From the street-side of The Peñasco Theatre, where a folksy mural tells of people building their community together, the theatre's owner Alessandra Ogren walks me to the north side of the building where a new mural by Rebeka Tarín and Amaryllis de Jesus Moleski offers a meta-response to images on the front, mixing folk iconography with urban-contemporary references.

Like many of the acts that pass through the performance hall located on the High Road to Taos, the muralists found Ogren by word of mouth. The young artists approached Ogren, she says, with a design in mind, and in a gesture speaking to the 11-year-old company's modis operadi, she gave them the space to realize their vision. The theater is, after all, Ogren's own realized dream, beginning with a friend who told her, "Hey, there's a theater for sale up in Peñasco." A founding member of Santa Fe's Wise Fool New Mexico, Ogren lived on the mesa at the time.

The theater's story begins with Amado Roybal, who built it as a cinema in 1940. It became the center of the community, Ogren says, with residents regularly walking five miles or more to eat dinner, watch movies and meet with friends. Today, the original projector sits in the theater's entranceway, but Ogren has opened up the space to accommodate a wide range of performing arts. However, the locals still haven't warmed up to her, Ogren says. They still view her as an outsider.

Conceived as a retreat and residency program for artists from cities and burgs around the country, the Peñasco Theatre enters its second full-summer season June 2, presenting circus acts, physical theater and theatrical music through September 29. With a modest lineup last year, Ogren set a goal of 30 people per show and achieved it; this year, she has booked the space every weekend with a goal of attracting 50 people per show. Last we talked, she was also on the verge of giving birth.

Ogren hopes that the prospect of dinner in the celebrated Sugar Nymphs Bistro coupled with the performances will attract audiences from Taos, Santa Fe, Albuquerque and beyond. She suggests patrons stay overnight at local campgrounds or Sipapu Resort.   

The mural by Tarín and Moleski may be viewed as a call to the kind of folks Ogren would like to attract to Peñasco, if only for a night. It depicts figures on stilts, a girl shuffling slices of watermelon intermixed with LPs and a woman in braids with arms full of spray paint cans and ears of corn—in short, attempts by the artists to find a place for people today in the history of the region. The performers on the schedule this season, likewise, bring progressive ideas to old vaudeville road acts, sometimes using modern technology, sometimes using built-in technology, aka imagination.

Ogren and I make our way to the back entrance, which opens into an area she calls "the residence, and  backstage." There I meet residents Pokey and Ember, who are on an extended residency, performing Button Wagon, while developing another show. They learned about the theatre from Cohdi Harrell, who performs with Brian Mayhall in inPeriphery on June 23. Harrell invited them to move out of their noisy Oakland warehouse to work in Santa Fe, and at first they lived with him in a converted mill in Nambé.

"With Cannupa and Ginger?" I ask, referring to sculptor Cannupa Hanska and DJ Ginger Dunnill.

"They took our place when we moved here," Ember explains.

"Their baby was born on the same day as mine," I reply.

"Amazing how all the ties come together," Ogren says.

The Peñasco Theatre Summer Season: June 2-September 29, Peñasco Theatre, 15046 Hwy. 75, Peñasco, 587-2726

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