Robynn Rodriguez to direct OSF colleagues in ‘Chapatti’ at Rogue Theater Company
Robynn Rodriguez loves trashy TV, Toasty Cheez-Its and life in the theater — but not necessarily in that order.
Guilty pleasures aside, the 22-season Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor in recent years has added directing to her resume. Her next gig is for Rogue Theater Company May 5-15.
Rodriguez will direct “Chapatti” outdoors at Grizzly Peak Winery at 2 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays.
Written by Irish playwright Christian O’Reilly, the story is about two lonely animal lovers living in Dublin for whom romance is a distant memory. When forlorn Dan and his dog Chapatti cross paths with the amiable Betty and her 19 cats, an unexpected spark begins a warm and gentle story about two people rediscovering the importance of human companionship.
Starring in the play are Robin Goodrin Nordli and Michael Elich, also OSF veterans.
“I am touched by the play for a number of reasons,” Rodriguez said. “I identify or empathize with themes of what it is to be a devoted pet owner, what it is to struggle with profound grief, and dealing with loneliness. The pandemic certainly isolated so many of us from friends and loved ones.”
She began taking directing jobs in 2013, but this is the first time she has directed for RTC. She gets to work with longtime friends and colleagues — and real-life couple — Nordli and Elich.
“Michael and I first worked together in 1979,” she said. “I also get to come back to Ashland, where my husband (scenic designer Michael Ganio) and I still have a huge community of friends and chosen family. That’s a lot to be excited about!”
Rodriguez grew up seeing the work of resident theater companies and aspired to join one. She was a member of the resident acting companies of Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria, Calif., and the Denver Center Theatre Company before coming to OSF in 1988, all before the age of 30.
“OSF Artistic Director Jerry Turner and Assistant AD Pat Patton brought me to Ashland,” she said.
“OSF was the resident company I spent the most time working with and the closest I’ve ever come to having an artistic home.
“I loved working at OSF because it was a thriving, vigorous hotbed of creativity and the seasons were long ones. Of course, living in Ashland was a huge plus!”
Like everybody else in the performing arts, Rodriguez saw booked work fall by the wayside when the pandemic hit. She and her husband now live in Lebanon, New Hampshire, where he is a member of the design faculty at Dartmouth College.
Things are picking up now that COVID-19 restrictions are easing. Rodriguez is accepting both acting and directing jobs, but mostly acting. She recently took part in a filmed version of “King Lear,” co-produced by West Virginia University and West Virginia PBS.
Her time at OSF was full of memorable experiences and great roles. It’s difficult for her to pick a favorite role, but three stand out in her memory.
“Getting to play Barbara Undershaft for Jerry Turner in Shaw’s ‘Major Barbara’ was a dream come true,” she said. “It was Jerry’s last production at OSF as artistic director.”
Also on the list is the role of Gabriela Pecs in David Edgar’s “Pentecost.”
“It was a seismic experience,” she said. “It was the first time I got the gift of being directed by former Berkeley Rep AD Tony Taccone. ‘Pentecost’ was the first of many shows I did with Tony. Working with him would define the next 10-plus years of my life.”
Another highlight was acting in Universe’s “Party People” during her last season at OSF, and subsequently also at Berkeley Rep and at New York’s The Public Theater.
“For the way it has impacted my life as well as my work, ‘Party People’ is one of the most incredible experiences I ever had,” she said.
Her first directing job in 2013 was Shakespeare’s “King John” at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
“I think directing is hard,” she said. “I am humbled by the challenges of it. One really has to pick one’s battles when directing because there is always something to ‘fix,’ something to do better. I look at the directors I admire and wonder how they got so good at it.”
She finds success as a director to be elusive. However, the rigor of it brings her joy, working closely with designers, the shops, and the actors.
“I marvel at the collective courage and talent brought to each production. It’s been a gift to have had the opportunities I’ve had.”
She enjoyed the team spirit at the Utah festival and found lots of support, along with constructive notes from USF Co-Artistic Director David Ivers.
“Tony Taccone counseled me from afar,” she said. “And former OSF AD Henry Woronicz, Northlight Theatre AD B.J. Jones, and Milwaukee Rep actor/director Laura Gordon were also directing at USF that season. Those three compatriots were a huge source of experiential wisdom for me that summer.”
Rodriguez was born in San Francisco and grew up in a family that appreciated and supported music and the arts.
“My sister has always been artistic — drawing, painting and writing poetry,” she said. “But as far as the performing arts, no one else in my family.”
She first stepped on stage in elementary school, singing “The Sound of Music” in a talent show. She was a member of the high school drama club, did a lot of musicals, sang in the high school chorus, and during summer breaks performed in community theater productions at Ohlone Jr. College in Fremont.
“I took singing lessons at Queen of the Holy Rosary School of Music in the Dominican Convent,” she said. “I got to sing with the nuns’ chorus on holy days.”
She attended many student matinee performances at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco with her high school classmates. One of the first performances that made a big impression on her was a production of “Cyrano de Bergerac.” “I was transported by it,” she said.
In the summer between her freshman and sophomore years in college, she attended some plays at the PCPA/Solvang Theatrefest in Central California.
“One night I saw Laird Williamson in the title role of Pirandello’s ‘Enrico IV.’ The next night I saw a production of Giraudoux’s ‘The Madwoman of Chaillot,’ directed by the same Laird Williamson. Those two performances changed my life.”
She left Chico State to enroll in the PCPA conservatory because of what she had seen on stage there. Her first big role at PCPA was in a production directed by her idol, Williamson.
Eventually, she earned a BA from Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, N.J., and an MFA in acting from ACT.
What’s on her bucket list?
“Anything about politics and history,” she said. “New work.”
And what’s next for Rodriguez?
“Nothing scheduled yet after ‘Chapatti,’” she said, “except spending a portion of the summer seeing plays in London with my husband, who will be there on behalf of the Dartmouth College Theatre Department. We’re very excited!”
In the interim, of course, there’s always trashy TV and Toasty Cheez-Its.
Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at email@example.com.