“I wanted to learn everything so that I can do anything,” says Gabriel Rodriguez ’22, a University of Redlands theatre business major from Redwood City, California, on his goals coming to the University.
Over the last three years, Rodriguez has built a robust catalog of knowledge, drawing from an interdisciplinary collection of courses on directing, production, acting, economics, marketing, and more. This fall, he will direct Native Gardens—a 90-minute, one-act play about well-intentioned neighbors, an elderly white couple and a Latine couple in their early 30s, who turn into enemies in a dispute about their property line.
Honing his skills
Rodriguez, who chose to enroll at Redlands because of its proximity to Los Angeles and the entertainment industry, has known that he wanted to pursue the performing arts since he was in middle school. After learning to perform magic tricks and to juggle in an enrichment program carnival class, he was cast as a clown in a Shakespeare play and found he could use performing as a coping mechanism to deal with emotional stress.
“In high school, being involved in theatre was fun for me, but the roles were very limited because I’m ethnically ambiguous and was often cast as the token person of color,” he says. Harnessing this experience, Rodriguez became committed to increasing the visibility of artists of color. He enrolled in an independent study course taught by Professor of Theatre Arts Sylvia Cervantes Blush that encouraged him to examine theatre through a Latin lens. Exploring the work of Latin performance artists sparked a renewed interest in the discipline for him.
As a result, Rodriguez continues to engage with others about how personal identities contribute to creative work—conversations that dovetail with his activism. For him, activism is a choice that promotes thinking outside of the limited box that performers of color are often placed in. Pointing to the successes of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s productions of Hamilton and In the Heights, he asserts that representation is important, and should continue to expand with new and diverse voices.
“Unless you see yourself onstage, you don't know you belong there,” he says. “You get to decide if you want to tell the same old stories or choose to do something different. There’s a lot of talk in the theatre industry about the ramifications of the past year [of the COVID-19 pandemic]. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs overnight, which led to a lot of meetings of artists and activists on how they could make a change by telling different stories.”
At Redlands, Rodriguez has fused academics with activism. Championing a commitment to diversity, he thinks about possible productions that tell the stories of marginalized people. He also recently sat on the Theatre Arts Department Chair Search Committee to ensure the applicant pool was inclusive.
After taking a May Term course in nonprofit management with Professor of Business Administration and Management Mara Winick, Rodriguez took the steps necessary to create The Diverse Theatre Initiative (DTI), a nonprofit organization that works to challenge the systemic biases that often appear in the arts community. An integral part of the DTI is its podcast series, which features Rodriguez’s interviews with actors, musicians, artists, activists, playwrights, directors, and performers of color.
Taking charge of his education and working to make change on campus have been two of the biggest themes of Rodriguez’s time at Redlands. Noting the University’s recent Hispanic Serving Institution designation, he feels the work of students, faculty, and other community members—who worked and petitioned for that status—has only begun to be recognized.
“I’ve developed a direct and commanding voice in terms of guiding my education and experience,” he says. “Talking with professors and participating in town halls has led me to constantly think about what could be done for students in our community.”
The benefit of a Theatre Business major is its interdisciplinary nature. In addition to taking courses focused on the performing arts, students gain business administration and management skills.
In another course taught by Winick last fall, Rodriguez led a team of students who consulted for Cari Ramirez ’97 (Johnston), who was in the midst of establishing Azulado, a school for children with learning differences in Rosarito, Mexico. Splitting her time between Rosarito and Redlands, where she taught at Judson Brown Elementary School, Ramirez was passionate about art therapy and engaging with students individually. Rodriguez, who began working with students as a camp counselor in his teens, was drawn to Ramirez and her ideas on education.
The team of U of R students, who were all bilingual, worked together to build the school’s new website, featuring content in both English and Spanish to engage donors from the United States and prospective students and families from Mexico. The team was particularly aware of families who might not have access to Wi-Fi and, as a result, created posters for placement in areas that could close the gap in outreach. A new accounting system was designed to pay teachers and keep track of funds. “We conducted research to find out what was missing and worked to fulfill her community’s needs,” says Rodriguez.
Tragically, Ramirez passed away after contracting COVID-19 mere weeks after the team of students presented their plan. In the months since her death, Ramirez’s husband was contacted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and Azulado is now in the process of becoming one of the organization’s project sites. Rodriguez is comforted that Ramirez’s legacy will continue.
“Gabriel led a team of diversely skilled students to meet a client—and her board of directors’—dreams,” says Winick. “He consistently brought positive energy and a professional demeanor to the project. And his drive to understand Azulado’s needs and provide team members the feedback and direction necessary to be productive made all the difference to producing quality work. Cari was delighted and deeply grateful for the team’s contributions.”
In the future, Rodriguez looks forward to combining his knowledge of theatre and business to build on what he has accomplished at the University of Redlands. Most urgently, he sees the upcoming production of Native Gardens as an opportunity to come full circle in his identity as an activist and artist of color. Taking the long view, he hopes to enhance the Diverse Theatre Initiative, while also working with, coaching, and teaching theatre students.
Regardless of what the future holds, he’ll always come back to what captivated him about theatre in the first place. “It’s different every night, whether I’m in rehearsal or the final performance,” he says. “Still, theatre doesn't happen in a bubble. It’s important for people to know the arts are an outlet for self-expression available to anyone.”