Damáso Rodríguez: "There's an audience problem across the country in theater, and you don't work on that problem by getting less exciting and less relevant."

Damáso Rodríguez: “There’s an audience problem across the country in theater, and you don’t work on that problem by getting less exciting and less relevant.”

Shawn Lee/Courtesy of Artists Repertory Theatre

Artists Repertory Theatre has made headlines for a hefty tax debt, an unexpected leadership change and an impending real estate deal that will mean slicing the company’s sizable headquarters in half — with ramifications for a dozen smaller arts nonprofits. We sat down with Artist Rep’s artistic director, Damáso Rodríguez — who’s now taken on the role of interim managing director, after the departure of Sarah Horton from that role — to find out more.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q&A with Damáso Rodríguez

April Baer: So, the IRS lien on the company for payroll taxes. What can you tell us about why those got out of hand?

Damáso Rodríguez: Well, our biggest challenge has been for years, going back to before I got here, is essentially a mortgage payment that amounts to a few hundred thousand dollars a year that an organization of our size can’t afford and has never been able to afford. So even at our best, we’re always behind, right? And even while we are funded on projects, the cash flow is the greatest challenge. A structural deficit leads to getting really behind in a lot of ways. And there were mistakes made that led to that situation.

Baer: Wasn’t there an assumption that costs would be high when the company bought the building?

Rodríguez: The purchase of the building happened in 2004. It was a huge stretch for Artist Rep, and a capital campaign [to renovate and connect the theaters] would have been also a huge stretch. The stretch that plays out across the recession. Recession happens, right? When I got here [in 2013], we focused on trying to program our way out of it and make the work more exciting, and that is a long, long game. In leading institutions in any city, the biggest and most powerful ones often pay nothing for their occupancy. And so that’s what we have to get to. We’re getting close. We have had so many near-sales and conversations that —

Baer: How many?

Rodríguez: I couldn’t count them. We’ve never been in a sales and purchase agreement, but we have been for two and a half years aggressively trying to do a transaction on this building.

Baer: So why did [managing director] Sarah Horton leave?

Rodríguez: If you imagine running organizations under duress and also being ambitious … the years of doing that — and this is my opinion — it still is going to take a couple of years for this all to come together. That’s a moment when you either imagine yourself being in it for the long haul or say, “Maybe this is a point to transition.” That’s my take on it.

Baer: Was it her decision to defer the payroll taxes?

Rodríguez: I will say that I was not involved in those decisions and I am now. We are focused right now on this building sale and I’m figuring out how to operate in a way that isn’t in perpetual financial distress.

Baer: What was your working relationship with Sarah?

Rodríguez: Sarah was a great partner. She is one of the most passionate and driven and kind of fearless arts leaders anywhere. And when we pull this off, she’ll have played a huge role in getting us here.

Baer: What does all this this mean in terms the programming that you’re putting on stage? Is there any reason to think you won’t be able to keep doing the kind of shows that you have been doing?

Rodríguez: I think the reason we’ve been pulling through is by really leaning into our values and our programming and not paving the way forward on the backs of the artists that work here. The board has been behind all of these decisions. We want to make this company work financially, but we’re not gonna do it by getting smaller or by asking for favors from the talent working here. There was a move to further professionalize the company and to join the League of Resident Theaters. But there’s an audience problem across the country in theater, and you don’t work on that problem by getting less exciting and less relevant.

Baer: Is there anything you’d like to say about the effect the sale and renovation will have on all the ArtsHub tenants?

Rodríguez: Yeah. [Some time ago] we changed our mission statement: “To produce intimate, provocative theater and create a home for artists to take creative risks.” And that’s where the ArtsHub and all these residencies come into play. They’ve known for a while that this idea is in the works. It will cause disruption at some point for everybody, but the hope is that we kind of band together and then are able to return to this ideal new home if we’re disrupted right. The way the ArtsHub works is with the second stage, and truth is two equally sized venues is something we’ve been reacting to. It’s not necessarily what’s best for these companies. What I see long-term is that Artists Rep operates on a main stage with more typical regional theater main-stage season, which would be five or six shows instead of seven or eight shows. And then the second stage. You could just do the math or the calendar math and see how many organizations could come in and utilize space in a year for performances.