Anthony Rodriguez of Aurora Theatre: “Meet people where they are and not where you want them to be”

“Meet people where they are and not where you want them to be.” I was in the 2013 class of Atlanta Regional Commission’s Regional Leadership Institute and Stacey Abrams was our first speaker. Her words hit me right in the heart. She may not be the first to have used these words, but it was […]

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“Meet people where they are and not where you want them to be.” I was in the 2013 class of Atlanta Regional Commission’s Regional Leadership Institute and Stacey Abrams was our first speaker. Her words hit me right in the heart. She may not be the first to have used these words, but it was the first time they hit me in way that deeply resonated.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anthony Rodriguez.

Anthony Rodriguez serves as the Co-Founder and Producing Artistic Director of Aurora Theatre. His greatest accomplishment to date was the successful negotiation to relocate Aurora Theatre to downtown Lawrenceville, Ga., where it serves as the cornerstone for their revitalization.

Accomplishments include Learning Library, an educational theatre program; Aurora’s Apprenticeship for recent college graduates; Aurora Academy and Conservatory, where students learn about theater from working professionals; Aurora’s Musicals by Moonlight, an annual outdoor summer concert; Cabaret and Comedy Series, featuring musical and stand-up comedy evenings between events; and Teatro Aurora, a professional Spanish-language theater company that was created to highlight Latino cultural heritage and to help build social bridges in the community.

Prior to being named Chair of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, Rodriguez served as Chair-Elect and Vice Chair of Arts for the Gwinnett Chamber and Chair of Partnership Gwinnet. Rodriguez is a member of Screen Actor’s Guild, Theatre Communications Group, Duluth Rotary Club and the national steering committee for the Latino Theatre Commons. He is a graduate of Marist High School, the University of Georgia with a BFA in theatre, the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Regional Leadership Institute and the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures’ Leadership Institute.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory?” What led you to this particular career path?

I’d been interested in performing from an early age, but never really thought it would be my life’s pursuit. But when I went to college, I decided it was the path I would forge. Running a theater was also not part of my “plan,” but life has a way of conspiring against you, challenging you to lead, putting you in the place you should be. I must’ve been at the right place, right time when Aurora Theatre was born.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Aurora Theatre is more than a theater; it’s a place of belonging. We care as much about providing connections that will uplift our community as we do about creating art.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’m not sure if I’d call it a mistake, and it certainly isn’t funny, but I did make the assumption that as a new business, we wouldn’t have any baggage or bad reputation following us. Yet at my first gathering of local businesses, I quickly found out that the previous theater that occupied our space had left without paying some of their bills to local merchants. Although we were not responsible for this debt, we made every effort to settle it with those vendors. Luckily, it wasn’t a huge amount of money.

Rectifying a bad situation gained us a great amount of respect with the community. If the perception is that your company has wronged a community, that becomes the reality. Fix it or suffer the consequences.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

There are far too many to mention but Barbara Howard and her husband Henry, both who have since passed away, were huge mentors and supporters of our work. Barbara cared deeply about personal connection and had the ability to lead with grace. Not everyone can lead from a place of grace, but she made it look easy.

Jack Vaiden, who I worked with in the hotel industry many years prior to starting Aurora Theatre, taught me how to make customer service a core value and how to do it with kindness and respect.

Dr. Dan Kaufman is my biggest business mentor. As the first president of Georgia Gwinnett College, the President and CEO of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce and a brigadier general, he always believed in my ability to lead and provided me with many opportunities to be part of the business community. People often categorize theater as unimportant, an “extra” frivolous business, but Dan recognized that we are a powerful small business, always worthy of investment.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time?’ Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive?’ Can you share some examples of what you mean?

The theater has a lot of traditions, many of which have been incredibly oppressive to the workforce. The saying, “The show must go on,” does not convey reasonable expectations. Enduring long rehearsal weeks with less than a day off, asking artists to put themselves in uncomfortable situations for the sake of the art, along with other “traditions” have stood the test of time. Today, the industry is working to disrupt and change old, entrenched and toxic habits.

Disrupting the industry by engaging in anti-racism training is so important — evaluating every aspect of the organization through the lens of anti-racism, inclusion, equity, diversity and access. When organizations invest in this type of work, it may be seen as disruptive, but it will be of great benefit to the organization and our entire industry.

Can you share three of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

  1. “It’s not who you know but who knows you.” I heard these words at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast and I knew from that day forward, I would meet everyone I could. For better or worse, everyone in metro Atlanta was going to know me and by extension, Aurora Theatre.
  2. “Meet people where they are and not where you want them to be.” I was in the 2013 class of Atlanta Regional Commission’s Regional Leadership Institute and Stacey Abrams was our first speaker. Her words hit me right in the heart. She may not be the first to have used these words, but it was the first time they hit me in way that deeply resonated.
  3. “Be curious. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.” I can’t remember where I heard this first but I am certain many of my teachers beat this into my brain. If we need clarity, we should ask more questions. Why are we doing things this way? What might we gain if we changed the process? Why? Questions lead us to better answers, and the only stupid questions are the ones that remain unasked.

We’re sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

The day will eventually come when Aurora Theatre will have new leadership. On that day, we will graciously turn the reins over to someone who will guide Gwinnett County’s only professional theater into the future with innovative ideas that speak to a new time. A founder’s passing of the torch always shakes things up. My goal is to pave a path of success for new leadership. They shouldn’t have to go through the growing pains I went through. They will have new challenges to face.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I love to read and certainly I’ve listened to my share of podcasts and Ted Talks, but frankly, the greatest impact on my thinking comes from personal interaction. A conversation with a stranger (a potential friend) in a bar, airport, waiting in line to vote — a number of places. Deep conversations with patrons before or after a show. Engaging in passionate debate with family and friends. These are the moments that resonate and inspire me more than any book or podcast.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Figure out what you are paying for and stop paying for it.” My father said these words to me in the early days of Aurora Theatre … when we were on the verge of collapse. As a non-profit, he knew I could seek not just monetary donations, but donations of goods and services that would help us survive. He was right. To this day, Aurora Theatre has sponsors and donors who make it possible for us to maintain a high level of excellence.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I most want to inspire a movement where kindness and respect are shown to all. We are always thinking about how to work with someone, be it an arts organization, charity, small business and even with the local city government. It seems like a small request, but if each of us just took a moment to share a smile, a kind word, use understanding and compassion with those we meet, I have no doubt the world would be a better place.

How can our readers follow you online?





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