Artists Repertory Theatre's new artistic director sees good things ahead for Portland stalwart

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Allen Nause (left) leaves his post as longtime artistic director at Artists Repertory Theatre, as edgy, aesthetically renowned Damaso Rodriguez, 38, takes over. Rodriguez (right) doesn't envision major changes, saying Nause, 68, built a strong foundation at the 30-year-old company.Already the paragon in Portland, the longest-running outfit in the business, Artists Repertory Theatre has been undergoing an artistic leadership change for the first time in 25 years.

And, while new Artistic Director Dámaso Rodriguez wants to implement things, hoping to galvanize and broaden Artists Rep’s standing in innovative, cutting-edge theater, he won’t stray too far from the foundation built by Allen Nause.

“I think we have similar tastes,” says Rodriguez, 38, whose reputable resume comes from co-founding Furious Theatre Company and Pasadena Playhouse in Southern California in the past 14 years. “I’m not going to be radically different. The difference between he and I amounts to the writers I’ve been working with through the years, and gotten to know and that had links to Los Angeles. I know that’ll result in a different set of plays.

“But, I see more of a continuation, furthering the many things that have been built up through the years, more than huge changes.”

The 68-year-old Nause won’t bow out as much as step aside from his duties at 1515 S.W. Morrison St., resuming the freelance acting and directing career he left to take over Artists Rep 25 years ago. Rodriguez joined the company in January, culminating an eight-month search for Nause’s successor, and he and Nause have worked collaboratively to make the transition smooth.

Nause is performing in “The Gin Game,” directed by JoAnn Johnson, which starts its month-long run March 26, and Rodriguez has been working on his first Artists Rep production, “Ten Chimneys,” which starts April 23.

Scores of candidates were considered for the artistic director position, but Rodriguez’s name kept moving up the list, “especially after we met him,” Nause says.

“I remember seeing Dámaso’s application early on and, on paper, I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is a great fit,’ ” he adds. “He had started a company, an ensemble company (Furious) that had done some edgy new work down in Los Angeles, which got a lot of notice. A lot of people said they were doing some of the best work in L.A.

“And he worked in a very large regional theater (Pasadena) under the mentorship of one of the most highly respected directors in the business (Sheldon Epps), who spoke of him in glowing terms. Not only his work directing at the theater, but with donors, having vision, casting ... that was all really appealing to us.”

At Furious, which he co-founded with wife Sara Hennessy in 2001, Rodriguez became known for his daring, socially relevant plays with a visceral aesthetic. Furious staged at Playhouse, where Rodriguez served as Epps’ protege from 2007 to 2010. Among his accolades, he earned the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, and Furious made L.A. Weekly’s list of “Best Theatres of the Decade.”

Cooks in the kitchen

Rodriguez, who has two children, sees big things ahead for Artists Repertory Theatre, which he wants to make the epicenter for creative Portland theater.

It has an actors residency program already, but Rodriguez wants to expand to where “the best acting and directing and writing and producing and designing talent works at Artists Rep. ... I want to figure out how we can do a residency program for the different theater disciplines.”

There’ll be new works, by local as well as national playwrights, but also works by writers who might have been part of the “World Premier-itis” trend, fading after one or two runs.

Artists Rep has always brought in fine playwrights, and some have gone on to big things. Nause reflects on his time, and he recounts some outstanding playwrights who have worked there, including Tracy Letts with “Killer Joe” in Nause’s early days.

“They said, ‘Who’s she?’ ” he says, laughing. “Then, of course, we did another one of HIS plays, and he went on to win a Pulitzer Prize,” in 2008 for “August: Osage County.”

Other notable names: Michael Hollinger, on Artists Rep’s stage with “Red Herring,” as well as Suzan-Lori Parks and Sarah Ruhl.

“So many people ask you what your favorite show is,” Nause says, “and it’s always the one you’re doing at the time. Looking back, I’m most proud about just the kinds of playwrights we brought to Portland, playwrights we discovered before anybody really knew about them. Nurtured them.”

Associate Artistic Director Jon Kretzu has already departed, entering the freelance business, citing the end of an era working alongside Nause. But Nause doesn’t use the word “retiring,” although he and wife Frances plan to do some travellng and retiree-type things. Directing and acting are still in his blood.

“I’m transitioning,” says Nause, who moved to Oregon in 1975 to act with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and joined Artists Rep in 1989; the company formed 30 years ago, but languished without artistic direction until Nause came on board.

Nause has also taught at Lewis & Clark College, Portland State University and University of Portland. He has also appeared in movies and TV shows, most recently “Portlandia.” Rodriguez had heard of Nause and Artists Rep, mostly during his time working plays in Seattle.

“When this opportunity came up, I was really intrigued,” he says. “This specific artistic aesthetic matched my own.”

On Nause, Rodriguez says: “He’s this incredibly generous person. As artistic director, you’re opening up your kitchen and letting somebody else cook in it. Particularly with directors, hiring directors, one of the great skills as an artistic director has to have is to empower other artists. Allen is that kind of person. I really like him. I’m grateful to have this five months while we’re both here, learning from him, seeing him at work while I’m learning about the plays.”

Rodriguez joins Artists Rep administration, with the company enjoying an upswing, Nause says.

Dramatic turnaround

The recent recession has hurt performing arts, and Artists Rep had to trim budget, institute furloughs and the company felt the hurt at the box office.

“The last couple years, we’ve seen a dramatic turnaround,” Nause says. “The economy is getting better, but it’s also in response to some of the adjustments we’ve made. We’ve seen an uptick in subscribers, and contributed income is up. We’ve just done a renegotiation of our mortgage, which helps, and we also have a new tenant coming in (Profile Theatre).”

Nause also says Portland theater remains creatively healthy.

“I think Portland theater is as strong as I’ve ever seen,” he says.

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