It’s Time for Transformation

by Jacob G. Padrón

in SpotlightOn

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For the 25th National Conference in Cleveland, TCG is highlighting the current recipients of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship and the SPARK Leadership Programs. These programs are unique to the field, and provide critical support and mentorship for the future leaders of our art form. In honor of our longstanding commitment to professional development across the field, we feel the time is right to expand the Spotlight On brand beyond the Conference. With this in mind, we are excited to be hosting the Spotlight On Series throughout May and June—all content leading up to the Conference.

TCG: Why executive leadership? 

Jacob: In June of 2008 I was watching the Tony awards from my tiny but cozy apartment in Ashland, Oregon. I had just finished my graduate work at Yale and was starting my post as the new Associate Producer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It was a time of hopefulness, and I felt completely energized by the possibilities in our little corner of the universe. It felt like a spirit of abundance was taking hold in my life.

When Anna Shapiro accepted her best director award she remarked that the only way we get to have a life in the theater is when “you come across a group of people who, although they don’t need to, make room for you.” Her words hit me hard. She was right. The abundance I felt was real: Bill Rauch and his longtime collaborator, Christopher Acebo, had made room for me. So had Michael Ross, Benjamin Mordecai, and Diane Rodriguez. So would Rebecca Rugg, Chay Yew, and Bonnie Metzgar. And now Oskar Eustis, among many others. They opened doors and taught me lessons. They pushed me to dream big for myself and the field, to fully imagine all that is possible in our work as theater makers, to provide visible platforms to artists that reflect the beautiful kaleidoscope of our diverse nation, to galvanize our communities and inspire them to action, and to use our art form as a catalyst to do good in the world—and to me, all this feels possible through executive leadership. It’s why I feel called to artistic directorship. I see it as a true vocation, a way to affect meaningful change.

As a field, we’re not always good about acknowledging the mentors who have paved the way, especially the ones who made sacrifices on our behalf. We’re not always good about celebrating the giants that pushed us forward, or the makers who quietly but mightily served our tribe for years with little reward, fueled by a spirit of generosity. We owe something to these pillars, and I think the vocation of executive leadership is a part of honoring their work.

TCG: Are there any issues you want to address as an executive leader in the field?

Jacob: Two things come to mind.

First. There’s still real inequity relative to season selection. If I’m able to occupy an artistic leadership position, I’ll work to update this country’s narrative on our stages with plays and musicals that tell the stories of our sisters and brothers in the Black community, the Native community, the Asian and South Asian community, and so on. How can these stories be in conversation with the existing canon and all the other great writers who also need a voice? It’s like Luis Alfaro said, “the Greeks were very Chicano.” And hip-hop musicals find their roots in the plays of William Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare! We can all be at the table. There is bounty. But looking at the lineup of programming at many theaters across the country, I’m reminded that the hard work continues.

Second, I’d tackle the investment of our institutional staffs, who do the hard behind-the-scenes work across departments. The creative epicenters of our theaters must expand beyond the artistic office; we are all creative people. And the more the entire staff can feel deeply connected to the work on stage, the more dynamic an organization can and will become. Our institutions are places where artists can make and share their work with the world, and it’s the job of our staffs to create the conditions that allow artists to flourish. But how are we simultaneously investing in our staffs and making them feel just as valued? The more we can create organizational cultures where the entire staff is both fueled and guided by abundance, possibility, respect, and generosity, the healthier and richer our theaters and works on stage will be.

We are in a time of exciting transformation as a field. I continue to be filled with hope and wonder.  I believe we should lean into the discomfort of change. Because executive leader or not, that requires us all to adopt a new lens. I’m so grateful for the TCG SPARK leadership program because it feels like we’re on the cusp of something big, with rising leaders ready to make a difference. At my current artistic home, The Public Theater in NYC, I’m trying to do my part to ignite dialogue, action, and spark real change to get us closer to an American Theater that better resembles what our community needs.

TCG: What can you attribute as a ‘game changing’ moment in your career?

Jacob: I grew up on the central coast in California. Though the area is primarily known for its agriculture (garlic in particular, which I’m allergic to!) it’s also home to the seminal theater company, El Teatro Campesino. Tucked away in San Juan Bautista, just 10 miles south of my hometown of Gilroy, Luis Valdez used the theater to create intentional community so that we could come together and tell our stories. His was a theater of social justice, fighting for something bigger with the great Cesar Chavez in fields across the west.

The first play I ever saw was by El Teatro Campesino. It was called La Virgen de Tepeyac, and my mother performed as an Aztec dancer. The moment the lights came up and my mom began moving to the beats of our native drum, my life was changed. I was eight years old. Seeds were planted, memories were locked in. She gave me a new family.

But it wasn’t until much later in my life that I’d return to that family when the national Latino community gathered for a major convening in Boston in 2013. We came together to assess the state of Latina/o theater in this country. I felt so lucky to once again be at the table, to have room made for me. On the last day, we all stood in a large circle and were invited to ask, what will YOU do to advance Latina/o theater in this country?

I had just been appointed a new line producer at The Public, and I thought to myself: Could I launch an initiative to create more visible platforms for Latina/o writers throughout NYC? Could the initiative create a body of work to contribute to the new American canon so that our plays sit side by side all other great writers that keep getting produced? Thus, The Sol Project was born.

I had always been a fan of the 13P model, and it’s the model that’s inspired The Sol Project. Over the next 10 years, we’ll identify a cohort of artistically excellent Latina/o writers and produce their plays with different off-Broadway companies. After the works premiere in NYC, we hope to identify regional partners who’ll commit to second, third, and fourth productions. The conversation will be national, the opportunity will be national, and the impact, hopefully, will also be national.

Theater is a kind of rebellion and my hope is that The Sol Project will be a game-changing initiative for the field.

Jacob G. Padrón is currently a producer on the artistic staff at The Public Theater in NYC. Prior to The Public, he was the Associate Producer at Steppenwolf Theatre Company where he oversaw the programming in the Garage, Steppenwolf’s dedicated space for new work, emerging artists, and new audiences. From 2008 – 2011 Jacob was an Associate Producer under Bill Rauch at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where he was instrumental in casting and line producing all mainstage productions. Jacob also produced Suzan-Lori Parks’ 365 Days/365 Plays for Center Theatre Group, a collaboration that included over 50 Los Angeles theater companies to launch the 365 LA festival. He has been a lecturer at Northwestern University and has collaborated with Chicago Dramatists, About Face, Teatro Vista, Yale Rep, Baltimore Centerstage, and El Teatro Campesino. At The Public, Jacob has supported artists such as Lemon Anderson, Tracey Scott Wilson, Anne Kaufman, Kate Whoriskey, Jo Bonney, and Young Jean Lee, among others. Jacob’s “whatifesto” about transformation in the theatre field was a part of the keynote address at the TCG national conference in 2011. He sits on the national steering committee of the Latino Theater Commons, housed under HowlRound, and holds a BA from Loyola Marymount University and MFA from Yale School of Drama.​