In a town where nightclubs have the longevity of a Hollywood marriage and city managers come and go with bewildering alacrity, Santa Fe Playhouse has somehow managed to hang tough. Tucked away in the Barrio de Analco in a venerable adobe building in need of constant repair, the Playhouse has been staging theatrical presentations for ***image1***84 seasons, making it the oldest continuously operating theater west of the Mississippi.
Benchwarmers is emerging as an important link in Santa Fe Playhouse's chain. In its sixth year, the annual Benchwarmers is a great idea for a fund-raiser: Put out a call for local writers to try their hand at a short play, grab some of the best scripts out of the bunch and go for it. As a community event, it's a draw, since, inevitably, the shorts will engage many performers, the local writers all have circles of friends large and small and the Playhouse gathers financial and community support while emphasizing its mission of reflecting the local theater and arts community.
The only set piece used is a park bench. The play has to clock in at 15 minutes or less and be relatively actor-centered, with low-key technical requirements. This bare-bones formula attracted more than 30 scripts by local playwrights this season. Out of those, eight were chosen for the Benchwarmers event. The short plays range in subject matter this year from existentialist drama (Stranded! Cayman Island Adventure by Nao Ramla and Christine MP Shyne) to broad satire (The Auction by Ron Bloomberg), with domestic drama and romantic comedy thrown in.
How risky is this? Very. Workshopping a new play takes a rare balance of authorial vision, collaboration with a tuned performance troupe and willingness to edit, hone and then edit and hone some more. What reads like gangbusters off the page might fall dead as lead in actual performance. Playwrights speak of the final script as a work vastly different from where they began-reworked, shaped, given a voice.
In many ways, this year's Benchwarmers plays show remarkable cohesion. Particularly impressive are Platform by ***image2***Suzanne Lederer, The Auction by Ron Bloomberg and especially Dreamland Waits for You by Dan Gerrity, the most theatrical of the eight plays, skillfully using what's best about theater itself-namely, the way a stage play requires the willing suspension of disbelief of the assembled crowd.
The five other shows, Bastard by Rosemary Zibart, The Anniversary by RoseMary Crawford, V as in Victor by SFR music writer Gabe Gomez, Some Kiss We Want by Jenice Gharib and the previously mentioned Stranded!, all have their moments as well. Some of the short plays feel like excerpted scenes from longer works and some have the feeling of a skit. Each has flashes of either humor or dramatic oomph, but the overall effect is of a work in progress, a promise still taking shape. This is an unavoidable result given the context of the Benchwarmers series and the lack of resources to nurture and shape both new scripts and their performance. Perhaps the best strategies for future Benchwarmers events would be either focusing more on fewer scripts or reframing the way the event is presented to the public, more as a "workshop of new scenes and short plays," rather than a full-blown staging of one-acts.
Despite overreaching, however, this year's short plays each have their strengths, and the final impression from the event is a reminder of the wealth of writing and acting talent harbored by an often indifferent town and the vitality of the grand old dame of Santa Fe theater.