“Welcome Home @ 40” Interview Series: Lizz Roman

Bill Irwin teaching a class at the New Performance Gallery. Photo by Doug Winter

Dancer and choreographer Lizz Roman first walked through the doors at 3153 17th Street in 1984. She started teaching class at ODC in 1993 and worked in several capacities at the theater, eventually acting as interim director in 1998–1999. Roman and I talked about her experience running the theater and how it informed her work as an artist. Roman still teaches at ODC and is also a mentor for the PILOT program.

Marie Tollon: Can you tell us about running the theater?

Lizz Roman: Around 1993, I was a volunteering at NPG (New Performance Gallery, now called ODC Theater) and the director at the time, Catherine Sharpe, also a very talented choreographer/dancer, offered me a regular job running their box office and house managing performances. Then in 1998, I was offered the position of theater director. I had been running most of the day-to-day operations, so it was a logical progression. The real challenge was taking over the fundraising/grant writing for the theater as well as programming artists for both the main theater and the Loft Studio. Once things felt stabilized, I stepped down and Andrew Wood was hired in 1999 to take over as theater director. I then stayed on for another year and continued to run the day-to-day operations for the theater.

MT: Can you speak about the programs that you ran at the theater?

LR: The PILOT Program had been established in 1990, and I had participated early on as an artist. I thought it was very important to understand every aspect of making work — from how you create a dance to how you produce and present it to the public. When I took over as director, two new programs, FLIGHT and MIGRATION, were being developed. They were the next level after PILOT, and helped artists continue to pursue a career as a choreographer.

MT: Did running the theater inform your work as an artist?

LR: It really helped me understand myself as an artist and the community of artists I was a part of while developing into a more independent artist myself. I always felt like it was my job to remind artists of the bigger picture and how to best use the resources the theater offered. When you feel like you’ve failed, what do learn from that experience? Everything you do is important, successful or not, you’ve learned something and so apply that knowledge to your next project.

MT: ODC Theater has experienced a tremendous expansion. How was it different at the time?

LR: The Theater was originally called New Performance Gallery. During my tenure, there were two companies that called the space home, ODC SF, and Margaret Jenkins Dance Company. It was home to a lot of local and visiting modern dance [companies.] There was a school that operated in the morning, Mondays through Saturdays, ODC/Dance rehearsed from 12pm to 5pm daily and then the theater took over in the evenings and weekends. It was definitely a tight squeeze. We presented a variety of work, from dance to music and theater. I remember meeting Willem Dafoe, who was doing a reading for a local theater group renting the theater and feeling embarrassed for Stephen Petronio, when he did a dance lecture and no one showed up. A great memory is of Youth Speaks. In their early years, they did their slams at ODC Theater. They drew crazy big audiences, and brought a fresh new energy to the space. I got to meet and work with a lot of local and visiting artists, and in their own way they all left their mark on the space.

MT: Is there a season that you particularly remember?

LR: Yes, the WILD CABARET. That was the title and theme for a fundraiser I produced in the fall of 1998. It was a performance marathon that featured a slew of local artists performing for free to help raise money for the theater. One of the acts was Bill Irwin. I still remember the grace and humbleness with which he came in. He did a whole improv of a dancer at a ballet barre. The entire weekend was one of the most beautiful, giving and kind things I remember of my time as theater director.

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