among LA’s actors and designers for guest gigs at his new artistic abode to the North.
Originally from Miami, Rodriguez grew up in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, went to college at Texas A&M, and worked for a few years in Chicago. His first effort in LA was the comedy Ramblers, presented in spring 1999 at the Complex. He acted in and co-directed this original early work by the group that was to evolve into the Furious ensemble.
“We produced it in Chicago and then mounted it in LA,” Rodriguez explains. “We were working toward getting our 501(c)(3) status and starting Furious. We didn’t have much experience, and we didn’t know anyone here. We ended up sort of going our own way for a little while afterwards and then reorganized and really got it together.”
Furious Theatre was originally housed at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, a former plastics factory shared by several arts organizations rent-free. In 2003, the city of Pasadena asked all of the tenants to leave the Armory because it needed the building back. When the company’s plight came to the attention of the Pasadena Playhouse’s then-executive director Lyla White and artistic director Sheldon Epps, the Playhouse offered Furious a residency at the company’s compact upstairs Balcony Theatre, renamed the Carrie Hamilton Theatre in 2006.
The Pasadena Playhouse helped the young company in many ways, sharing its marketing resources, office supplies and much more. After the Pasadena Playhouse entered bankruptcy in early 2010 and prior to it resuming operations later that year, the arrangement with Pasadena Playhouse ended, and Furious became homeless.
Furious has continually thrived with a parade of envelope-pushing fare, garnering consistently laudatory reviews and multiple awards from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, the LA Weekly Awards and the Back Stage Garlands, among other local honors. Under Rodriguez’s artistic guidance, the ensemble company offered such well-received plays as Canned Peaches in Syrup, Grace, The Hunter Gatherers, and two heralded co-productions with Theatre @ Boston Court — Bruce Norris’ The Pain and the Itch and The Government Inspector. In 2012, Furious staged Matt Pelfrey’s fanciful superheroes play, No Good Deed, at [Inside] the Ford.
What will happen to Furious now? “There are announcements to be made shortly about us reconnecting with Pasadena Playhouse,” Rodriguez says, “and we will be producing a couple of plays in the fall and announcing an expansion of the ensemble. The thing I can really speak about is a [British] play called Foxfinder by Dawn King.” Rodriguez had planned to direct the play with Furious here in LA, he says, but the job in Portland “sort of shifted all of our plans [and] forced the company to regroup.”
Rodriguez will instead first direct the U.S. (Equity) premiere of Foxfinder at Artists Rep. The production, presented in association with Furious, will open Nov. 1. Two of the four cast members will be Furious ensemble members, two others are being cast in Portland and “the design team will be kind of mixed between Portland and LA.” Furious will then reopen the play in January at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre, Rodriguez says.
(Rodriguez is committed by Artists Repertory to hire locally in Portland and “represent the best in Portland talent,” he explains, but “I like having a person or two — a designer or actor here and there — from out of town. That’s kind of my approach to the season and Foxfire is specifically going to be produced in association with Furious, so I am having the same team for both shows.”)
Rodriguez learned of Artists Rep’s search for a new artistic director because a friend saw a posting for the position on Theatre Communication Group’s ARTSEARCH, “and said ‘this sounds like you ought to submit,’ so I did. The deadline was the end of April of last year and then I went through this eight-month selection process. There were three phases, a phone interview in the beginning with the selection committee, then they flew me out in August. I was in the final three at the end of October and got the offer December 1.”
Rodriguez says that one reason that he was eager to apply for the position is that Artists Rep, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary season, is “similar to Furious in its origins…having six founders and being largely actor driven. It’s also very similar to Furious aesthetically to a large extent.”
Rodriguez’s first season in Portland includes second or third productions of new plays, world premiere works and a rarely done classic revival. “If you look at the first Furious season, we did two American premieres and The Playboy of the Western World.” Artists Rep is also an ensemble company, albeit with a “very small ensemble” that Rodriguez is tasked to expand, he says. “They were looking for someone who can build a company of resident artists. So, on paper the two companies matched up.”
The Artists Rep facility is “quite fantastic,” Rodriguez notes, with two theaters, “both intimate — one is 220 seats and one is 164 seats. So even though it’s one of the top two sort of jobs in town in Portland for actors, they’re still able to take quite a bit of risk because the spaces are small.”
Defining a Niche
When he first moved to LA, Rodriguez did some acting that included performances with Furious during its first season. “But I had already shifted my focus to directing,” he says. “It’s been 10 years since I acted. It was like a professional decision. I saw that in LA and in regional theater, it’s difficult to be both. If you want to get those meetings with bigger theaters…and be considered for those jobs, you want to be like the directors out there working [who are] typically not actors who also direct, or vice versa. So I identified directing as my niche. I don’t miss acting in any kind of an emotional way, as ‘real’ actors do.”
Although Rodriguez has been commuting to his new job in Portland since January, he and his family won’t officially relocate until July. “It’s very tough” to leave LA, he says. “I’ve been here 14 years, I have two kids, we built a home here for ourselves, and we built a really fantastic network of friends. I have multiple artistic homes here — Furious Theatre, Pasadena Playhouse (I sort of grew up there as an artist, really) and A Noise Within. I had a relationship with that entire company at ANW. I was an intern there in 2000, and have directed four shows [there] the last couple of years. I will miss all of that. Plus I like LA.”
And leaving Furious, Rodriguez emphasizes, “is huge. Very difficult, ultimately…. But the world is small,” he adds, and his position at Artists Rep “encourages me to freelance.” So, while the move “feels like a change, and it’s big,” Rodriguez hopes to stay “really connected with LA.”
Eclectic Body of Work
Furious was very specific in its purpose, Rodriguez observes. “We were trying to fill a certain kind of niche [edgy, challenging fare], very easily defined. That didn’t mean I didn’t have experience or interest in all kinds of other things that evolved naturally in large part where I trained. When I interned at A Noise Within, I worked quite awhile with [director and ANW co-founder] Art Manke. I served as assistant director of a Noel Coward work, which is so far from [what] we were doing at Furious.” In 2007, Sheldon Epps named Rodriguez to the newly created position of associate artistic director at the Pasadena Playhouse. “On the mainstage, I could perhaps have done the more edgy or serious plays to bring that to the audience, but instead [Epps] challenged me to expand myself and take on The Little Foxes, The Heiress, and Orson’s Shadow, and I was really grateful that’s how it evolved.”
When the opportunities for freelance came back, Rodriguez became a working director around town. “At A Noise Within,” he says, “I got offered Coward and O’Neill, Shaw and Williams. Fantastic. I loved that.” At South Coast Repertory, he worked on the Pacific Playwrights Festival and the Newscripts reading series. At Pasadena Playhouse, part of his job while on staff was to supervise the Hothouse Play Development program and after the Playhouse resumed operations post-bankruptcy, Rodriguez produced a few more readings there.
Forced to “really define myself as a freelance director,” smaller projects came up, too, that he might not have been offered “if I hadn’t shown an eclectic background at that point,” Rodriguez says. The 2012 production of Matthew Leavitt’s Boomerang at the Odyssey was one of them. “Boomerang is a comedy. There’s some art to it, but it’s five couples, five bedrooms, and it’s fun. I love really challenging, really difficult and sometime dangerous work, but then it’s also fun to just do the kind of play that someone who doesn’t go to a lot of theater will bring a date to and enjoy. And Boomerang is like that.”
How did Boomerang initially come to him? “They just approached me,” Rodriguez says. Boomerang producer Del Shores told Dany Margolies [writer and former Back Stage executive editor] that he was looking for a director, “and she recommended me and some other people.” Actor Scott Lowell, who had worked on the Showtime series, Queer as Folk, where Shores was a consulting and co-executive producer, vouched for Rodriguez, too. “Scott called and then I had an interview.”
Rodriguez notes that eight out of 10 of the cast members from the previous Odyssey production of Boomerang remain the same, as does the producing team. “We think of it as a remount,” he says. Brian Gale came on as lighting designer, but “we have the same set designer, John Iacovelli.” In addition, “we have an entire alternative cast ready to go, because the goal is to run it though the summer. We made it easy for actors to miss performances.”
Rodriguez expresses great gratitude to LA for nurturing his creative growth and his career. “I feel that the theater landscape here in LA is what must get the most credit for me getting this job. I came here and made a career by doing theater. I’m proud to be a part of this community, and [proud that] my work here warranted taking over a really significant regional theater company. It’s the wild west out here, and there’s a lot of work going on. People who haven’t been here and don’t know the scene feel like there isn’t one because it’s so sprawling.
“Those of us who have been here year after year doing work,” says Rodriguez, “all know each other and support each other and like each other. We have a real tight community. That comes through being committed to the work over time. If you do that, you have a good community, you work with really great people, do great work and you will be recognized for it.”
The Boomerang Effect, Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., LA 90069. Opens Saturday. Thu-Sat 8 pm. Tickets: $20-25. Through July 27. 800-595-4849. www.tix.com
All The Boomerang Effect production photos by Ed Krieger.