Theater Rebounds

New Mexico Actors Lab’s Robert Benedetti on COVID-19 and the company’s upcoming in-person season

A&C (Courtesy Robert Benedetti)

The 2020 song is pretty much the same for any venue, troupe, company or organization—it was hard. But as Santa Fe remains steadfast in its vaccination rates and consistently relaxed health orders handed down by the state, some things are coming back in admittedly altered ways. One such thing would be New Mexico Actors Lab, which took over the former Adobe Rose/Swan theater in Midtown months before the pandemic and this week announced it will host an in-person four-show 2021 season starting in August. I phoned the company’s Managing Director Robert Benedetti to find out more.

SFR: The inevitable question—how was 2020 for New Mexico Actors Lab, and how did the company manage to make it through?

Benedetti: We did quite a bit of online work, we produced several full-length—we called them Zoom shows, but they were really more like semi-documentaries—and I was quite busy with grant applications. We got all but one, so we had a considerable war chest. In our six years, I had always wanted to put some money in the bank at the end of every year, and we never lost money, so we ended up with a pretty hefty bank

Has anything big changed with that takeover?

We’re planning to have a pretty lively rental market. We’ve already rented the month of December to Just Say It Productions, and we’re looking for rentals for the coming year, although we are going to do at least a five-show season ourselves in 2022. We would be open to concerts, live music events—we’re very open to any of the performing arts.

Has the pandemic shift in how people consume entertainment had any impact on you as a theater pro, or on future operations, productions, etc.?

We know there’s a tremendous pent-up hunger for live theater. How much of that hunger can override whatever residual reservations people have about attending an indoor theatrical event remains to be seen. Even [for] people who are eager for theater…it will really depend on the condition of the pandemic. We had originally planned to open in June—that felt too soon. Then we moved to July, and even that felt a little early, but we were pretty comfortable with August. The Opera will have been open by then, the Botanical Garden will have been open. They have the advantage somewhat of being outdoors, but we have a big loading door in our theater, so we’ll have outdoor level ventilation at least before and after performances, and we’re planning on the basis of socially distanced seating whether or not it’s still required by the state. If I were a betting man, I’m thinking it would probably still be somewhat required. Right now we could open at one-third capacity under the state’s turquoise restrictions, and given that our capacity, according to the fire marshal, is 190, we could do a show with 60 people in the auditorium. That’s enough for us, and we’ve mapped things out so people can sit in a socially distanced way, and I think we’ll probably go ahead with that plan. Hopefully that will help to overcome whatever lingering fears there are about attending an indoor performance.

Do you have a plan B? Will you keep streaming performances in your back pocket?

No. As soon as we can go in-person, that’s what we’ll do. The online stuff was strictly a stopgap measure to keep ourselves busy and to keep our brand alive in the minds of our audience. Zoom programming is difficult for the actors to really interact with one another, much less an audience. It’s just not what we’re about. Over the last six years of our existence, we kind of grew up in the intimate space of Teatro Paraguas, where the audience could reach out and touch the actors if they wanted to. Having developed an aesthetic and performance style for that highly intimate space is something we’re not going to change.

How are ticket sales going?

Very well! We were surprised. We opened our ticketing system just two weeks ago to give people a chance to purchase season tickets, and we’ve already sold over 60, which is about the rate we would be experiencing in a normal non-COVID year. We’ve been very gratified by the response.

Tell us about the upcoming season.

The biggest show we’re doing this season is The Cradle Will Rock, which is extremely pro-labor and pro-union within its musical form. The first show of the season that we’ll open with is called Lifespan of a Fact, which seemed to us a good show because it’s really about the boundaries of journalism and the tension between entertainment and news—not just entertainment, but fine art, essay writing of a subjective nature…the kind of writing that tries to get to the human essence and feelings of an event rather than simply reporting. All of the shows involve questions of truth and public policy. In one way or another, all these shows relate to the question of, ‘What is truth?’ We live in a time when truth has been so degraded that people may be entitled to their opinions, but they’re not entitled to their own facts. We really are living in a time when the line between truth and fiction is almost impossible to ascertain.

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