After 12-plus years as the Ordway Center's artistic director and vice president of programs, James Rocco is leaving the St. Paul multi-arts venue, the Ordway announced Tuesday afternoon.

A onetime child star, Rocco initiated the Ordway's Broadway Songbook series, which celebrates musical theater composers. He also built up the Ordway's in-house Broadway-style producing arm, putting on shows such as "A Chorus Line," "Paint Your Wagon" and the recent smash, "West Side Story."

Rocco, who maintains strong connections to Broadway producers and talent, leaves the Ordway in order to become a freelance director.

"The truth of the matter is, I've turned down too many great projects over the years, including the sequel to a really famous show, and I don't want to get to a place where they don't ask me anymore," Rocco said Tuesday by phone from New York, where he and Ordway CEO Jamie Grant are attending an industry conference. Grant came aboard as leader of the Ordway a year ago.

"When Jamie [Grant] came in, and he's a dynamic leader, I thought, 'The department's in good shape and we have a good track record of producing Broadway-caliber shows, now's a good time to step away,'" Rocco said.

Grant, who also was on the call, said that "it won't be goodbye forever. I've worked with a lot of talented artists in my career and I know that you have to let them go," he said. "But James may come back to direct or act on the Ordway's stage. He'll definitely be a mentor of mine."

Rocco's last day at the Ordway will be Dec. 22, which will make his tenure "13 years and three days," he said. "But I'm not counting."