“I really believe in the idea of a theater company that can relate to its community. I think theater has a responsibility to deal with meaningful issues, preferably issues of social justice.” With these words, founder and artistic director Robert Benedetti captures precisely the goal of his newly formed New Mexico Actors Lab.

By premiering three plays this summer written by Tony and Pulitzer award-winning playwrights, Benedetti is sowing the seeds of what he hopes will blossom in coming years: a local repertory theater company. "We want to establish a track record and start building a core audience that hopefully grows. We also want to keep the membership of the actors constant. Of course, some will come and go, but my intention isn't to hold auditions for every show," he says.

Benedetti has worked in theater for over 50 years, during which time he served as a director at regional theaters across the US, was the former dean of theater at the California Institute of the Arts and the former chair of the drama school at Yale. He arrived in Santa Fe six years ago and directed Sylvia at the Playhouse last year. "There are a lot of good actors here in Santa Fe. I thought it would be nice to have a company that is actor-centered, as opposed to picking a play and then casting it based on auditions," he explains. "I'm picking plays for my actors in order to showcase and challenge their particular talents."

The NM Actors Lab was incorporated into a nonprofit earlier this year in order to raise funds. And from May 26 through Aug. 7, Benedetti is directing and designing the three shows comprising the company's inaugural season.

Proof (May 26-June 12) asks: Can genius, when it appears in a woman, be recognized as readily as when it appears in a man? The plot takes place in the world of mathematics but also within a family in which there is mental illness. The heroine is afraid she has inherited her father's insanity, for it is clear she has inherited his mathematical genius. Written by Pulitzer and Tony winner David Auburn and starring Jody Hegarty Durham, Geoffrey Pomeroy, Jonathan Richards and Tallis Rose, Proof offers a glimpse into the subtle and not-so-subtle ways genius is appreciated and madness is condemned, and how the fine line between the two is traversed.

Driving Miss Daisy (June 23-July 10) follows the relationship between an older Jewish widow and her African-American chauffeur over a span of 25 years. An unlikely friendship grows amid the turbulence of the '50s and '60s. The Pulitzer prize-winning play by Alfred Uhry stars Suzanne Lederer, Tone Forrest and Scott Harrison. Driving Miss Daisy is a co-production between the NM Actors Lab and Walter Dilts' Red Thread Santa Fe Productions.

Art (July 21-Aug. 7) follows a plot many a Santa Fean can appreciate, by investigating the commercial versus creative values of the visual arts world. The story follows three friends, one of whom pays a large sum of money for what appears to be a completely white painting. The two friends have very different attitudes toward it; one thinks it's a scam, while the other is willing to consider that his friend bought it because he must find value in it. Art was written by Tony and Olivier award-winning playwright Yasmina Reza and stars Nicholas Ballas, Robert Nott and Jonathan Richards.

Teatro Paraguas is the lucky venue to host the NM Actors Lab's audacious first season, and Benedetti is cognizant of the strengths and weaknesses of mounting productions in the smaller space. "The theater only seats about 55 people, so the plays I chose have small casts that benefit from an intimate kind of performance," he says. "All three are about relationships and are character-driven. It's like chamber music; it's all in the details."

The director says he is interested in the way theater explores how people treat each other and the ramifications of those behaviors on society. "With all three plays, I hope people feel they have been entertained in a meaningful way that provokes thought. The plays don't have a message; they're not polemic, but they are asking the audience to think about how the world works. The Elizabethans used to say the job of the poet is to teach delightfully. I really believe that in the sense of awakening thought processes and encouraging self-reflection."

New Mexico Actors Lab

Thursday, May 26-Sunday, June 12. $20.
7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays

Driving Miss Daisy
Thursday, June 23-Sunday, July 10

Thursday, July 21-Sunday, Aug. 7
Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie, 820-1086