Drama program chair finds calling, helps students find theirs
As the Department Chair of STC's Drama program, Joel Jason Rodriguez looks to continue bringing opportunities to students, and help propel them to a bigger stage.
An empty stage in a not typically empty auditorium is all it takes to get Joel Jason Rodriguez to reflect on a career dedicated to the arts.
As the Drama Department chair at South Texas College, Rodriguez says his approach to the arts has been about cultivating communication among students and looking at theater in a way that is more than just entertainment.
It’s about bringing communities together and opening a dialogue to discuss what happens in those communities, he said. Most importantly, it is about utilizing the power of education, strengthening communities, and using the arts to bridge the gap between them.
Theater after all is about the phenomenon that occurs among relationships with people, and using that to bring about change, Rodriguez said.
“We have seen our graduated students become really successful in what they do, and a lot of it goes back to us getting an understanding that in our field of work, in what we do, everything is about how you are able to work with people,” Rodriguez said. “How is it that you're able to speak with people not just on the creative side, but through their own world perspective?
“We tell students to check their ego and keep their personal stuff outside of the theater because we all have baggage. Focus on the work. Focus on the people, and then go for it,” Rodriguez said.
Originally from Houston, Rodriguez says a career in education has always been his top priority, followed closely by a need to assist people in communities. It’s where his approach to theater derives, he said.
Graduating from the University of St. Thomas in Houston in 1993 with a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies, Rodriguez then delved into working for non-profit groups, which were focused more on social issues and public service work.
It was during his undergraduate studies that Rodriguez worked for the Office of Volunteer Opportunities. As a program volunteer and then as volunteer coordinator, Rodriguez said he would contribute for hunger and homelessness programs or HIV/AIDS education programs.
A portion of this volunteer work was also devoted to doing artwork with individuals living in homeless shelters, or assisting with after school programs and mentorship programs for young people in elementary or middle schools.
This job would provide a natural segue into his next role as an educator in the arts, and enabled him to find ajob at Brown University at the Howard Swearer Center for Public Service as their volunteer coordinator for nearly two years.
“We have seen our graduated students become really successful in what they do, and a lot of it goes back to us getting an understanding that in our field of work, in what we do, everything is about how you are able to work with people.”
After Brown, Rodriguez said he worked as an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer with Dallas Children's Theater. That job presented him with a full on arts education program that tasked him with incorporating the arts into education in order to enhance the curricula there.
“In some way, shape, or form the arts always came back into the work that I did, but I didn't understand why,” Rodriguez said. “We were really focused on looking at the social studies chapters and bringing those to life using theater, art, dance and every other aspect we could think of.
“What our work showed was that the arts provided that additional boost for excellence for the students,” he said. “It was then that I realized what I wanted to do and ended up going to UT Austin for my Master of Fine Arts degree. When I came on board to the program I was only one of six to get in.”
So finally slowing down from a journey that had him traveling from Houston to Boston, then Providence to Dallas and finally Austin within a span of less than ten years, Rodriguez said he made his way to the Rio Grande Valley in 2003.
He began his career in the Valley teaching Biology and Theater Arts to middle school students, an experience he said was eye opening and terrifying but necessary. It would provide him with the inspiration to finally start his dream career doing what he loves, he said.
“I think my biggest inspiration was taking stock of myself and realizing that for every path I took, I was still doing the work that I was meant to be doing,” he said. “I am committed to public service. I am committed to social change, and theater and art always had a part in that.”
The advent of STC’s Drama Department coincided with the opening of the college’s Cooper Center for Communication Arts in 2008. Both are celebrating their 10th year anniversary this year.
Rodriguez began with the drama department in 2010, following in the footsteps of Dr. Jack Carroll, who was the founding director of the program.
Cooper Center holds anywhere from four to five plays a year which vary from drama, comedy, and musicals with the intent to spark curiosity and appreciation for fine arts for all attendees.
Students will spend roughly six weeks from the beginning of a production to opening night preparing for the plays. During this time, students dedicate their time learning their scripts, getting measured for their outfits, which they make from scratch, and designing their own stage lighting among many other tasks.
There were an estimated 63,000 jobs in the fine arts field as of 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment is expected to grow 12 percent from 2016 to 2026.
Rodriguez says he works with over 100 students every semester and helps propel them into their career paths as drama teachers, actors, and successful fine arts professionals.
“A lot of it goes back to the mentorship that we offer. It's not just the instruction,” said Jason. “It's getting them to understand what the transition's going to be for them from high school theatre to college theatre and what the expectations are.”
“For acting a lot of what we go back to is taking those baby steps to understand how your thoughts, your body, your voice all connect in a way that creates this feeling of being authentic,” expressed Rodriguez.
Jason says he looks to continue bringing culture to the area as well as big city opportunities to small town students.
As the curtains close, and the lights fade, Rodriguez says that while theatre is his calling, he says the bigger picture is life and finding your passion.
“In the end, it’s about building up those successes for students so that when they're finally way up there, they feel like they own the world,” said Rodriguez. “We also look at how we can impact what is going on in the world with the plays we do.”