How does a gender-ambiguous performance artist from Great Britain end up revitalizing the theater and music scene in one of New Mexico’s most legendary ghost towns? Sarah Leamy, better known as Sleam, has been working to breathe new life into Madrid’s Engine House Theater and The Mine Shaft Tavern (2846 Hwy. 14, Madrid, 505-473-0743). At 7 pm, Saturday, Dec. 20, she produces and performs in the Solstice Cabaret show at the Engine House Theater.

SFR: How did you end up in Madrid?

S: I came over to the states from England when I was 22 because I was needing something new. I came to New York City with a one-way ticket, and I basically improvised my way across the country. Somewhere along the line, I was on a train from Chicago to LA. It stops in Lamy. And an announcement on the tramway system said, ‘Passenger Sleam, please disembark with your belongings.’ So I get out with my backpack, and the train leaves. And it’s Lamy, there’s nothing there. Then this guy comes around the corner, this big old teddy bear of a gay guy from San Francisco. We’d met on another train and had made friends. He’d tracked me down through friends and e-mails and phones to that train and said, ‘I’m house sitting in northern New Mexico. I figured you’d like to come stay with me for a few weeks.’ So I ended up staying with him for three weeks. And then two years later, I was on my way to Mexico from Madison, Wis. with a friend. When we got here I bumped into a bunch of people I’d met over the years traveling. And they said, ‘Come live on this land up in Pacheco Canyon! There are cabins and tents!’ And I just ended up staying.

So you settled on Madrid…certainly an interesting choice.

This works really well for me. Last weekend was kind of weird—when we have the holidays here, we get a lot of tourists coming in and looking at us like we’re a freak show. We’re here for their benefit. I had some really weird interactions with people about my appearance and my gender. I had people thinking I’m a man, and getting angry when I say, ‘Um, actually, I’m a woman.’ Just weird shit. But this village itself really embraces me. I don’t feel like I have to explain anything. I just am.

How did you get involved with the Engine House Theater?

In the spring, I decided that I wanted to put something on for Gay Pride [Month]; I wanted to put on a variety show. So I did, and Lori Lindsey, the owner, and I got on really well. And I realized that we [could] use the theater for the Free Box Fashion Show in April and the He-She Bang in September, and that’s it. There’s nothing going on now that the Melodrama’s dead. I gave Lori a proposal that said I’d work one day a week and bring in shows and let people know that this is a community resource.

Kinda makes you wonder what took Madrid so long to get this idea.

This town is great. There’s a huge amount of visual art, but there’s nothing for performing artists. There’s no spoken word, there are no films or plays or cabarets or variety shows or vaudeville or anything. In September, Lori asked if I would also take on the entertainment in The Mine Shaft Tavern, the Old West building, help with festivals and do the theater.

Sounds ambitious. What do you want to see happen with the theater?

I want more people to come here and use the theater and say, ‘This is a play I want to put on. Can I put it on?’ or, ‘Can I do an artist’s residency? I need somewhere to practice for a month then put on a show for a weekend.’ That’s the kind of stuff I want to do. That’s my goal. I have to spread the word.

So far, have you gotten the demand you want?

Music-wise in The Mine Shaft, I’m usually booked up here two to three months in advance. Music-wise, it’s big. For the theater, it’s not as much as I would like. Again, I want more people to come to me and say, ‘This is what I want to put on.’ I’m producing a lot of the stuff, and I don’t necessarily want to be the producer all the time. I want to give them the venue, but I don’t want to be the one who has to wrangle everything.

Can it be a little challenging to organize events in such a laid-back area?

I recently organized a spoken-word performance that was hellacious. I had five out of eight people cancel within two days. I was so stressed. I don’t want to be known for saying, ‘I’m going to do something,’ and then not doing it. If you commit to it, you do it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re having a bad day; it doesn’t matter whether you’ve said you’re going out to dinner with someone else. You be professional. If you say you’re gonna be there, you have to be there. So I come in with that attitude and it doesn’t always work.

I guess that wouldn’t leave a whole ton of time for you to concentrate on your own stuff. What is your own stuff?

I’m doing my own solo show in January—it’s a vaudeville show with storytelling, juggling, magic, mind reading, songs, dance—it’s just going to be me for, like, an hour. I love improvising onstage and playing with whatever comes in. I never say the same thing or do the same thing twice. The show coming up [in January], for example, is in four basic sections. One’s on work, one’s on relationships, one’s on being foreign in this country, and one’s on gender and sexuality. And within each of those sections, there’s quite a bit of physical comedy, verbal comedy and some hardcore, real, vulnerable stories.