Local theater itself has not been entirely different, with venues and companies coming and going over the years. It's not that we've gone without the stuff here in Santa Fe, but if we compare the current landscape of venues and productions, actors and directors, writers and administrators to even a few years ago, it's obvious we're on the cusp of something big; we just need to reach out and grasp it.
"It seems like it ebbs and flows to me," Santa Fe Playhouse artistic director Vaughn Irving says. "It sounds a little negative, but once every couple decades, somebody comes to town and tries to turn Santa Fe into a theater town. And eventually the enthusiasm wanes away, but Santa Fe should be a theater town! With all the fine arts going on, we should have room for some world-class theater."
Irving, who has worked for the Playhouse for just about a year and grew up in Santa Fe, received a bachelor of fine arts in musical theater from Illinois Wesleyan University followed by a teaching stint at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts in Washington DC. And then he returned home. "I'm basically in charge of the artistic vision of the Playhouse," Irving continues, "and I direct quite a bit, produce, work with actors or give the directors notes if need be. What's cool is that they brought me in and theater manager Jenny Lewis and technical manager Michael Oldham, and we're all under 35."
Unsurprisingly, newcomers like this are proving vital to the future of local theater. Fact is, there was a time when one could attend performances in virtually every Santa Fe neighborhood and every artistic milieu. Access was plentiful to experimental curiosities from Theater Grottesco, shoestring productions at Theaterwork, classic musicals at Santa Fe Performing Arts and large-scale performances of the Bard from Shakespeare in Santa Fe at St. John's College. But any number of professionals in town will tell you, they then saw dwindling audiences and less-than-stellar interest from the community. While it's certainly true that old standbys like children's theater at the James A Little or community-led productions at Warehouse 21 never stopped chugging along, the overall theatrical scene in Santa Fe is poised to make a significant comeback.
New venues have emerged, new blood is being infused into leadership positions and people behind the scenes of local live performance seem to be re-energized and recommitted to providing the best possible theater work our little town can muster. Yet, there is still work to be done, and a healthy number of local theater folk are no longer satisfied with simply mounting a production from time to time and hoping for the best.
Artistic expression as catalyst for social change has grown more important, and it appears administrators across a number of local venues are drawing clear lines between creative and business efforts. This evolution toward business-minded practices may sound counterintuitive in a creative field, but once the blueprints for survival are firmly in place, creative types can maintain a proper pulpit and local theaters and companies can provide more to audiences than simple one-sided artistic experiences doled out on a sporadic basis. It's about fostering a certain level of consistency, and there are a handful of spaces and people currently operating as such and who seem to be steering the medium into unknown yet exciting terrain. As Brushstrokes of a Gadfly author EA Bucchianeri said, "Theaters are curious places, magician's trick-boxes where the golden memories of dramatic triumphs linger like nostalgic ghosts …"
Let's make some of these memories.
The Santa Fe Playhouse, the oldest consistently operating theater west of the Mississippi River, has seen big changes over the years; none so effective, however, as the reconfiguration of its board of directors and the addition of executive director/treasurer Peter Sills. A former software engineer, Sills describes the years leading to his 2015 appointment as transitional and disorganized.
"People do the creative side of things a lot better than I do, but when I joined, the board was comprised of actors, directors and creative people who maybe didn't have any business background. And that's fine, but it doesn't lead to creating longevity and growth—I'm not a huge believer of a creative consensus working as a business model," Sills says. "So I said, look, I'll come in and help you get the business side of things going, and now we've been learning. It's been a year of learning."
This comes with growing pains, but with Sills' business acumen and Irving's passionate desire for community growth and, maybe even more importantly, a variety of productions, the little theater on DeVargas Street seems on track for one of its best years yet as we head into 2017. Last year alone featured a number of performances such as She Kills Monsters, The Last Five Years and The Pillowman, challenging and smart productions that ask a lot of their audiences and contain tough subject matter. Some proved popular, some powerful and some divisive, but all have contributed to one of the most important facets of successful, effective art on a local or any scale: People are talking.
And the Playhouse would like to hold onto that buzz as it heads into October and unveils a new month-long festival dubbed the Different Festival. The better part of the month will find the Playhouse hosting staged readings, the 15th season of their proprietary one-act series, Benchwarmers, and the inaugural production of a new original work titled The Two Lobbyists of Verona by Kentucky-based playwrights Diana Grisanti and Steve Moulds. Lobbysists was chosen from over 100 submissions vetted by a blind panel of 40-some theater pros spread out across the country. The entire festival will be presented in repertory, a type of scheduling which repeats a number of shows in alternating sequence.
"We're exposing the Santa Fe audience to new stuff, but it's also giving playwrights the opportunity to hear their work out loud in front of an audience and maybe go back to the drawing board to develop their piece into something that will hopefully have a life beyond this festival," Irving says. "We've tried to design the festival so if you can only come Saturday nights, say, you can see Benchwarmers or a full play or all the readings; it's a little complicated, but if people are really motivated, they can come to see pretty much everything."
This serves a two-pronged purpose: to feed into Irving's dedication to variety in coming Playhouse productions, and to prove that Santa Fe can foster and sustain a thriving theater scene. Irving and Sills both see big things for the Different Festival's future including, they hope, the inclusion of other venues down the road in the shape of an annual town-wide event. "I'm a fan of 'the rising tide rises all boats,'" Irving tells SFR. "The more good theater that's in town, the more people will think of Santa Fe as a town where they can see good theater, and I keep seeing this as the beginning of a renaissance here."
Changes are brewing here as well. Stalwart executive artistic director W Nicholas Sabato has announced he will leave Santa Fe Performing Arts this month after 20 years, and longtime children's company director Megan Burns will fill the vacant role. "When I decided some time ago I was going to step down, I looked at Megan and thought to myself that she was this beautifully talented person," Sabato says. "I would really encourage other nonprofits to look within their organizations and the community before they go on these nationwide searches, because there are so many talented young people in Santa Fe who are more than capable of taking it on."
Burns is perhaps best known as singer-songwriter Flamingo Pink, or as a co-founder of arts collective Meow Wolf, but she has also run the SFPA youth program for 14 years and change. In her new position, she says she'll be able to drive dramatic change and steer the overall vision into new and more sustainable territory. Burns agrees that though numerous theaters and companies have continually operated for decades, the current climate leans more toward the vibrant than it has in some time. "I don't know how many theaters there are at the moment, but at one point I know there were a lot. Whatever has happened with the lull, there's now this nice reaction that maybe took some time, but I think there's this new fresh theater energy," she says. In recent years, SFPA hasn't mounted productions as often as it once did, but Burns envisions any number of youth and adult plays will soon inhabit the space starting with a youth production of The Little Prince this November, as well as a play about lowrider culture currently in pre-production.
"With the New Mexico History Museum and Northern New Mexico College," she says, "we've gathered student stories and we believe it will be the very first theatrical play about lowriders."
Teatro Paraguas executive director Argos MacCallum appears as if from nowhere in a sleeveless tee, hammer in hand. He's building scenery for the small space's upcoming original show, Revolution, which was written by their board of directors' vice president, Alix Hudson.
Both MacCallum and Hudson have served in the community elsewhere, MacCallum at the Santa Fe Playhouse and the now-defunct College of Santa Fe, and Hudson as a bilingual teacher at Nye Bilingual Early Childhood Center. It's a small operation, but one with a whole hell of a lot of heart.
"Paraguas was built stick by stick," MacCallum tells SFR. "Santa Fe has always needed a number of small venues, and there's really nowhere else that's as low-risk or without a lot of strings and red tape."
In its eight years, Teatro Paraguas has consistently focused on multicultural plays and literature with a focus on children's theater and the celebration of diverse history or underserved communities.
"We have a specificity of mission and want all of our productions to focus on the multi-cultural experience," Hudson says. "Deaf culture, queer culture, Hispanic and Latino culture … That sort of theater is still neglected."
This mission feeds well into Revolution, which tells the tale of Fernando Reyes, a fictional character based on a real-life trans man who joined the Zapatistas and fought during the Mexican Revolution of the early 1900s. Revolution is among 60 full-scale productions mounted by Teatro Paraguas since 2008, but ultimately only a small slice of its offerings.
In October alone, Paraguas will host poetry readings, open mics, assorted music events, dance performances and much more. Still, as the average age of theatergoers rapidly rises and services like Netflix keep us at home, smaller spaces like Teatro Paraguas will continue to struggle. A shift needs to occur, most immediately in the shape of interested youth.
"I'm amazed we've made it this far," MacCallum says, only half-joking. "There are young people who are slowly becoming more interested in theater and attending it, and we're really hoping to integrate with places like Monte Del Sol [Charter School]. But I've been doing this for decades, and sometimes the ball moves forward a little bit and then falls back."
When the performing arts department at the Santa Fe University of Art & Design (SFUAD) staged the musical adaptation of '80s dark comedy film Heathers last April, it was like an unspoken nod to a new focus on contemporary works.
Of course, the program strives to provide students with a well-rounded theater arts education and classics are bound to be studied and produced, but according to department chair Laura Fine Hawkes, the program has allocated a majority of its budget into newer plays.
"We are looking at where students are landing in the marketplace, and we know they'll spend a hefty amount of time with classics if they go on to post-grad studies, so most of our effort will go into contemporary works," Fine Hawkes says. "I do think there are patrons who'd still like to see classic works, though, and I do think we have to consider that, because we're interested in building our patron audience."
Fine Hawkes, a graduate of the College of Santa Fe, which occupied the campus before SFUAD, has served as department chair for just under two years. "I think the challenge is that we have a chance to do something meaningful and real in terms of commitment to the community and I don't think programming has been actively communicated," she says. "But there are some long-range conversations happening and we're looking at how the students can reach out to the community."
The school's productions have been and continue to be some of the finest and most professional in the region, and the department cuts a wide swath in providing both performing and technical training; some of the most talented actors, singers, tech workers, et al occupy the space and, if shows like Heathers or Den of Thieves or the upcoming production of Sondheim's Company have anything to say about today's theater offerings in Santa Fe, it's that we must distance ourselves from the idea of student or university theater as amateur or unprofessional.
"Population-wise, we aren't Chicago or Houston or Los Angeles, obviously, so the question is how do we program to suit student needs and also the patron base?" Fine Hawkes asks. "I think the vibrancy that theater lends as a dynamic art form would help us resolve some of that disconnect."
It is the feeling of change and exploration, or perhaps something to which we're not accustomed, an often-unwelcome idea in Santa Fe. Say hello to the Adobe Rose Theater, yet another new culture hub recently arrived within the burgeoning arts district of the midtown/Siler Road area courtesy of Los Angeles transplants Bruce and Maureen McKenna. Before you grab your pitchforks to run them out of town for daring to have not been born here, they've called Santa Fe home for a decade, and it's important to specify they know what they're doing after working in Hollywood and producing theater in New York City.
It took the McKennas a mere four months to retrofit a former door factory into a theater complete with a café-like lobby area and professional-caliber lighting. Its sound and seating are about as top-notch as it gets. The Adobe Rose represents a focus on quality, but also inclusivity as the lobby doubles as gallery space for visual art shows and the theater itself can be rented out to anyone (though the waiting list for rentals is beginning to stretch into 2018). The McKennas even work with potential renters to assure an affordable experience, and for shows they produce themselves under the moniker ART (Adobe Rose Theater), there is an emphasis on paying people for their time.
"The key is to find the right combination of plays," Bruce says. "I think what people maybe sometimes do is to put on older, classic plays, and that's important. You can't ignore that. But if you focus only on that, your audience dies off and then what are you left with?"
This is how Adobe Rose came to mount productions like The Bomb-itty of Errors, a contemporary, rap-themed retelling of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, or their most recent show, the Kenneth Lonergan-penned Lobby Hero (which starred the Santa Fe Playhouse's Vaughn Irving), a critical darling about a Navy veteran-turned-security guard.
"We're really trying to get a broader and deeper attack on all these different constituencies," Bruce says of their potential demographic.
Additionally, Adobe Rose offers workshops and classes, grants access to high schools and youth productions, presents staged readings, works with at-risk youth, provides special events and does so much more it's practically impossible to get it all down.
"We're about education and non-traditional casting," Maureen says proudly. "We're about plays that are inclusive of the whole community, and also letting people know we're here and we want you to come and we want to make it affordable."
Santa Fe Reporter