A few weeks ago, the Woodlawn Theater co-founder Kurt Wehner announced that he would be leaving the theater and his position as executive director to pursue new adventures on an island off the coast of Panama.
“I am very grateful for the opportunity I have had at the Woodlawn Theater to be able to create, design and build so many different environments,” he said in a press release, “My next adventure is to design and build my own jungle home on a Caribbean island in the country of Panama, where I will charter my sailboat around the archipelago of Bocas del Toro…”
The departure generated some concern in the local thespian community but Wehner left the Woodlawn in good hands. Christopher Rodriguez, who joined the company four-and-a-half years ago and became the artistic director last year, has taken the helm of the non-profit organization as both artistic and executive director.
“It’s been a roller-coaster here; things have been changing constantly but I am comfortable in my new position” said Rodriguez who has been part of the San Antonio theater scene for many years as choreographer, performer and director. “I have been helping Kurt for some time and he was confident that I could manage the staff and deal with the budget. But I may be emailing him from time to time and he will be popping in once in a while to make sure we are doing a good job.”
Wehner and his former wife Sherry Wehner established the Woodlawn Theater Inc. in 2012 and also own the historic Art Deco District building, which started life as a movie house in 1946. It is also the place where John Wayne hosted the premiere of his famous film The Alamo in 1960.
Rodriguez is currently going through an evaluation process of everything, he said, “so that we can hit the ground running in January (2017) and make the Woodlawn an even better run theater with better facilities.” He has already hired Carla Sankey to lead the expanded youth program and oversee the opening of an additional space to serve the needs of the popular academy. She will also serve as resident choreographer. Rodriguez himself was originally hired to run the youth program and deserves credit for making it one of the most successful in the city. Like the parent company, the academy focuses exclusively on musical theater.
Rodriguez’s other goals include improving the sound system and, more importantly, providing stipends for cast members who are all volunteers at present. “We definitely want to go in that direction,” he said. “It’s a goal the board and I share and we would like to make it happen over the next few months. It’s a wonderful feeling to see so many come to audition for our shows even without pay. They know that the Woodlawn will produce a great final product and that this is a great place to pursue one’s passion for musical theater.”
Indeed. the Woodlawn shows have been well attended and positively reviewed for the past several years. Its current holiday offering Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is a good example of giving audiences what they seek at this time of the year – a family friendly, humorous and musically dynamic production that kids can relate to. Lloyd Webber’s rock/pop musical is based on the Biblical story of Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, who gets sold into slavery by his jealous brothers only to return home in glory. The 2017 lineup includes the multiple Tony winner Pippin; the hilarious Sister Act; the fairy tale, Shrek The Musical; the 1961 hit How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; the always popular Little Shop of Horrors, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Rodriguez chooses the programming to include both newer shows and some tried-and-true hits that audiences seem to want to see again and again. A multiple ATAC Globe Award-winner for both choreography and directing, he will personally direct three shows in 2017, with guest directors taking care of the rest. Among the latter are Katie Benson, Mark McCarver and Tim Hedgepeth who will bring their own visions to the Woodlawn stage. Hedgepeth is the most established, experienced among the three who “turns everything he touches into gold,” said Rodriguez.
One production aspect that the Woodlawn has excelled in is the set design and construction, something Wehner was exceptionally good at. Just a look at the set was often enough to instill confidence in the show one was about to see. Rodriguez assured us that this would not change since technical director Benjamin Grabill worked closely with Wehner for some time, and is himself a very capable set designer and builder. “We will be fine,” said the executive/artistic director, adding that the theater is also financially stable.
“Right now I am looking forward to presenting a wonderful 2017 season and to show the community that we can survive without Kurt and hopefully grow so that we can be the best theater in San Antonio,” he said optimistically.
Photos: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Woodlawn through Dec. 23; Technical Director Benjamin Grabill and Executice/Artistic Director Chris Rodriguez