Diane Rodriguez, the theater maven and actress who had roles in blockbusters such as Terminator 2 and La Bamba, has been appointed to the National Council on the Arts (NCA) a year after being nominated for the position by President Barack Obama.
Rodriguez has been based in LA since the 1980s, but she grew up in San Jose, where she began her acting career with the famous Chicano theater troupe El Teatro Campesino. She says her time with the troupe, which began at the picket lines organized by Cesar Chavez, helped form her world view.
“It totally shaped my outlook on activism," the associate artistic director of the Los Angeles-based Center Theatre Group told KQED on Thursday. "On community building, on the need to be in the middle of your community because they’re the ones that support you."
"When I started working at Center Theatre Group in the mid-90s, I brought that activism here, you know, to open doors; at first for Latino artists and audiences, but [later] for artists in general. To really advocate for early career playwrights and people who weren’t able to get into these kinds of the big regional theaters that had the resources. That was all shaped at El Teatro."
The NCA advises the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) on agency policies and programs. It reviews and makes recommendations to the chairman on applications for grants, funding guidelines and leadership initiatives.
Rodriguez sees her new position as a continuation of the kind of creative and organizational advocacy she participated in when her career began. She says wants to see more activist actors, but also more activist theater administrators.
"We have to look at our younger artists coming up, and we have to instill in them this notion of activism and service," she says. "To be a good actor in life, you have to try to affect other people, and if there's change to be made, then you're an activist. You know, you've activated your life."
But what about the push for greater ethnic diversity? “It’s so glacial,” she sighs. “There’s so much more room for improvement, but at least we’re talking about it."
Besides being a director, writer, and Obie Award-winning actor, Rodriguez is also wrapping up eight years on the board of the Theater Communications Group, the largest service organization for professional theaters in the country.
Though the new position is both prestigious and time-consuming, Rodriguez says she’s still involved with El Teatro Campesino. The company will be staging one of her plays, Living Large in a Mini Kind of Way, this summer. The San Jose troupe is also co-producing her newest play, The Sweetheart Deal, which is about a couple that decides to leave their comfortable middle class life in San Jose during the Cesar Chavez-era to volunteer for El Malcriado, the underground newspaper for the United Farmworkers Union.
In this recent conversation titled "Sustaining a Career," Rodriguez talks about her early days as an actress with El Teatro Campesino. Her voice was very tiny, she explains, but she came to realize "No, you're a big girl. You should have a big voice."