Art Works Blog

Art Talk with theater artist and National Council on the Arts member Diane Rodriguez

“My superpower as an artist is that I listen.” — Diane Rodriguez

Award-winning theater artist and new National Council on the Arts member Diane Rodriguez can honestly say that the arts are in her blood. Her father was a soloist, her mother was a pianist, and various other relatives were musicians—all at the American Baptist church her family literally built with friends in San Jose, California. As Rodriguez remembered when we spoke with her, “Since I was a kid my father was always in front of people, leading the choir and singing, and I was always trying to get on stage.”

Activism is also in Rodriguez’s blood. In the early 1970s, her aunt, uncle, and their children moved to Delano, California to volunteer for the United Farm Workers Union. “My cousins met Luis Valdez and they joined the Teatro,” Rodriguez explained. “The first time I ever saw the Teatro Campesino my cousins were on tour with them.” That experience ignited Rodriguez’s own desire to work in the theater. She went on to study theater in college, at the same time remaining true to her activist spirit through involvement in the Chicano movement, which led to her founding a Chicano theater company.

Rodriguez currently serves as the associate artistic director at the Center Theatre Group (CTG) in Los Angeles. She has called CTG her artistic home for more than two decades and has worked as both an associate producer/director of New Play Production and co-director of the Latino Theatre Initiative. She also serves on the board for Theatre Communications Group and on the steering committee for Howl Round’s Latina/o Theatre Commons which works to shape the landscape for Latino theater.

We spoke with Rodriguez about how she views the relationship between art and activism, why she’s decided to try playwriting, and what she hopes to contribute as a member of the the National Council on the Arts.

NEA: You play many roles in the theater: actor, director, playwright. What gets you to say “yes” to a particular project?

RODRIGUEZ: It [used to be] something about urgency or revealing a narrative that we in the American theater don’t hear very often—giving voice to either an issue or a community. Now I’ve found that I’m really trying to focus on my own writing and directing my own work, but leaving room for working with artists that I feel are representing us and unearthing these stories that surprise us and that make us understand that we’re all one people. I think that that’s the most important thing for me.

NEA: Activism is a large part of your art practice. Can you please talk about how you see the relationship between art and activism?

DIANE RODRIGUEZ: Community and activism are intertwined, and there’s a center that we live in and that’s where they both live together. As an actor you have to activate a scene. You have to make choices. It’s not about you in a scene. If you’re acting by yourself, the scene’s bad. You’re not good. But if you’re affecting the other actor in the scene, that activates the scene. And so, for me, when I teach acting and also when I teach activism that is what it is: You become an activator or an activist and you try to affect other people in a positive way. I feel that the goal is to be an active citizen, an activist citizen, and that by committing to your community you will always be taken care of because they will take care of you. I did a keynote at UC Irvine and there were all these parents, you know. I talked about this notion of always being an active citizen and an activist citizen and that when your kids grow up and they move away and you feel like, “Oh, what an empty nest,” you have your activism. You’re still belonging to something and that will carry you through and you won’t ever feel alone. There’s a wealth of riches that [comes] from thinking outside of yourself and looking at the community and seeing how you can help and be involved.

NEA: What is your superpower as an artist?

RODRIGUEZ: My superpower as an artist is that I listen. I think that great actors know how to listen well. I think that the only way you’re going to be a great writer or a great artist is by listening to people and being humble enough to understand that you can always learn something new and that you can always dive deeper.

NEA: What do you wish you were better at as an artist?

RODRIGUEZ: I wish I was a better playwright. I feel very confident in my acting; it’s my first discipline. [When I’m] directing I feel like it’s the most natural thing I do and I really have an instinct. But writing is really hard, and I didn’t go to graduate school for it so I have a little bit of an insecurity about that. But I’ve dramaturged all these new plays and so it’s not like I haven’t had experience. But I wish I was farther along in my playwriting.

NEA: What made you decide to take the plunge into playwriting?

RODRIGUEZ: I wanted there to be more Mexican-American writers in theater, and I can count on one hand how many there are. I felt that there was a younger generation coming up that were telling some stories, but they were not telling the stories we wanted to hear, what our community wants to hear. I’m trying to do that, you know? And I’m hoping that other people are, too.

NEA: You’re now a member of the National Council on the Arts. What would you like to accomplish during your tenure?

RODRIGUEZ: I think that what it does is [put you] at the table, which is important. You begin to have relationships and associations, and they eventually become partnerships. So if nothing else would happen, [you would have] the relationships that you create that then you can take outside of here to have impact. You have conversations at the table and those conversations obviously have some impact. I’m here to represent unabashedly the American theater in all its forms, and I feel like I have a huge range—which I don’t think many people do—of grass-roots, agit-prop theater to mainstream theater, doing something on a dime to doing something on a $1.5 million budget. So I have that range of understanding and I hope that I bring that to represent the field.

NEA: One final question: Why do the arts matter?

RODRIGUEZ: I think the arts matter because [they help] you understand choice, that there are many, many ways to play a scene, for example. And there are many, many ways to lead a life. When you’re an artist, it gives you voice. You express yourself, use your voice, and by giving yourself voice, you gain power and strength.

I think the arts give us choice and [the ability to] lead a creative life. I don’t mean that you’re creative when you’re making this and making that. But you can lead a creative life in [the sense of,] “I’m making this choice. This is a better choice than that one. Then you build a very full and robust life by having all these opportunities coming from your choices.

We just did a great project at CTG [Center Theatre Group] called the Looking Glass Project. There was this young man, he was in his forties, and he had had a stroke when he was in his thirties. He came to us in a wheelchair. We had hired a theater company to send out flyers and go to senior center homes and go to festivals to get people to belong to this writing workshop that would eventually result in three performances. They found him at an assisted living facility where he had moved in with his mom. The only friends he had were the little old ladies that were there. He got one of these flyers [for the workshop]. He participated, and he’s a very, very good writer. He has changed his life because he found his voice and understood that he had more than one choice. At the very last gathering he was still in a wheelchair, and he stood up for us. We were like, “Oh my god!” He had gone from hardly moving to actually wanting to get up and stand to tell us how much this whole process had changed his life. He’s now going to be in our next-step playwriting workshop. So it was an amazing change [that came] just by writing and finding voice. 

Join us for the public meeting of the National Council on the Arts tomorrow from 9:00-11:30am ET. You can attend in person or watch online at arts. gov. Details here

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