Anthony Rodriguez’s ‘aspirational’ job change leads into Aurora’s transition plan

Aurora Theatre's new $31 million theater complex in downtown Lawrenceville is under construction Monday, March 8, 2021.  The theatre's co-founders Ann-Carol Pence, left, and Anthony Rodriguez, right, tour the area above the smaller second theater, the cabaret space, which has folding glass walls opening the space to the outdoor courtyard and available as a rented venue.    The project is a partnership with Lawrenceville, the development adds two new public performance spaces, creates outdoor green space for the community and provides technical and backstage options significantly increasing the theater's capabilities.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Aurora Theatre's new $31 million theater complex in downtown Lawrenceville is under construction Monday, March 8, 2021. The theatre's co-founders Ann-Carol Pence, left, and Anthony Rodriguez, right, tour the area above the smaller second theater, the cabaret space, which has folding glass walls opening the space to the outdoor courtyard and available as a rented venue. The project is a partnership with Lawrenceville, the development adds two new public performance spaces, creates outdoor green space for the community and provides technical and backstage options significantly increasing the theater's capabilities. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Anthony Rodriguez, Aurora Theatre’s co-founder and president/CEO, long has been fond of sharing the story of how he looked out his downtown Lawrenceville office window one day and envisioned a larger venue for the company. It took many years, but the new $45 million, 59,500-square-foot Lawrenceville Arts Center opened in late 2021 and is quickly becoming a magnet in the pedestrian-friendly town center that Aurora was a key force in reviving.

However, in surprising news that broke earlier this month, Rodriguez revealed that he is leaving the company he and his life partner and co-founder Ann-Carol Pence have made a powerhouse regional theater over the last 27 years. He has accepted a job as the first executive director of the HUB404 Conservancy, where he will lead a $270 million campaign to build a nine-acre park capping Ga. 400 in Buckhead between Peachtree and Lenox roads that would feature public art and arts programming. Rodriguez will begin full time August 1.

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Aurora Theatre's new $31 million theater complex in downtown Lawrenceville is under construction Monday, March 8, 2021. The theatre's co-founders Anthony Rodriguez, left, Ann-Carol Pence, right, are on the main staircase that runs from the grand theatre lobby to the balcony level. The project is a partnership with Lawrenceville, and adds two new public performance spaces, creates outdoor green space for the community and provides technical and backstage options significantly increasing the theater's capabilities. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Aurora Theatre's new $31 million theater complex in downtown Lawrenceville is under construction Monday, March 8, 2021.  The theatre's co-founders Anthony Rodriguez, left, Ann-Carol Pence, right, are on the main staircase that runs from the grand theatre lobby to the balcony level.  The project is a partnership with Lawrenceville, and adds two new public performance spaces, creates outdoor green space for the community and provides technical and backstage options significantly increasing the theater's capabilities.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Combined ShapeCaption
Aurora Theatre's new $31 million theater complex in downtown Lawrenceville is under construction Monday, March 8, 2021. The theatre's co-founders Anthony Rodriguez, left, Ann-Carol Pence, right, are on the main staircase that runs from the grand theatre lobby to the balcony level. The project is a partnership with Lawrenceville, and adds two new public performance spaces, creates outdoor green space for the community and provides technical and backstage options significantly increasing the theater's capabilities. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

That leaves Pence, now holding Rodriguez’s old title of producing artistic director, at the helm, working alongside Katie Pelkey, the company’s managing director. Pence has run daily operations for the company since day one, so not much forthcoming will be a surprise. One of her new duties, however, will be helping to identify and make recommendations on the individual and/or team that will head the company in the next decade.

“I feel what I can help with is help find the new voice for the theater,” Pence says, “shepherd that voice to leadership and get that person in the room a lot before I retire myself.”

Rodriguez, 58, admits that the decision to give up his role was a difficult one. The question he has gotten most often is, “Why now?”

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Aurora Theatre will host VIP and public tours of their new facility in Lawrenceville.

Credit: Courtesy of Aurora Theatre

Aurora Theatre will host VIP and public tours of their new facility in Lawrenceville.

Credit: Courtesy of Aurora Theatre

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Aurora Theatre will host VIP and public tours of their new facility in Lawrenceville.

Credit: Courtesy of Aurora Theatre

Credit: Courtesy of Aurora Theatre

During the pandemic, he says he reflected a lot on what a new chapter for Aurora would look like without him.

“Ann-Carol and I have said for years that we are building an environment to craft a legacy and to create a community of belonging, but it doesn’t always have to be our voice centered in the room,” he says. “There is never a perfect time to take advantage of opportunities. If you wait for that perfect pitch or moment, it may likely never come. We finished what we set out to accomplish with the Lawrenceville Arts Center.”

Open for not quite three-quarters of a year yet, though, Lawrenceville Arts Center is hardly a finished product, many would say, but in its early stages still. (More on this below.)

Rodriguez scoffs at any notion that his new job marks a different career path. “I know it all seems pretty quick, but I have the opportunity to literally change the face of Atlanta with a transformative project. Who wouldn’t want to do this?”

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Anthony Rodriguez and Ann-Carol Pence inside the new Aurora Theatre facility.

Credit: Courtesy of Aurora Theatre

Anthony Rodriguez and Ann-Carol Pence inside the new Aurora Theatre facility.

Credit: Courtesy of Aurora Theatre

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Anthony Rodriguez and Ann-Carol Pence inside the new Aurora Theatre facility.

Credit: Courtesy of Aurora Theatre

Credit: Courtesy of Aurora Theatre

Meanwhile, Pence, 57, has made a commitment to remain active at Aurora for five years, utilizing that time to find the right leadership team and build trust with that team around Lawrenceville. Trust is a big item, as Lawrenceville Arts Center is owned by the city of Lawrenceville but operated by Aurora.

Once she retires, Pence believes the theater probably will transition to an executive director leadership model. She and Rodriguez believe that the Aurora board of directors will promote Pelkey, a longtime staffer who has risen in the ranks, to that position.

Pence will aim, as well, to continue the company’s commitment to diversity, both on its stages and off, and keep providing opportunities to women. She also hopes other theater leaders will emerge from the company’s apprentice program.

Following Rodriguez’s departure, she also will continue to be the company’s music director. It’s a role that’s very special to her.

“People say, you should give away those low-level jobs and be management, but that is my one gift,” she says. “I am never going to be a great singer or a great actor. I am destined to motivate — and I think my ability to motivate is my other superpower.”

Nurturing Lawrenceville Arts Center from a dream to fund-raising and architectural plans and then to reality has been a long-held dream for Pence and Rodriguez, but with it has come new challenges such as a natural inclination to try and do too much in the expanded space. Yet the two have never backed away from new work demands. To help with the faster pace, Pence and Rodriguez have made numerous new hires over the last year, including former Dad’s Garage artistic director Jon Carr as marketing director. They also are nearing a decision about a full-time development director.

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Former Dad’s Garage artistic director Jon Carr is now the marketing director for Aurora Theatre. CONTRIBUTED: DAD'S GARAGE THEATRE

Former Dad’s Garage artistic director Jon Carr is now the marketing director for Aurora Theatre. CONTRIBUTED: DAD'S GARAGE THEATRE

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Former Dad’s Garage artistic director Jon Carr is now the marketing director for Aurora Theatre. CONTRIBUTED: DAD'S GARAGE THEATRE

With a $4.25 million annual budget, the company has expanded to 20 full-time employees and 10 part-time staff, as well as various contract workers and more than 100 performing artists each season.

In other words, running five stages between Lawrenceville Arts Center and the adjoining Bobby Sikes Fine Arts Center (the company’s home since 2007) is very much a work in progress, with many moving parts.

That made the “We finished what we set out to accomplish with the Lawrenceville Arts Center” comment by Rodriguez an eye-raiser when ArtsATL interviewed him not long after his departure was announced.

Seeking to better understand his thinking, ArtsATL asked him to elaborate in a follow-up email.

“My personal goals for the Lawrenceville Arts Center and Aurora were larger in scope than just getting it open and running,” Rodriguez clarified. “But when the HUB404 opportunity came along, I felt the time was right to step away from the day to day. The larger goals remain, and I can support the Aurora and the city’s efforts as an engaged board member. Timing may be the secret to comedy, but timing isn’t always perfect when it comes to opportunity. Sometimes you must take a leap of faith.”

Pence enthusiastically supports her partner’s decision and penned more than one social media post applauding his bold move. “I am so proud of this man,” she wrote in one. “Anthony Rodriguez is here on this earth to do new great things.”

In the ArtsATL interview, she said, “This was right for our family financially and aspirationally.”

As a cofounder and board member, Rodriguez assures that he will remain invested in what goes on.

“The city appreciates the dedication and passion Anthony provided to the city for the arts,” says Chuck Warbington, city manager for the City of Lawrenceville and an Aurora board member. “He will certainly be missed, and we are excited that he will continue to stay involved as a member of the Aurora board.”

Rodriguez may be stepping away from the day to day, but he and Pence say he will maintain a profile at the theater that has been their obsession for 27 years. For instance, he and Pence believe it’s important that he continue to give curtain speeches at select performances.

“We used to live three minutes from the [original Aurora location in Duluth] and we now live 12 minutes from the Lawrenceville Arts Center,” Pence says. “We are committed to always being part of this community, so that is why you’ll see him in the lobby and doing speeches. We are proud to be Gwinnett residents.”


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Credit: ArtsATL

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Credit: ArtsATL

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