Before he became a theatre producer, Jacob G. Padrón was a social worker with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, a post-college venture that would go on to shape his dream for the American theatre. “I always return to the place that theatre can change the world,” says Padrón, “and theatre can bring people together in community.” It’s an ethos he’s brought to positions at The Public, Steppenwolf, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and which now guides him as the artistic director of Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.
When Padrón assumed the artistic directorship in February 2019, he entered with three clear goals: “to be artistically innovative, to be radically inclusive, and to find meaningful connection.” The middle pillar, of radical inclusivity, emanates from the work he has already been doing as the artistic director of The Sol Project, a national initiative amplifying the voices of Latinx playwrights and building artistic homes for artists of color, and as a co-founder of the Artists’ Anti-Racism Coalition.
As well as shaping the artistic process at Long Wharf, Padrón sees his position as an opportunity to expand the theatre’s audience. “How do we continue to invite those people who have been coming for years, who have made the survival of Long Wharf possible, and, how do we invite new communities and say, ‘You belong here too?’” asks Padrón. “It’s a powerful invitation to say, ‘Your life and your story are going to be bigger when you experience theatre with people who look and sound different than you.’” The overwhelming audience response to the world premiere of Ricardo Pérez González’s On the Grounds of Belonging, the first show Padrón programmed at the theatre, is a testament to his vision to date.
Striving for “meaningful connection” has pushed Padrón to actively engage with and listen to the New Haven community, which includes both Long Wharf theatregoers as well as arts leaders, activists, and community organizers. “I don’t want Long Wharf to be a space where we just engage in a transactional exchange,” says the artistic director. “I’m always thinking about civic engagement and civic dialogue—how Long Wharf can be a space for transformation, where together we can live out the values of social justice.”
In the same way that he has prioritized listening to the local community, Padrón has made room for honest dialogue within his theatre, too. “I’ve really encouraged the staff to have courageous conversations,” says Padrón, a directive that speaks to the culture he nurtures at Long Wharf—one rooted in curiosity, rigor, and joy. “And passing on the message that great art comes out of great relationships,” he adds. “The more that we allow each other to stand in the excellence of our fellow coworkers, that’s also going to make the work better onstage.”