Taking the Stage
Jacob Padrón plans dramatic changes for New Haven theater
By Frank Rizzo
Jacob G. Padrón stands outside Long Wharf Theatre, located in the middle of the New Haven Food Terminal on the outskirts of the city. The building is closed and its large outdoor parking lot is nearly vacant. It’s oddly quiet on a sunny summer afternoon, the silence broken only by the hum of the nearby highway and the occasional squawk of a seagull. We are meeting to take some photographs and talk about his career, his evolution as a gay man, and these unexpected times.
Outside the theater, a poster promotes a season that was cut short in March by the pandemic. This wasn’t how Padrón imagined his inaugural season when he became the theater’s new artistic director. But Long Wharf’s dire financial struggles and the Covid-19 crisis decimated plans to transform the Tony Award-honored theater from one that was on the verge of collapse into one that would hopefully thrive as it became rooted in and reflective of its city.
“There’s sadness about not being able to be in the space, but I also look at the promise of what is to come, too,” says Padrón, a soft-spoken, measured man whose seriousness of tone is balanced and brightened by a glistening smile.
“He’s not an ostentatious kind of guy,” says Stephanie Ybarra, a classmate of Padrón’s when both were students at the Yale School of Drama and who is now artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage. “Not in his personal life and not in his artistry. He is thoughtful, reflective and deliberate in his leadership – and in his relationships.”
Like Ybarra, Padrón is one of many people of color or women who are part of a new wave of leadership at not-for-profit regional theaters across the country, one with a goal of systemic change towards equality, diversity, and inclusion. Padrón, 40, is a third-generation Mexican-American, a social activist, and a gay man who came out in his mid-20s.
“Jacob’s journey is one of understanding and exploring how that part of his gay identity intersects with his Latinx identity, intersects with his Catholic upbringing, intersects with his artistry,” says Ybarra, one of the first people Padrón came out to about 15 years ago at Yale. “The fact that he is gay did not become the sole way he defined himself, but rather contributed to this beautiful tapestry of identities that were already operating within Jacob.”
Padron says each part of his identity has informed his values and often complement each other – but not always.
“I love the values the Catholic church has instilled in me but I also struggle with other parts of it,” he says. “The same thing with being gay. There are aspects of the gay community that I love and others I am challenged by – like the body shaming and the premium based on external factors. So, with each of those pieces of my identity there is both the good and the bad.”
The son of a business inspector for the state and a bookkeeper, Padrón grew up with an older brother and sister, and a younger sister, in the conservative community of Gilroy, Calif., 80 miles south of San Francisco, self-promoted as the “garlic capital of the world” and last year the site of a mass shooting at its annual festival.
Padrón came of age in the ‘90s during the specter of HIV and AIDS. “For my generation, to be gay meant to be sick or to have so much fear about sex and intimacy,” he says. “So much has changed now but yes, that was always a trauma for me, and I think it still lives in my body.”
Reflecting on his youth, he says: “I think I was outgoing, but I struggled with social pressures in terms of fitting in, finding my way. I definitely didn’t have a great high school experience – the way in which high schoolers now are able to express themselves. There was a fair amount of teasing, actually, which was really difficult. At that age, I’m not sure I even had cognizance of being different. If I was attracted to other men, I wasn’t at all ready to acknowledge that.”
In his junior year of high school, Padrón moved in with his grandparents, who lived 25 miles away, so he could go to another school which his cousins attended – one he felt was more friendly and safe.
His first experience in theater was when he was a boy at the Children’s Musical Theater of San Jose in “The Wiz” and “Peter Pan,” he recalls, “but it wasn’t a particularly joyful experience because there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me. I remember the white kids being really dismissive and already, at that young age, I was feeling the dynamics of microaggressions.”
It wasn’t until he experienced a different type of theater – the civic-centric, Latinx-based El Teatro Campesino in nearby San Juan Bautista – during his teen years that he felt a special connection, one in which he not only felt refuge and comfort but a sense of community and purpose. “That’s where I understood that theater could be a catalyst for social justice,” he says of the company.
Though he took some directing classes when he went to Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, his interest in college turned to social work. After he graduated in 2003, Padrón joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and worked for a year in North Carolina, providing support for those living with HIV and AIDS. During an internship at Baltimore Center Stage, he felt the pull of the theater – and the power in its storytelling. He decided his passion for social justice and love of the theater could be compatible.
In 2005, Padrón arrived at the Yale School of Drama for its theater management program but still had not come out as a gay man. He says he was “still in the questioning, rather than accepting, stage. I was dating women, and even in college I had a pretty serious girlfriend whom I thought I was going to marry. So it was a real pivot when I got to graduate school.”
In his second year at Yale, Padrón had an internship at Los Angeles’ Centre Theater Group. “During that time, I met this gentleman and when people talk about falling in love and your heart really swelling, being really so happy to be in someone’s orbit – that, for me, was the moment where I thought, ‘Oh, this is what it means to be in love.’ That was the moment that I knew I wanted to live freely and joyfully as a gay person and to really embrace my gay identity. It was also the time I told my family.”
On the last night of a visit to Gilroy that year, he came out to his older sister and brother-in-law. “They were very supportive, and my sister asked me, ‘When are you going to tell Mom and Dad?’ It was around midnight and I told her I would tell them before I went to the airport in the morning and she said, ‘No, I think you tell them right now. Let’s go! Let’s do it!’”
His father was asleep, but his mother was in another room, awake. “My sister sort of opened the door for me and said, ‘So Mom, Jacob and I had a really good night, and we talked about a lot of things and he has something to share with you. Jacob…?’”
Padrón gives a great grin at that moment of the retelling. “It went well,” he says. “My parents are very supportive. I come from a very religious family and, like so many Latinx families, very Catholic. But for my family, it’s about placing love and acceptance at the center.” He says he is now in a relationship.
For the next 10 years, Padrón’s career touched on some of the leading institutions of American theater. While still at Yale, Padrón so impressed Bill Rauch, who was about to take over at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), that he offered him a job as associate producer on the spot.
“I felt like we were in deep synch about the importance of equity, diversity, and inclusion,” says Rauch, who is now the inaugural artistic director of The Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center in New York City. “I thought Jacob had so much positive energy and was so thoughtful about the kind of culture we wanted to create there – and for the American theater.”
But after four years in rural Oregon, Padrón yearned for an urban, diverse environment and went to work at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. There he oversaw the artistic programming for the Garage, Steppenwolf’s second stage dedicated to new work, artists, and audiences. It is a period that he remembers with mixed emotions.
“It was really a difficult time,” he says. “Martha [Lavey, the artistic director] was really tough on me. She was smart and passionate but my experience with her was that if she didn’t believe you to be worthy of her intelligence, she didn’t engage with you. Steppenwolf is a predominantly white institution so navigating that was really painful as a Latinx person, and as one of the few people of color there. Nonetheless, I’m grateful for my experience there because I learned a lot.”
Padrón says it was frustrating trying to change the institution solely from the inside. “I was trying to bring my value system and to shift the culture by advocating for artists of color by asking critical questions but it was painful work. The OSF was probably where I felt the most empowered with Bill Rauch. I felt he really listened to me and was open to feedback and critique.” Padrón left Steppenwolf in 2013 to work at New York’s The Public Theater as senior line producer.
“One of the things I love most about The Public was that you were never unclear about why you were there, that it was about [founder] Joe Papp’s mission of being in a theater company formed by the people and being deeply committed to social justice.”
During his time there, the musical “Hamilton” was developed ahead of its 2015 premiere. “That was really exciting, and I got to go to those early workshops and be part of that experience as a member of the artistic staff.” Padrón also worked with his Yale classmate, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, for a new play at The Public, “Head of Passes,” which starred Phylicia Rashad.
“But it could also be very challenging there, too,” he says. “Even at The Public, we have to do a better job of amplifying the voices of Latinx stories. It’s just not happening. New York City is a city of Latinos, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, and their stories are nowhere to be found.”
It was at The Public in 2016 where Padrón had the idea for an initiative which would become The Sol Project, designed to amplify the voices of Latinx playwrights and build artistic homes for artists of color nationwide.
“Once it was launched and it started to take off, that’s when I decided to leave The Public and focus on The Sol Project full time.”
In early 2019, Long Wharf Theatre named Padrón its artistic director. Soon after, Hope Chávez was named artistic producer and Kit Ingui joined as managing director. (Padrón remains artistic director of The Sol Project and also teaches at the Yale School of Drama.) Padrón arrived at a time when the theater is in a financially perilous state.
“The board realized they could no longer do business as usual,” he says. “The organization was in crisis and it continues to be so. I also walked into a culture that was unhealthy and unsafe. There was a lot that needed to happen.”
He adds, “The city has always had activism as part of its DNA. I’m excited for Long Wharf to be part of the connective tissue that brings neighborhoods together, for Long Wharf to be held accountable to its community around the work of social justice and anti-racism, for the way in which we can all transform and grow together as a civic institution and as a civic community.”
Says Ybarra: “Jacob inherited quite a heavy lift but now he can do what he does best. Jacob sitting in the artistic director’s seat carries with him, even among all of the scarcity, a spirit of abundance, joy, and hope.”
Padrón had announced the 2020-21 season – its theater’s 55th – just as the pandemic began in March. That season will now jump a year and begin in late 2021. But Padrón is planning activity before then, with the theater leaving its safe haven on the outskirts of the city to present some programming throughout New Haven.
“One city, but many stages,” says Padrón. “But it really is going to be up to all of us working together, working in partnership, around this vision of what it means to be a theater company that is for the community. Art has a bigger purpose to play, especially now.”