Vaughn Irving took over as artistic director of the Santa Fe Playhouse in 2015, and emerged as a key player in growing and sustaining Santa Fe’s blooming theater community. As of Jan. 1, however, he’ll depart the theater for the greener pastures of … well, he’s not sure yet, leaving the job to fellow Santa Fe native Robyn Rikoon. Irving offered SFR his thoughts on leaving, on our arts community and on what he’s accomplished during four-ish years at the helm of the oldest continually running theater west of the Mississippi.
What's your elevator pitch of what you're doing next? I'm sure you've been asked this question 855 times.
Right. You'd think I'd be better at the elevator pitch by now.
I want to start a new kind of performing arts company. I don't want to say theater, specifically, because I think it should be broader than that. Hopefully we'll be creating new forms through collaboration. I want to form a company of multitalented artists who can all be performers, content-creators, technicians and administrators that will cycle through each person being lead on a project. So it's your passion project, and the rest of this group comes together around your idea and makes it happen, then the torch passes to the next person and their project happens. And everyone is emotionally, artistically and financially invested in this thing.
I want to fund it through ticket sales … but I also want to do a sort of subscription model. … People are pledging $10 a month, maybe $20, maybe $1,000, whatever they can do, and they're saying I believe in this group of people and I want to see what they're going to create next. …
I discovered that with only 2,000 people paying $10 a month, I could pay seven people what I made at the Playhouse. Which is unbelievable.
I mean, 2,000 is a lot of people.
Two thousand is a lot of people. And I totally buy that. But I have 2,000 Facebook friends, so that's the number I started with—I asked, if everybody miraculously signed up to be donors, would it pay for me? And I did the math, and I went, oh my god.
So what are the logistics of this?
I don't want to rush into this. I want to find the right place, I want to find the right people. So I'm taking the next five years. That's the timeline I've given myself to explore and figure out where and who and how. There's a chance that I'll get ahead of that schedule, but I think five years is a realistic time frame. It gets me starting the company when I'm 40. I think I'll be a grown-up when I'm 40, right?
There were rumors flying that you were fired. Can you say on the record whether you were fired?
I was not fired. People asked me a lot of I was fired. I was like, what? No.
So then, what was the impetus of your departure?
It was during Fun Home. We were in tech, and I was trying to give notes to the actors, and the band was playing behind me and I was trying to shout over the band, and we didn't have mic belts. Wireless microphones go in this elastic belt, and we were going to borrow them. … I asked, 'Did you get the mic belts?' and they said no. And I kinda snapped, and said, 'Well, if I'd have known that, I would have made them today. Everybody go backstage, take a break, and I'll come give you your notes individually.' And I kind of lost my temper momentarily.
Everybody told me it was fine in retrospect, but I felt really bad about it. And I was fighting off tears, because we didn't have $35 per actor to buy mic belts. And I didn't have the money or the people to have them built. And I was like, 'I just can't do this any more. It's just too hard.' That was the moment.
I had known that I didn't want to be here forever, but that was the point that I said I needed to step back sooner than later. … And that was a great show and a great process, where I was so proud of all of the work that everyone was doing, and everyone came together as a team and carried their portion of the weight—and I still felt alone. And I knew it was time.
OK, now it's time for the superlatives. What was your biggest triumph?
Resurrecting the Playhouse's reputation. When I came here, I was told—and I don't really know, because I wasn't in town for the years right before I, uh, got to town—the Playhouse was not a well-respected organization in Santa Fe. So I really made it my mission my first two years to say, 'We deserve your respect, we're going to do the best work we possibly can, we're going to treat people fairly, we're going to be open and transparent about what we're doing.' And it worked. We won back a lot of the town that we had lost before that.
What was the biggest area on which you had to work, in that regard?
Being a part of the community. We had really walled ourselves off into our own little corner.
The first time I did a show in town as an actor … was at the Adobe Rose. And it was political! I mean, yes, I wanted to do the play and it was fun, but I wanted to show that I was willing to play with others, that we were going to be part of the same community. And a supporter of the Playhouse said, 'Why are you working for the competition?' and I said, 'There is no competition. Any butt in any seat at any theater in town is a victory for theater in general.' And that's what we need to do. We need to raise this thing as a community.
What is your biggest regret or mistake?
It's the same as the biggest victory: I wasn't willing to step on toes in the way I think I needed to be. And I don't mean that toes deserve to be stepped on, but I needed to hold my own better when I got into moments of conflict. I'm a people-pleaser and I like to be everybody's friend, and I didn't want to be the one to rain on the parade, so to speak.
Was there anything that you didn't accomplish that you wish you had?
I really wanted to be able to compensate people better for their work onstage. I did increase the pay from zero to $50, to $200, to the $400 range. … Which is still not the place where you can maintain the standard. I think all the shows onstage had amazing, talented people in them. … But the amount of commitment that you can get from someone for $200 is not the same amount of commitment that you can get from someone for $200 a week.
What was the most important lesson you learned?
Trust my instincts and Jennie's instincts [Jennie Lewis, theater manager from 2014-2019]. Most of the big headaches that came about were due to something that we foresaw, but I wanted to give the benefit of the doubt. So many moments I said, 'Oh, we could have fixed that if I had just listened to that thought, or to Jennie.'
What is the most important advice you gave Robyn?
Know your limits. … I really tried to carry this place on my shoulders a lot, you know? And that's not to say that I was alone in that, because the staff and the casts of the shows, everybody gets passionate. But I would literally do anything that needed to be done if I thought no one else was going to do it. And that is not sustainable. And I want her to be able to start this job in a more sustainable place than I leave it.
And that doesn't mean there isn't going to be a panic mode when we get close to opening and it's all hands on deck 24 hours a day. But she can't carry the weight of it all, all the time. And I was never good at taking that advice, which I'm sure I got.
If you were to give a piece of advice to the Santa Fe theater community, what would it be?
Embrace the new. … We need to be ready, and we have a lot of really cool, smart people in this town who are ready to be challenged and ready to try new things. And yet, a lot of what Santa Fe is known for is the old, is the history. And that's not bad. … I was trying to play both sides of that coin the whole time I was here because I think both sides of that coin are really important.
But, I know visual artists in town say, 'I can't get shown anywhere unless I paint a picture of a horse.' And I think that extends to a lot of the arts in Santa Fe, and we really need to embrace the new or else we will die.
What was your favorite show experience during the last four years?
I think that would be Fun Home. Even with what I said before about Fun Home. … It was a perfect storm. We got the most amazing talent, everybody who came in was 100% committed and ready to work their asses off to make it happen. And we made something better than any of us could have made by ourselves. And that is what I love about theater; that you can't do it alone, and you can create something together that far surpasses any individual's inspiration or ideas or creativity.
Is there anything you are able to say as of today that you have not been able to say these last few years?
The Playhouse needs better support. I really care about the organization, but it is not sustainable right now. We need more board members, more passionate board members, we need large donors who really want to see the quality of the work improve. Because yes, we've made a lot of progress over the last four years, but there's still plenty of distance to travel.
This is what we've been able to do scraping the bottom of the barrel for the last penny. And if we had money, the sky's the limit. I really believe that. Even with our tiny little house in that little alley downtown. It's so special and it's got such history and it's got such bravery. The organization has a soul of its own that I'm really invested in, but I want to see it thrive. And that means we need to make an extra $300,000 every year.
Is there anything you haven't yet said that you'd like to say?
Thank you. The amount of love and dedication and passion and support that I and the Playhouse have received over the last four and a half years is unbelievable. It brings tears to my eyes right now as I'm talking to you. I feel like I've talked a lot of negativity in this interview so far, but I've never believed in something as much, I think, as I have and continue to believe in the Playhouse.
And it's because of the people. It's because of the people from the community who appear on the stage, who come to see the shows, because of the folks who crawl out of the woodworks. There's something magic, and I would not have been able to do anything, to accomplish anything, over the last four years if it were not for the support and passion and love from the people of Santa Fe and beyond.