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Interview with Diane Rodriguez

Reflections on a Career Well-Spent

This interview took place in Diane’s home in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, on a sunny afternoon in February 2015.

Beatriz Rizk: You are in a very privileged position, a position that many Latinas/os would like to enjoy. Besides President Obama’s nomination to the National Council on the Arts, you are also serving as the Board Chair for Theatre Communications Group (TCG), and working as Associate Artistic Director of LA’s Center Theatre Group. What do you think has most contributed to your success?

Diane Rodriguez: Our country is made up of so many Latinas/os, and we obviously need representation. There are so few who have had the opportunity to represent us. I am a Latina of Mexican descent, which makes a big difference. And I am from the Southwest—from California. My understanding is of being from la gente, but also maneuvering through. There have been great opportunities that have come out of keeping my nose to the grindstone.

a woman smiling at the camera
Diane Rodriguez. Photo courtesy of Diane Rodriguez. 

Beatriz: Describe a normal day in the life of Diane Rodriguez.

Diane: If I’m writing I get up around 4:30am. Sometimes if I’m really into something I’m not going to sleep a lot. I will write until around 6:00 or 7:00am. Then, we (myself and my husband, J.D.) eat breakfast and go for a very long walk—we are by the hills. I usually get to the theatre around 10:00am, and I may have two or three meetings during the day. Either we are working on a new proposal for something, or we are discussing the strategy, or I meet with an artist who is in town. In the afternoon, if I’m going to be directing a reading, I’ll have a casting session. If I have a show to see that night, I come home early to grab dinner and then go to the theatre. Of course, this is if I’m not traveling.

Beatriz: Do you get to travel a lot? 

Diane: I travel constantly. I have a program that is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. I have gotten two one million dollar grants to develop the work of ensemble theatres. Six years ago my life changed because this support gave me a healthy budget to travel. And travel was and is crucial because I am trying to see groups, and commissioning them. Around the same time as the program was starting, I joined the TCG Board, which added even more to my travel.

Beatriz: You lived through the political upheaval of the sixties and the seventies—the Chicano movement, which has been very important for the identity of Mexican Americans. Tell us about the first stop on your journey.

Diane: I graduated from UC Santa Barbara, and I wanted to go to graduate school at Cal Arts, but I was not accepted. My alternative was to join El Teatro Campesino. I had already started to work there when I was just nineteen; I’d worked as an intern over the summers. So when I graduated, at twenty-one, I joined the company and stayed for eleven years. You create the basis of who you are through that.

I have always said that my career has been turning a “no” into a “yes.” Every “no” that I’ve gotten has not stopped me from figuring out another way of getting to a “yes.” There have been a lot of closed doors, and I had to figure out how to open other ones, and keep them open for other people to come in— this has been the whole crux of who I am.

I have always said that my career has been turning a ‘no’ into a ‘yes.’ Every ‘no’ that I’ve gotten has not stopped me from figuring out another way of getting to a ‘yes.’

Luis Valdez, the founder of El Teatro Campesino, who is obviously a very big influence and a teacher, taught me that acting is activism. You make a decision and you act upon it. If you don’t activate a scene, the scene is not working. So, it’s about activating your life, and understanding how you are affecting others. That’s how you become a good actor on the stage, on the street, and in life. The other thing he taught me is the relationship between the personal and the community—the public—and that space in the center where the two live forever entwined. I have never felt that I have done anything only for myself.

El Teatro Campesino was the place where I learned to be a global citizen. We were Chicanos clearly doing the work for the inspiration and empowerment of our people. I joined the company about ten years after its birth when there were still a lot of things happening with the United Farm Workers of America; in the mid ‘70s there was a huge strike in the Coachella Valley. We went to the Valley, into farms to perform original actos related to the issues of the day. The actos were ever evolving, and J.D. (José Delgado) was instrumental in creating these new actos and doing characters. We met early when I was still in college, and then became friends. J.D. and I married in the late seventies. We both left El Teatro Campesino in the mid-eighties. 

a poster
A poster for El Teatro Campesino. 
Photo courtesy of Diane Rodriguez.

Beatriz: What was your favorite show with El Teatro Campesino?

Diane: La Carpa de los Rascuaches because it was the most aesthetically interesting. We toured it to France and performed for immigrants from Algeria. Everyone could relate to it, it was a great piece! Europe embraced it. We toured La Carpa twice—we went everywhere; from Sweden all the way down to the Basque country in Spain. We were right there when Franco died. It was a brilliant piece that put us on the map internationally. We were at the height of our prowess as performers, because we were really in shape. We’d do gymnastics. We did mask work—we had commedia masters come to San Juan Bautista and teach us.

We trained constantly. I probably put in ten thousand hours of training—or five years total. You never forget that. Later, when I was performing with Latins Anonymous, there was a Texan who came up to me after a show and said: “I bring my students just to watch you perform because that’s a performer.” It was just that I knew how to stand; the training taught me how to hold my body.

Beatriz:  How did you get involved with Latins Anonymous?

Diane: I came to Los Angeles to work as an actress—I did a lot of television and film. I did a workshop at Santa Monica's Odyssey Theatre with a bunch of Latinos. It was the first time that I had been with Latinos, not just Chicanos. I started meeting Guatemalans, Colombians, and Mexican Americans who do not called themselves Chicanos. So, I met three other people—Luisa Leschin, from Guatemala; Armando Molina from Colombia; Rick Nájera, a Mexican American—who wanted to start a company. We were all tired of playing only the stereotypes. Together, we became Latins Anonymous. We started writing and doing these sketches and it just took off. We toured everywhere. I really established myself as a writer then, but not as a playwright.

Beatriz: How did you become involved with the Center Theatre Group?

Diane: About 1994, I started to get restless because I missed the politics. Also, the actor’s life was getting lonely, and I had become attracted to the life of a director. Center Theatre Group had begun a search for somebody to run the Latino Theatre Initiative (LTI) and they’d called me to consult to see who I thought might be good for the job. I called Luis Alfaro, who I hardly knew, and asked him if he would apply with me for the job. We applied as partners. And they said, “We can’t pay two people,” so we said we would divide the salary; we wanted to get in. They gave us full benefits, but split salaries. At the end of the year, they couldn’t stand it anymore and they found a salary for both of us and, then, we both stayed there for ten years as partners running the LTI. There is a book that Chantal Rodriguez wrote about LTI that outlines every show we did, our successes, etc.   

Beatriz: What happened to the LTI?

Diane: New leadership didn’t think it was a good use of money. It was a business decision. That was the end of LTI. When it ended, there was a national uproar. It was like stabbing a heart. We did so much for the community; we brought people to see shows. We’d do subscription runs with Latino works that we were actually producing at our theatre. It was more than just developing shows; we were really trying to focus on the Latina/o community. And I think we were successful. But things come to an end.

I went to new Artistic Director, Michael Ritchie, and said: “I want to work for you, I’m not done here. I want to do more.”  He came back to me asked me to stay on as Associate Producer, and Director of New Play Production. I didn’t know what that meant, exactly, but it sounded really good. Everyone else left. It was the worst time in my life. It was bloody! People were asking, “Why are you staying?” It was a very tough road and a very unpopular decision.

Beatriz: What about your own writing during all that time?

Diane: I tried to write, but I didn’t start writing full time until ten years ago. I actually have three plays that I have been working on for the last six years. One of them, Living Large in a Mini Kind of Way, got produced twice in Chicago.  My other plays are Pitch Like a Girl and The Sweetheart Deal. All three plays have female leads, and are about US Mexican American middle class women in struggle. They are not overtly political women, but they all find consciousness.

Beatriz: Is not until rather recently that Latina/o playwrights have started to focus on the middle classes. What has changed?

Diane: We have become empowered; we are middle-class because we have resources. We have access. We are not the rich, we are not the oppressor, and we are not the very poor. So, we are still in struggle. I feel that stories of this reality are not being told. Nilo Cruz writes these plays about Cubans. And where are our (Mexican American) plays like that? So, that’s why I write about what I do.

Beatriz: Have you tried other types of writing?

Diane: I have a whole other life as a freelance writer. I’ve been working for Mattel since 2008 writing Barbie musicals. In 2009 I wrote the book for a Barbie musical that premiered in Buenos Aires and toured Latin America to 80,000 people. Then, I did a second Barbie show that premiered April 2014 in Singapore and toured Asia. I’ve learnt musical structure. I’ve learnt how to take notes. Because I don’t own my material, I re-write anything. Just recently, one of Mattel's producers came back to me and said, “Listen, we’ve sent the script out to be written, and it’s a mess. Can you re-write it in Barbie’s voice?” Sure. So, I re-wrote it in Barbie’s voice. Me, Diane Rodriguez, writes in Barbie's voice. Unreal.

I’ve made Barbie a real girl; she makes fun of herself, she is really supportive of her friends, she has a great sense of humor. The final scene of the musical, Barbie and her best friend talk about friendship and sing a duet. They grab each other’s hand. It's simple and beautiful. The producers in Argentina thought they looked like lesbians. They actually wanted Barbie to get married. I told them I wasn’t doing that, and that the last scene is about the two girls and what they have been through together. Thank God, the Mattel people approved of my ending.

Beatriz: Any new plans, or far away plans for the future?

Diane: Maybe adapt a movie for the stage. That’s in the works. My play The Sweetheart Deal has been selected for the Latina/o Theatre Commons’ Carnaval of New Latina/o Work to be held in Chicago this summer so I'm looking forward to that. I'm directing and developing a new CTG commission with Richard Montoya and Roger Guenveur Smith. What’s next is a big creative question. There is plenty of access, a lot of opportunities, and I remain open, as always.

Beatriz: What advice would you like to share with younger Latinas/os coming into the field who want to succeed?

Diane: I really believe that when someone says “no,” you don’t’ have to believe it. You have to transform it into a “yes.” There is something inside you, a voice that says, “You can do it.” When I started out, I wasn’t a very good actress. I was very awkward. I always felt like an outsider but there was something inside me that knew I had presence on stage; an energy that gave me light. So, that kept me going.

You also have to listen to people that you trust. Listen, because if you don’t listen, and reflect, you are not going to change and grow.

You also have to listen to people that you trust. Listen, because if you don’t listen, and reflect, you are not going to change and grow. Trusted friends, colleagues, and mentors tell you the truth.  And that truth will move you forward.

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Dr. Beatriz Rizk, an expert in the multi-layered trajectories of Latina/o theatre, provides us with a wonderful interview with a true pioneer in our field, Diane Rodriguez. Thank you for the read!

Thanks for this terrific interview with the amazing Diane Rodriguez. "Make no to yes" a new mantra for us all. And I will never think of Barbie in the same way!

Diane is of the most dynamic and pivotal Latina artistic leaders and artists of our generation. She's cut a path deep into a field where none existed previously for Latina/os. Thank you for all you do
Diane and thank you Beatriz for a great interview.

Excellent interview! Thanks to Prof. Beatriz Rizk for her new series of interviews with our leading Latina and Latino theater artists. Diane Rodriguez is an incredible woman, full of energy, talent and commitment to great theater. As her answers to Beatriz's questions indicate, Diane's trajectory is truly amazing. To her credit, she does not flaunt her power as the most powerful Latina in the American theater. And she's earned this status after decades of hard work and discipline. She is a role model for anyone who wants a Life in the Theater.