How Rod Kaats Became the Ordway’s Oracle

Producing artistic director Rod Kaats sees up to 150 shows a year so the St. Paul theater stays relevant
Rod Kaats is producing "Beauty and the Beast" for the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
Rod Kaats is producing “Beauty and the Beast” for the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts

Photo by Darin Kamnetz

Rod Kaats figures he sees 100 to 150 theater shows a year, including almost everything he can in the Twin Cities. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he says. “Good work creates bigger audiences.”

Since 2018, Kaats has been the producing artistic director at St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. Kaats lives in St. Paul as well as on New York City’s Upper West Side, and while traveling, he says, “I bring things back in my suitcase for the Ordway. … It’s amazing how often—even in an experience that’s not quite right—I meet somebody or hear about something, or I get a connection, or I see a designer’s work, or something, that later [are] like little nuts that I’m storing in the tree for use at a later time.”

For the holiday season, Kaats is producing “Beauty and the Beast,” which he says is a good fit because “the core story is about the power of love.” This means that transformation is very much on Kaats’ mind right now: Aside from the love-induced transformation of the Beast in the Disney musical, there’s the adaptation of Bob Dylan’s songs in the Tony-winning “Girl from the North Country,” which Kaats helped co-produce on Broadway last season.

“I work for the Ordway, but the audience is my client,” he says. “I’m really the surrogate for the audience. It’s their experience that I’m watching after. A musical lifts you internally, lifts your soul. It’s joyful and sexy and romantic and thrilling and scary. It’s all those emotions that are sort of churned up when you’re watching a musical.” Big emotions, in other words—which Kaats seems uniquely open to.

Born to military parents in Guam in 1960, Kaats had lived in 17 different places by the time he was 10. He went to a Catholic grade school in Thailand, though he wasn’t Catholic or Thai. This endowed him with an open mind. “When you’ve been in those situations and you try to figure out how to get yourself through the cafeteria line in a Catholic school in Bangkok, Thailand, if you don’t welcome challenges and differences after that point, you’re dead, basically,” he says. “When things are different or I don’t understand them or they’re ‘foreign’ in one way or another or outside my experience, I’m like, ‘Great, let’s do this.’ ”

He was a theater major at the University of Denver, where he took a weeklong workshop from Broadway director Word Baker. “Just like today, I was dazzled by Broadway and everything that that stood for,” he says. Baker put Kaats through the paces and offered him a job at the end of the week. Baker was looking for an assistant, and Kaats took the job, moving to New York—where he has lived since 1981. At that time, it was 10 days from the start of rehearsals for the show Baker was doing, so Kaats immersed himself in Broadway’s fast pace. “Everything I’ve done in my life goes back to that moment—13 shows in two years.”

He also married and had two children. “I’m not [the] typical closeted man who got married and had kids. That’s not my story,” he says. “I had boyfriends and girlfriends my entire adolescence, and when I met the woman who became my wife, she knew about it and had met some of my boyfriends. She was very charismatic and beautiful—they say gay men have good taste in women—and we very quickly had two wonderful kids.”

Kaats came out as gay after his divorce, but he and his ex-wife worked together raising the children, who were 8 and 12 at the time, he says. Today, his son is obtaining a Ph.D. at Harvard, and his daughter lives all over the world, working as a writer and astrologer. Kaats now lives with his partner, Louis Sacco, a vocal technique teacher, corporate educator, and actor.

At the Ordway, all of his busy, open-minded theatergoing has contributed to another kind of transformation: how the St. Paul theater operates. We asked Kaats about his current work for the Ordway, his journey to the theater, and how he’s making changes.

Rod Kaats standing in front of the Ordway

Photo by Darin Kamnetz

“Beauty and the Beast” was staged at the Ordway in 2009. It’s a familiar story that’s been animated, filmed, and seen on countless stages from high schools to Broadway. Why do it again?

“There is something about revisiting stories that you know, in the same way that you put up the holiday tree or light a menorah or celebrate Kwanzaa. The theater is, in a way, a ritual act. It’s not the show, it’s about our experience together. The familiarity is actually part of the heightening of the experience. So, part of the reason I want to pick a show like ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is because of its familiarity.”

The Ordway is unique because it stages its own productions, as well as presenting Broadway touring shows. There’s also an Ordway music series. And it’s home to the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Minnesota Opera, and the Schubert Club. Is it confusing?

“I think one of the things about the Ordway is it’s hard for people to figure out what it is we’re doing. And it’s because we’re doing so much. [It’s] like going to a diner with nine pages of menu. There are too many choices. And I think that’s one of the things we suffer from because … it’s really hard for someone to get their head around just what it is we do.”

One of your “little teeny” transformations was to change the name of the Ordway’s Musical Theater Series to “Broadway@Ordway.”

“What I’ve been doing, ever since I got here, is very quietly weaving a spell. And if you weren’t paying attention, you might not notice. But now, when you look back, you go, ‘Oh, wow. There’s been a transformation.’ And just to talk about ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is to miss the larger piece. It is a really important moment and it’s going to be a fabulous show, but it’s part of a larger transformation.”

During your time at the Ordway, you’ve produced “Mamma Mia!” (2018), “42nd Street” (2019), “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” (2019), and “SIX” (2019), which went on to Broadway from St. Paul but was shut down by the pandemic. Some of these shows were done in partnership with other theaters—with visiting actors, directors, choreographers—but are still Ordway productions. Are the partnerships part of your Ordway transformation?

“In both ‘Mamma Mia!’ and ‘42nd Street,’ what was present was, I think, a very important part of our signature—a combination of local and New York actors. I like that because of the way those things talk to each other. Locals get to work with a director or choreographer and other actors from out of town, and I like it that people from out of town can come to Minnesota and say, ‘Wow. There’s so much talent here.’ It may sound odd, but when you combine people who haven’t worked together before, it creates a little discomfort and puts everybody on their game more. You never want people to be mean or uncomfortable, but a little bit of discomfort bubbles up into good work as people prove themselves. New York is a beacon of American theater and Minnesota is proud of itself for its accomplishments in theater and when you put those two things together, it’s really just an interesting mix.”

“Beauty and the Beast” features one of your signature pieces. It’s a partnership with a theater in St. George, Utah, and will have the same director, lead actor, choreographer, set, costumes, and designers who did “Beast” at the Tuacahn Center for the Arts, an outdoor theater set in a canyon in Utah. How will it look at the Ordway?

“The Tuachan stage is 85 feet wide and as high as the sky. The Ordway stage is 65 feet wide. The set will be impressive. When the Tuacahn production was delayed because of COVID-19, the Utah theater wanted to keep staff on, so for nine months, the wardrobe team continued to work on the costumes. So, there’s nine months of extra trim and spangles. I went to look at them, and I almost had to lie down. They’re some of the most beautiful costumes—vibrant for an outdoor theater, so you can imagine what’s going to happen on the Ordway stage. The ‘Beauty and the Beast’ cast is a mixture of New York and local actors, predominantly local. The actor playing the Beast was also in the Tuacahn show. Belle is played by Twin Cities actor Rajané Katurah, who recently moved to New York.”

How did you get involved in the Broadway production of “Girl from the North Country,” which features the music of Bob Dylan and will launch its nationwide tour at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis in October 2023?

“I was in London and was supposed to see a show called ‘Disco Pigs.’ Instead, we went to ‘Girl’ at the Old Vic and I just completely fell in love with it. I think it’s a masterpiece. I was devastated, moved, and thrilled by the play, and contacted the show’s lead producer, Tristin Baker. I called him on a Saturday and he picked up the phone randomly. I told him, ‘I live in New York and I’d love to help you in any way I can if you plan to transfer it to New York.’ He planned to license the show to another producer for the move to Broadway. I called him back the next day and said, ‘You can’t let that show go. You have to stay with it.’ He had heard the same thing from others and kept the show. He would call for advice. I raised some money. The Ordway is an investor. My mother is an investor. You have to have to invest a certain amount of money to get billing ‘above the title,’ and I didn’t reach that threshold. I was surprised to see my name above the title with other producers on the poster.”

What: Broadway@Ordway’s “Disney Beauty and the Beast”

When: Nov. 30-Dec. 31

Where: Ordway Music Theater, 345 Washington St., St. Paul