Jacob Padrón

The views and opinions expressed by speakers and presenters in connection with Art Restart are their own, and not an endorsement by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts and the UNC School of the Arts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In February of 2022, Long Wharf Theatre, one of the country’s most respected regional theaters, released a bold statement. Starting with its 2022/23 season, the theater will not renew the lease on the space it has occupied for 57 years on the outskirts of New Haven, CT. Rather, under the leadership of artistic director Jacob Padrón, who joined Long Wharf in late 2018, the theater will commit at least for a few years to an itinerant production model that “will prioritize equity, accessibility and transparency, guided by three core pillars: revolutionary partnerships, artistic innovation, and radical inclusion.”

Coming at a time when, especially in the wake of the pandemic, theaters all over the country are grappling with ways to reinvigorate and diversify their production models as well as their audience base, Long Wharf’s announcement made waves. Did this mark the beginning of the end of the traditional regional-theater model? 

In this interview with Pier Carlo Talenti, Jacob — who is also the founder and artistic director of The Sol Project and whose career includes innovative producing stints at such august institutions as Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and New York’s Public Theater — explains the impetus for this sea change in the theater’s production model. He also imagines a new path forward not only for his own theater but for the field as a whole.

Choose a question below to begin exploring the interview:

Pier Carlo Talenti: What were your original plans for Long Wharf when you first arrived at the end of 2018? And then how did the events of the last two years change those plans?

Jacob Padrón: I think that my original plans were to build on the theater’s history of innovation and its legacy. Long Wharf Theatre has an extraordinary history. It’s been an artistic home for some of the most exciting artists. It’s been the birthplace of really amazing new work, new plays. It had built a loyal audience base and a real artistic community. The plan was how to hold onto that, hold onto the best chapters of our past as a bridge to our future, which in my mind was about making the theater more accessible, allowing the theater to reflect the kaleidoscope of our city and of our world. 

I love that word, kaleidoscope. That word, I think, is kind of an organizing principle for me as a theater producer. It means to make sure that your stage and the composition of your staff and the boardroom and your community partners, again, reflect the city and the region that you’re in.

I love that word, kaleidoscope. That word, I think, is kind of an organizing principle for me as a theater producer. It means to make sure that your stage and the composition of your staff and the boardroom and your community partners, again, reflect the city and the region that you’re in.

That was always the plan. The plan was, “Let’s make the tent bigger. Let’s make the table wider. Let’s bring more chairs to that table.” And we were on our way; we were on our way. I remember one of the questions that a board member asked me when I was interviewing for the job. He said, “All right, Jacob, so you’re six months into the job. What will you have accomplished?” And I said: “Jim, it’s such a great question. I would say, if I’m really doing my job well, you’re actually not going to see me behind my desk. My job in joining this community and being the new artistic director is to listen, is to go on a really robust listening tour and to begin to build new bridges and to strengthen existing ones. The way that you do that work is not from behind a desk but by being out in community.”

The pandemic really stalled that work, really stalled the ability to strengthen those relationships and to build new relationships. You know this, Pier Carlo, that cultural transformation is all about how we engage people and how we engage in relationships with each other. That’s been really tough because of the pandemic, our inability to connect in person. Not to say that Zoom and the virtual space aren’t a productive space, but it’s been tough.

Pier Carlo: So you had these plans to expand the umbrella, but during the pandemic years, when you actually couldn’t speak to the people whom you’d invite under that umbrella, you couldn’t know what it could look like or what the community needed.

Jacob: Exactly. And I also think that the path forward or the future vision of Long Wharf Theatre was going to be really expressed by our programming and by my inaugural season. I took about 14 months to plan that season. I remember when I started, they asked me, “Do you want to jump right in and start planning?” And I said, “No, actually, again, I want to do the work of listening. I want to do the work of building. I want to do the work of reflecting. And then I want to figure out how we really put into action this idea of making the table larger and reflecting that kaleidoscopic value of inclusivity.” 

So I put together what I thought was a pretty dynamic season, a season that I think really built on our history of innovation, that really connected to those who had been coming for many, many years to Long Wharf Theatre in that they could still see themselves in the work. It was a real nod to, “This is where we’re going.” It was a nod to, “Long Wharf Theatre can be a space for everyone.” It was five projects that included a new play, that included a classic, that included a work that was going to be produced in partnership with a local theater company, Collective Consciousness Theatre. It also included a play that we were going to do in partnership with an Off-Broadway company. Then we were going to close our season with a major revival of one of my favorite musicals, “Jelly’s Last Jam,” directed by Patricia McGregor. 

Pier Carlo, we announced that on March 11th of 2020, and two days later the shutdown happened! That has been really hard because, again, it was a season that reflected, I think, our values. It reflected on, “We are building on history, and look at where we’re going now.” So to not be able to do that season, I think, has been incredibly painful, and I hope maybe someday we’ll be able to get back there.

Pier Carlo: So not only were you not able to launch your first season that expressed your hopes for the aesthetic and community future of Long Wharf, but then it turns out you also had to leave your space. So that’s extra-challenging, I imagine.

Jacob: It is. It is, although I see it as such a tremendous opportunity as well. I think that there were several factors that led to us having to move out of our space, one of which you’ve already mentioned around our lease. Our lease was going to expire in June of this year, and so it provided an opportunity for us to really sit with that, to sit with that reality of, what do we want to do? What is the next chapter of Long Wharf Theatre, in the context of a racial reckoning, in the context of cultural transformation, really not just in the theater space but in the arts-and-culture space, in the context of the question that’s being asked of all of us, which is, “How do you want to show up? How do you want to be in relationship to your community? How do you want to engage in conversation with your audience? What does it mean to be a theater company of the 21st century?”

I think it was about that, and it was about the fact that maintaining a building is very expensive, right? The overhead costs and all that goes into maintaining a building. The other thing that we thought about was accessibility. Long Wharf Theatre is located in a space that was always meant to be a temporary space, very difficult to get to. It sits on the outskirts of the city, easy to get to for those who don’t live necessarily in New Haven because it’s right off the highway. But for those who don’t have access to a car, public transportation is really tough.

Pier Carlo: Yeah. I remember the first time I visited, I took the train, and I was surprised that I had to take a taxi to get there.

Jacob: Yes, it’s really inaccessible. And so that, coupled with this idea of, if we want to be a theater company for everyone, if we want to reflect the richness of our city and our region, is this also an opportunity to really rethink what a regional theater can be, less about bricks and mortar and more about people and relationships? 

We wanted to do something a little bit different, which was about building and co-creating and co-constructing with community to figure out what should that future look like.

As you know, the itinerant model is not a new model, but it’s not a model that necessarily sits on top of the regional-theater model. We’ve seen theater companies go from one space into a new space, usually a much bigger space. They launch a capital campaign. They find a temporary home for the few seasons that they’re raising money and building the new theater or building the new campus. But we wanted to do something a little bit different, which was about building and co-creating and co-constructing with community to figure out what should that future look like. If we were to go right into a new building, it wouldn’t give us an opportunity to engage the community in deep and meaningful ways.

We’re truly building the plane as we’re flying the plane. I think even that model is something that the American theater doesn’t always do. Folks want concrete answers, even now. “What does this mean? Where are you going? Where am I going to park? Are you still going to have subscription? What is this membership?” It’s all of those things. I recognize that change is hard, and change provides an opportunity to activate our collective imagination, to dream into the future and to conjure what does not yet exist. I think that’s the invitation. The invitation is, “Let’s write the next chapter of Long Wharf Theatre together.” I think that’s what I’m trying to center. 

Of course, there are challenges. Of course, folks are nervous about what this means. I mean, I’ve had folks even say flat out, “You’re going to fail. This is a terrible idea.” And I say, “OK, I hear you. And let’s dream. Let’s dream together. And again, let’s activate that collective imagination for what’s possible for our future.”

Pier Carlo: What are you hearing from artists about doing more of their work in the community?

Jacob: You know, there has been a lot of excitement, a lot of excitement! I’m thinking about one artist in particular whose project we’re developing. It’s a one-man show about climate justice. There’s music, and it’s inspired by the movie musical “Singin’ in the Rain.” For this artist, it kind of unlocked, I think, a number of things. What he said to me was: “I can now reimagine my relationship to this project because I get to think about what’s the right container. What is the right container for this project now? What is my relationship to the land? What is my relationship to the audience now? I get to think about my project not in the context of four walls and a stage, which is a theater, but more about, what is the container that’s going to allow this particular story to be unlocked in new and exciting ways?” I think that’s exciting to artists, that we get to be bespoke in a certain kind of way. 

I imagine some artists may say, “You know, actually, Jacob, no. I want my project in a theater.” And that can still be a part of the offering. “I want the proscenium. I want the three-quarter thrust. I want the in-the-round. I don’t want to be in a found space or outside.” And that can be, again, “What’s the right container for the project that we are building with you?” I think it allows us to be much more flexible and imaginative in how we think about that.

Pier Carlo: It’s kind of wonderful this image that you’re describing, flying the plane as you’re building it. It’s a beautiful, scary, exciting experiment. As you’re going to be testing things out, do you have a sense of what you’re hoping the plane will look like or how it will fly in two or three years? 

Jacob: [He laughs.] I think it is something that I am reflecting on. In my head I can see it, but the ability to articulate it, I think, is like a feeling in my body. It’s a sensation I think that I have. Sometimes I have these flashes of experiencing the work of Long Wharf Theatre in new and exciting ways that I can see so vividly. And I think that it’s asking folks to be patient with us and, again, to journey with us. 

If we’re using that metaphor, I think that that plane is incredibly sturdy, that plane is vibrant, that plane is multicolored, that plane is still doing the thing that it does best, which I guess, with the plane metaphor, it’s flying a beautiful flight, and — to bring it back to theater — we are still going to tell great stories. We’re still going to make great theater. 

I think that maybe that part of the fear is: “Well, what does that mean? Are we still going to see that classic play that we love so much? Does it mean that we’re still going to see that world-premiere play where we know that we’re getting to see at first before it goes on to have extended life across the country and in New York City? Does that mean that our youth and that the next generation of theater makers and theater lovers are still going to be a part of the life of Long Wharf Theatre?” And the answer without equivocation is yes! Yes, yes, yes. It might look a little bit different, but we are still going to be a great theater company. 

And in my mind, just to give you a sense of like, “OK, well, Jacob, talk to me about what a season would look like,” what if we opened this season with this fantastic reimagined production of “The Crucible” at the New Haven Armory? Then we go to the New Haven Green, and we see an exquisite dance piece that’s commissioned by someone like Savion Glover or Justin Peck, and it’s made with our youth and really celebrates the history of music and dance that is New Haven. And then we go into a museum, and we get to experience maybe a piece that’s created in partnership with a local opera company and a playwright. They come together and make something that you can’t even put words to right now, and we activate a museum space in a way that we don’t often think about. And you drive down Chapel Street or you drive down York Street, which is sort of in the middle of downtown, and you see banners of Long Wharf Theatre on the light post.

It’s that kind of immersion, that kind of, again, kaleidoscope, that kind of vibrancy that I think is at the center of this invitation. And again, it’s that thing of, “You’re a regional theater; what is your relationship to the region?” 

Pier Carlo: It’s a big change because, of course, during the first movement of regional theaters in 1965, around when Long Wharf was created, a lot of temples of culture were built, right?

Jacob: Yes.

Pier Carlo: I mean, in terms of Center Theatre Group, where you and I both met, a residential hill was literally kind of half-razed to create this gleaming temple of culture, which was an exciting place to visit because it’s beautiful and fancy, but it was also completely disconnected from the community. So I’m wondering if you think that the next movement for regional theater might be to let go of these temples and really scatter culture throughout the community.

I think this is where we can think about how we center a mentality of abundance rather than a mentality of scarcity. What I mean by that is I think that we can do a better job of having these buildings, having bricks and mortar, but making sure that those spaces are accessible and open, both physically open and metaphorically open, to the people that we’re actually trying to be in relationship with.

Jacob: Well, I think it’s a “yes and.” I think this is where we can think about how we center a mentality of abundance rather than a mentality of scarcity. What I mean by that is I think that we can do a better job of having these buildings, having bricks and mortar, but making sure that those spaces are accessible and open, both physically open and metaphorically open, to the people that we’re actually trying to be in relationship with. And we can still create and build and construct with community in different parts of our region so that it’s not just about “Come to us.” You can still be anchored by a space, and you can still make work outside of that space. That’s sort of also how I’m thinking about the future for Long Wharf Theatre.

Pier Carlo: So there might be an anchoring space.

Jacob: Yes, the idea of a campus. I’ve talked very openly about “What does it mean for Long Wharf Theatre to have a campus?” But even the idea of a campus, you think of a constellation of buildings together, but I think no, no, no, a campus can be expansive. A campus can be that anchoring space, say, in downtown, but you then have these other spaces around the region that are connected to the life of Long Wharf Theatre, these other spaces where you make work, these other spaces that allow the community in different neighborhoods to engage with your work. So that excites me, and I wonder if that could also be a part of our future.

Pier Carlo: What have you heard from your colleagues, from other artistic directors? Without naming names — [laughing] we don’t want to put anyone on the spot — what are you hearing generally? I wonder if they really envy you or if they think you’re crazy.

Jacob: I think there’s probably a little bit of both. I think sometimes it’s really easy to share love and affirmation when maybe you’re not in the hot seat. [He laughs.] I would say by and large there’s been a lot of support, and I’ve felt very buoyed and very grateful, I think, for the way that the community of other artistic directors and executive leaders and leaders in the field that I really admire have been incredibly supportive and also have been able to lend their wisdom, lend their ear.

We’ve been having these town halls, virtual town halls, as a way to begin the process of engaging with community and saying, “OK, this new chapter for Long Wharf Theatre, how do we want to build together?” They’re meant to be both listening sessions, information-gathering sessions, and also a place for us to share a little bit more context. Some of the artistic directors of other theater companies have joined those sessions just in solidarity and in support.

In this last virtual town hall that we had on Thursday, we opened up the chat. That was a big decision. We were like, “We need to be able to give people the opportunity to share and reflect.” And as you can imagine, Pier Carlo, there were some very spirited, shall I say, comments, and there was one artistic director who just got in there and she just shared so much wisdom and so much affirmation. She said that Long Wharf Theatre needs to be thinking in this way and that this is an invitation for the field to reimagine, and we have to support each other. 

And that is a shift that I think we are seeing. I think the way that we are coming together as artistic leaders to support each other and challenge each other and affirm each other, I think that that is only going to make our ecosystem just so much stronger and healthier. When we have moments where an artistic director comes to your virtual town hall and shows up in that way and is vocal in the face of some real naysayers, what a powerful moment! It was such a moment for me, and I felt very, very cared for in a way that was just very moving. I think if we could do more of that in terms of how we show up for each other and how we just love each other and support each other, I think it’ll make us a stronger field.

Pier Carlo: Throughout your career, you’ve placed racial and cultural equity in the theater at the heart of your work and your mission. What’s your assessment of how the American theater has risen to that responsibility, given the last couple of years? And what do you think is the work that has yet to be done in the field? 

Jacob: Well, I mean, I think first I am grateful that the curtain has been pulled back, and I am grateful for the space that I think has been given and the space that needs to be taken to talk about the injustices and the systems that have harmed and sidelined people of color within our field. I’m deeply grateful for “We See You, White American Theater.” I am deeply grateful for other organizers that have come together to amplify the struggle and to demand accountability and the dismantling of these systems that get in the way of us being an inclusive and thriving American theater.

I think that some theater companies are responding to that with a real robustness, if that’s a word, a real sense of responsibility and an eagerness and that it doesn’t feel patchwork. But I do think that when we were all grappling with the death of George Floyd, everyone flooded to release statements, and while statements of solidarity and statements of support are important, I think it’s about action and it needs to be sustained action. I think that’s where we are. 

I think there needs to be more action, and in some ways I even place myself in that. I think that at Long Wharf Theatre certainly there is more we can do. There is more we can do in the service of a more just and liberated and inclusive American theater. And it truly is lifelong work, the work of anti-racism, the work of dismantling these systems that are often calcified within our institutions. 

And I’m really grateful for my community that is The Sol Project because I think that has also been a place where I can be in community and in space with other people of color.

Pier Carlo: Can you talk a little bit about The Sol Project?

Jacob: Sure, sure. The Sol Project is an initiative that a group of Latinx Theater artists and I started back in 2016 when we wanted to really move the needle on representation of Latinx stories and storytellers. What we do is we partner with Off-Broadway theaters to produce work by Latiné playwrights. We’ve done six productions. We’re on our seventh right now in partnership with Soho Rep; we’re doing a world premiere. It’s our way to try to participate in moving the needle to really radically shift the frequency by which Latiné playwrights are produced on our most visible stages.

The focus has primarily been New York City, but we have partnered with companies outside of New York. We partnered with Yale Rep; we’ve partnered with the Magic Theatre in San Francisco; we’ve partnered with others in other parts of the country. But it’s staggering, it’s staggering in New York City and certainly in major cities across the country where Latinx folks make up a huge part of our population that there is a continued erasure of our stories and that we’re not at the table. 

The Sol Project is trying to create an intervention to say that our stories are important, our stories are American stories, and also that we’re not a monolith. What The Sol Project is also trying to do is create that kaleidoscopic body of work that really reflects Latinidad in all of its colors and in all of its complexities.

I think when we talk about what is happening in terms of that racial reckoning, The Sol Project has been a space that continues to nourish and continues to get me excited about the impact that we are trying to make. And we’re just one piece. We recognize that The Sol Project won’t be able to solve all of the things, and there are so many artists who are so deserving that we won’t necessarily be able to support. We just hope that we are planting seeds.

Pier Carlo: I can’t imagine how stressful the last three and a half, four years have been for you, given all the challenges that were heaped on you. What have you learned about your leadership skills and your artistic spirit since you arrived at Long Wharf?

Jacob: I have learned, I think, many, many things. I have learned that it is OK if you don’t have all of the answers. I think that sometimes maybe there’s that expectation that you as a leader are kind of all-knowing.

Pier Carlo: Is that not something boards of directors expect?

I say to my students that one of the most powerful things that you can do as a leader is to say, 'I don’t know.'

Jacob: [He laughs.] I teach at the Drama School at Yale, and I say to my students that one of the most powerful things that you can do as a leader is to say, “I don’t know.” It makes me think of something that my former chair of the theater management program once said in a leadership class. He said, “Great leaders are not just concerned with being right. They are deeply concerned with figuring out when they’re wrong.” 

So that investigation of “Am I wrong? Do I know what to do? Maybe I don’t,” leads me to my second thing that I’ve learned, which is the power of shared leadership, the power of coming together and making an analysis or a decision or a reflection together. I think of trying to do more of that, trying to model more of that, and that’s hard. That’s hard work because our organizations aren’t necessarily set up for that.

The other thing that I think I’ve learned is, it’s OK to pause and it’s OK to reflect. I think sometimes the nature of our work is that you just feel like you’re on the merry-go-round, you’re constantly hustling, and you’re holding so many things. And this is really a credit to my staff, I think, really encouraging the importance of carving out space for reflection, for self-care, for work/life balance. I think we talk about that a lot in our field but don’t necessarily do anything about it. One of the things that we’re trying to model at Long Wharf — imperfectly, totally imperfectly — is to say to people, “Take the time that you need, if you need to tap out, if you need this space for reflection, if you need to do whatever you need to do to care for yourself.” Because I think when we are of sound mind, body and spirit, it allows us to do better work.

It’s also about inviting people to bring all parts of themselves to their work. I think that the mythology of, “You’re now at work or you’re now in the rehearsal room or you’re now in tech, and so you’ve got to just grind it out,” I think that is not serving us. The more that we can bring all parts of ourselves, even the parts that are complicated, even the parts when we mess up, and acknowledge that I am imperfect, I am going to make mistakes. I’m still understanding my own relationship to my power. It is a journey, and I think that being able to engage in a spirit of self-reflection rather than self-righteousness is really important in our work forward.

April 25, 2022