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Exclusive Interview: The Woodlawn Theatre’s Christopher Rodriguez

Christopher Rodriguez, Executive/Artistic Director of the Woodlawn, stands in front of the theater’s marquee.

Christopher Rodriguez, the Executive/Artistic Director of the Woodlawn Theatre, recently spoke with ArtScene SA about the state of performing arts in San Antonio, the Woodlawn’s new ownership and the creative process behind its upcoming production, a revival of the musical Hello, Dolly!, which he also directed and choreographed.

San Antonio native and Hello, Dolly! expert Trevor Chauvin, who currently resides in New York, was kind enough to help us out with some questions about the show.

What are you bringing to the piece to put your stamp on it?

We’re bringing back Dolly to show that an old warhorse still can have meaning — and it still has something to say to today’s society. Some people just think of it as a “fluff” Broadway show, but there’s a lot of heart there. We want to show people that there’s more to take away from it than just song and dance.

So we’re kind of reviving this in the Woodlawn fashion and adding some new technical elements. Since we don’t have the normal fly system, our set designer, Benjamin Grabill, is always really creative about how he puts together the sets.

We also have a wonderful cast. Our star, Anna Gangai (as Dolly Levi), and her counterpart Tim Hedgepeth (as Horace Vandergelder), are both doing a great job.

You kind of answered this already, but let me ask one of Trevor Chauvin’s questions. There’s a deeply human side to Dolly’s journey. How do you plan to highlight that among the sparkle of the piece so it isn’t lost?

With this piece, a lot of people think it’s just about Dolly being the matchmaker, setting up these people who are kind of stuck where they are. They’ve either lost someone they’ve loved, or they’ve already had that love, or they’re really green at it and haven’t taken a chance. Dolly is the kind of person who tells people to go out on a limb and have the adventure. Take a chance and do everything while you still can!

Again from Trevor: Speaking of the set, how are you handling the large number of locations in Hello, Dolly!?

We’re doing a few projections. And I feel like people always walk away talking about that one iconic number. So I told Benjamin to start with that number and build upon it. The highlight, the “wow” moment, is when the curtain opens and we see the Harmonia Gardens. Dolly enters and comes down that staircase. That should be our focal point and our “pop.” Our Vandergelder set is comprised of five pieces that come together like a puzzle to create this wonderful, massive set that forms the feed store.

Trevor also wonders that since the role of Dolly is one of the classic characters in theater, where are you drawing your inspiration from, both modern and vintage?

It’s such an iconic role. Carol Channing in 1964, and Barbra Streisand in 1969…

When she was too young…

(Laughs). Even though it’s a great performance and a great movie, she is definitely too young for it. The more recent revivals with Bette [Midler], Bernadette [Peters] and Donna [Murphy] were all about how Dolly lives her life, with the actresses putting their personal stamp on it.

Anna has also brought a lot of personal touches, and together we’ve been able to tell her story on stage without being too melodramatic…or too simple. There’s that fine line. Dolly is bigger than life, but we also wanted to make sure she didn’t lose that human side.

As for the rest of the cast, did you give them any homework? There’s so much material and so many productions to fall back on.

At the beginning of the rehearsal process, I asked the cast to tell me, regardless of the role, what their adventure is in the show. We already know what Dolly, Cornelius and Barnaby are doing, because it’s written in the script. But even with the ensemble members I asked, “What’s your journey?” We’ve challenged everyone so that not only are the leads having an adventure, the ensemble is as well.

Another Trevor question: The latest Broadway staging touted an exact restaging of the classic. Where will your production fall in the balance of classic and expected and exciting and new?

There are certainly iconic moments in the style, or in a certain dance step, that we may draw inspiration from. Since our set is so different and our cast isn’t as large, we’ve created a hybrid for our own Woodlawn production.

The cast of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ (photo courtesy Woodlawn Theatre).

Has the Woodlawn’s change in ownership been finalized?

Yes, there’s new ownership. Sherry Wehner is still part owner, and then we have a new owner from Austin named Trevor Titman. He’s great, and he really wants to cultivate the Deco District. He wants to create more of an arts atmosphere and build more of a community around the Woodlawn.

He really sees the value in the theater, and he only wants to help us out. We’re looking forward to seeing all the wonderful things he has in store for us.

This is at a time when several theaters in town are enlarging and changing.

Yes. Our kids’ education program is really booming. Arts education is something that’s really important to the Woodlawn, whether it’s educating our audiences through different types of shows, holding an adults’ dance class, but it’s really about the youth — the future of San Antonio. We offer a wide variety of classes throughout the year.

What keeps you here at the Woodlawn?

I arrived about three months after it became a nonprofit, and I think what I liked most about it was being a part of the future of this theater…and the future of theater in San Antonio.

I embrace the phrase “community theater.” Some people consider it to be a negative connotation, but I think it’s wonderful to have volunteers who contribute their time. They have normal day jobs and busy lives, but they come here in the evening to contribute their time and talent to put a show on for the community.

And all the outreach we do here — we work with nonprofits, and we work with schools. It’s all about pulling together to cultivate the arts in the city. And it’s a fun place to work!

Hello, Dolly! runs Aug. 24 through Sept. 16. The theater’s fifth annual Deco Gala will be held at the Plaza Club on Sept. 22. Tickets for both are available here.

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