DON'T LET Dámaso Rodriguez's baby face fool you. Artists Repertory Theatre's new artistic director spent the last decade helping found LA's red-hot Furious Theatre Company, directing at Pasadena Playhouse, and generally paving his path from LAX to PDX with awards and accolades.

AGENDA: What drew you to Artists Rep?

DÁMASO RODRIGUEZ: I visited Portland a few times and quickly fell for the city... like everyone does. Artists Rep's two-theater complex was also a huge draw. The spaces are intimate enough to relieve the box office pressures that physically larger theaters face, but they're still large enough to produce plays with some scale. That lets us take more risks and produce thought-provoking new plays.

What's surprised you about your first season?

I came in expecting that the job would be a big one, but it's even bigger than I thought. It's all-consuming, but I love it! I suppose I was a bit surprised by the "public" nature of my position; I get letters on a regular basis both criticizing and praising what we do. On any given day, one person tells me that a particular play is the worst play they've ever seen, and another says it's the best thing we've ever done.

How does Portland's theater scene compare to LA's?

LA has a few hundred companies producing all over the sprawling metro area. It takes a long time to get to know your fellow theater-makers, and you could spend years never crossing paths with certain people. Portland has an extremely tight theater community, and it feels more like a "scene." I'm still new, but I already feel like I'm part of something. LA's talent pool is vast and deep. I'm finding that Portland has an equally world-class, though smaller, pool of talent that's blossoming into a major theater town.

What attracts you to a script? To an actor?

I'm attracted to a strong playwriting voice that feels in control, even while I don't know where the play is going. I want to be carried away by a play in the same way I want to be drawn into a novel that I can't put down. Plays like The Monster-Builder and Foxfinder are written to make you think and discuss after the play's end.

With casting, I have a similar visceral, instinctive response. I want to work with actors I can't take my eyes off of, who make unexpected, bold choices and are vulnerable on stage.

What's the emotional mix you're looking for in this season and future ones?

I think the key word is "mix." Eight productions a year is too many to be any one thing. My goal is to reflect as many kinds of people, viewpoints, and milieus as I can. I grew up as a director on Furious Theatre's intense, visceral brand, but my earlier training was as an assistant director on several Noël Coward comedies, and when I was the associate artistic director at the Pasadena Playhouse, I directed classic plays in its 650-seat theater. I'm still very much learning about Portland, our loyal audience at Artists Rep, and what will appeal to new theatergoers

Dámaso Rodriguez will direct The Playboy of the Western World at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison, May 20-June 22, see for ticket info