When a town of about 80,000 people has upwards of 30 theater companies, you gotta ask: Can there possibly be that many people who want to see plays and readings? Are there really that many talented directors, producers and actors to put on that many plays? Is this at all feasible?
The knee-jerk answer is "no."
But take a deep dive, and the answer may shift to a quizzical, surprising: "Yes?"
Confirmed by a highly successful Santa Fe Theatre Walk on Sept. 22 that saw about 800 patrons, it seems like if you build it, they will come. There are more people desirous of putting on shows than there are available venues. Accordingly, this year saw Zephyr Community Art Studio putting up its first theatrical production in May, the Institute of American Indian Arts is slated to begin putting on productions once again in its black box, and Warehouse 21 now has an energetic theater manager at the helm who's committed to bringing its house back to life. And audiences have turned out for all of it.
Recently, Santa Fe welcomed the Oasis Theatre Company, founded in Manhattan in 1988; as we've reported previously, founding members Brenda Lynn Bynum and James Jenner simply loaded the whole company into trailers and drove west. After putting up shows at the Adobe Rose in 2017 and at Teatro Paraguas this year, they've cemented their spot (in this writer's mind, at least) as one of the finest classical theater companies we have, making great works both pristine and accessible. Better yet: They've now commandeered a room of their own in the former rehearsal space next to Paraguas.
Having started their company in New York, there's a misconception that it must have been more glamorous there. Not necessarily. "It's actually very similar," Bynum says, covered in paint, interviewed in the space in August amidst renovations. Plus, there is the question of cost. Santa Fe can be an expensive town, but rents here are nothing like those in the metro area, so companies can come out way ahead in the glamor department.
Bynum is optimistic about the new space, which they're renting from Paraguas for the next seven months or so, and were able to make happen mostly because they schlepped all their supplies across the country. They practically took the nails out of the wall when they left New York, so everything from costumes to their lighting grid have found new homes in Santa Fe.
"And [when you don't have a space], you pay a lot for just renting it out for a month. So that's where the inspiration came from. We paid so much for two months," she says of the previous seasons. "We figured we'd take that same money, put it into this space for eight months, and see what happens. And then, at every curtain call, we'll say, 'We want our own home. Can anybody help us out? Do you have a barn? Do you have a garage? Do you have a parking lot?' and just put it out there. Like Hudson Valley Shakespeare in New York—it was somebody's estate, and they said, 'We've got this big place, it's got this beautiful view over the river, why don't you come do Shakespeare here?'"
While asking for karmic favors, Oasis doesn't hesitate to hand them out, too. After all, if they end up moving out of the Paraguas space, they will have created yet another quality venue in town that the other 29-plus companies can make use of. Further, Bynum doesn't want to keep the house just for themselves.
"The floor is awesome," she says, springing her heels in the performance space. "It's got a nice coosh to it. We were thinking of reaching out to some yoga instructors or some other dance-movement thing to maybe do classes during the day." She also wants to branch into education. "We're thinking of doing a theater camp next year, if we have the space," she adds. "And the idea is to start from scratch; what is theater, how do you move—and then by the end, they're doing their own little short play, they're making the costumes, they're making the sets."
This month's production of Uncle Vanya (which, judging by Oasis' previous Chekhov productions, could be one of the best shows in town this year) will be their last one in Paraguas. The new space—fittingly called the Oasis Theatre—hosts its first production in November with a double-header of The Shawl and The Sanctity of Marriage, two one-acts by David Mamet. (If you saw Oasis' production of Mamet's The Water Engine back in May, you'll know that while the playwright is best known for vulgarity, it's a disservice; there's more to be mined there.)
If you're not yet acquainted with Oasis' style, this Vanya is not to be missed, owing to Oasis' dedication to making classical works impeccable for connoisseurs and simultaneously understandable for newbies.
"In Vanya, a lot of the humor comes from the relationships," Bynum says. "You're going to recognize people, even though it's set in the 1890s. You're going to recognize your family in this." But that's not to say it's dumbed down; au contraire. "Sometimes, you can lose sight—even though we, as scholars, understand this, is it going to communicate out to an audience?" she asks. "That's the thing that we have to keep in mind; it's a play, and you have to physicalize the inner life of the characters."
Oasis' season, which also includes Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale and Molière's The Miser, is going to be good, if heavy. "It's a serious season. But there are going to be laughs," Bynum promises. "You know me. I find those laughs wherever I can get them."