It started with a meal and a desire for community.
In the spring of 2015, writer, actress, director and educator Alix Hudson, then a newcomer to Santa Fe's theater scene, was on a break between rehearsals for two different productions. She figured she'd find some way to kill four hours in Santa Fe rather than drive all the way home to Pojoaque.
"I'll just stay down here, sleep in the theater, who knows," she says, recalling the day four years ago. "And then these lovely people, Jonathan and Roxanne, were like, 'Do you want to come out and have a meal with us?' I didn't know them! And they're my people, right?" she says, laughing as she refers to Jonathan Harrell and Roxanne Tapia, also Teatro Paraguas regulars, who are now her close friends. "So we went to Dr. Field Goods, and they were like, 'Oh my God, you don't know Quiara Alegría Hudes?!'"
Thus began a number of relationships, both between people in the city's close-knit theater community and between Hudson and the work of playwright Hudes, whom Hudson half-jokingly calls "Teatro Paraguas' patron saint." And by 2019, these relationships would spur perhaps the most complicated collaboration Santa Fe's theater scene has ever attempted.
This week begins a five-week project launched by three theater companies to present staggered runs of Hudes' immense Elliot Trilogy, a saga that follows young Iraq war veteran Elliot Ortiz as he struggles with injury, PTSD, addiction, his past and his legacy—all framed by his strong Puerto Rican heritage, and set everywhere from the lush jungles of Vietnam to the concrete wilderness of Philadelphia.
The sublime, dreamlike Elliot: A Soldier's Fugue opens this Thursday, Sept. 26, and runs for three weeks at Teatro Paraguas; the two subsequent plays in the trilogy (raw and heartbreaking Water by the Spoonful, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2012, and The Happiest Song Plays Last, the most cinematic of the bunch) open the following two Thursdays, presented by Ironweed Productions and the Santa Fe Playhouse, respectively.
The planning, collaboration, compromise and camaraderie required to put up such a huge project among Santa Fe's theaters is nothing to scoff at—and is perhaps even something to marvel at, given how divergent our town's performing arts companies were until recently.
As little as five years ago, folks just weren't getting along. Companies were regularly, contentiously canceling programming, "claiming" opening weekends, secretly hosting auditions to shut each other out and circling wagons tight against each other.
"The Playhouse had been one of the guilty parties," says Vaughn Irving, artistic director at the Santa Fe Playhouse. "So part of me coming into a new city [in 2015] and trying to make up for the fact that we'd pissed a bunch of people off, I wanted to be as open as I could about everything. … There was already a hunger for that before I got here, so it was just nice timing for me to get here and be able to flip the culture at the Playhouse to go with that."
"Everybody wanted to work together, you know," adds Scott Harrison, artistic director and founder of Ironweed Productions, "but there were some contingents who didn't. So it just made it challenging. … There were always discussions, but they never melded into actual collaboration until Theatre Santa Fe."
Harrison references the nonprofit organization that was founded in 2015 and finally brought together Santa Fe's seemingly always-feuding theater companies into one cohesive group. While it began as simply a reason to apply for a grant to make a common website, it morphed into much more, according to co-founder and past president Janet Davidson.
She says the plan came from Jim Patterson, a loyal theater patron in town. "He called me, and he said, 'Do you think that a website for the theaters to get together on would be a good idea?'" Davidson recalls. "We brought the entire theater community together in one room at Teatro to explain what we were doing and to see who was going to be on board. At that point I think we had eight companies who said they would be interested."
Theatre Santa Fe has since ballooned to more than 20 subscribing companies, each of which pay a nominal annual fee to be included on the theatresantafe.org calendar, have the chance to participate in the annual Theatre Walk (which happened on Sept. 14 this year), and list their show dates in co-op style advertising. But the bigger outcome of Theatre Santa Fe was a sudden and intense bloom of community that local creatives had only dreamed of previously.
"I just directed a play in Albuquerque," Davidson continues, "and I was kind of shocked at the lack of agreement in theaters down there, and that we seem so far ahead of them. … Albuquerque is much more of a theater town … but the cooperation up here was making it seem much more professional than what I was seeing in Albuquerque. And I was very proud of that."
Teatro Paraguas Executive Director Argos MacCallum, who has been doing theater in the Santa Fe area since 1970, says he's seen a lot of theater alliances come and go—but that this one might have staying power, largely due to who makes up the scene these days.
"I'm always skeptical of everything, at least at first," he says. "But you're right, five years ago it was like, 'What do you mean, you're opening on that weekend? That weekend's mine.' And people say, 'Oh, the theater scene's really experiencing a renaissance,' and that's true. But it's always part of waves, it seems."
He acknowledges that right now, this moment feels special.
"What I think has happened is there's a whole new generation," MacCallum continues. "In the past, some of the alliances were dominated by big personalities, so there was always an undercurrent of competition. But there's a new wave of theater artists in town, and the idea of cooperation and mutual support has gained ground."
The idea of a "culmination" connotes a kind of end, so it's not accurate to say that the Elliot Trilogy is a culmination of the current coming-together of companies; but perhaps it's one of many culminations to come, the first of many large-scale collaborations, and can serve as a precedent of what is possible.
A resounding sentiment across all experiences of this project seems to be: Come closer. Come here. Come to me. As a Puerto Rican would say, "Vente pa'cá;" it's an invitation to listen, to commune and to relate to each other.
In Elliot: A Soldier's Fugue, the characters rarely, if ever, actually interact with one another, instead performing their disparate roles through monologues that are more like poetry, intertwining in story and vibrant image. We meet Elliot, the 18-year-old Marine, as he is shipped to Iraq; Pop, his father, whose drunken revelry in Vietnam masks a deeply traumatized soul; Grandpop, whose time shivering during the Korean War was spent playing Bach on his flute for his comrades; and Ginny, Elliot's mother, who met Pop in a Vietnam military hospital when she was a nurse there.
We are drawn into the swirling story via a supremely talented cast, including Luca Pacheco, an 18-year-old student at New Mexico School for the Arts, as Elliot; Niko'a Salas, a newcomer to the Santa Fe scene, who portrays a bellowing Pop; Paraguas mainstay Rudy "Froggy" Fernandez as Grandpop; and Juliet Salazar as the smooth-voiced, nurturing Ginny, whose jungle-like Philadelphian garden flourishes under her touch.
Hudson, who directs Fugue, loves the piece for its nuance. There are no flash-bangs, no grand revelations, but instead, evenly metered beauty that feeds the audience bit by bit. What makes the play great are "the unresolved cycles of trauma—and that Quiara lets it be," Hudson says. "We see some resolution, we see tiny little redemptions, we have the spoonfuls throughout; but she dared to do it."
If Fugue delivers its drama bit by bit, Water by the Spoonful, the trilogy's middle piece, pours it on heavier. It is more of a traditional play, though half of it takes place in an online chatroom, which presented a unique challenge to director Valli Marie Rivera.
Rivera, after living and making theater in New Mexico for 22 years, returned home with her husband to Puerto Rico in May of this year. She wasn't expecting Harrison of Ironweed to approach her a month before the big move and ask her to come back to New Mexico to direct a Pulitzer-winning script, but she knew she couldn't pass up the opportunity. She returned to Santa Fe for the summer to work on the show.
"When I was invited, I re-read it, and I fell in love," she tells SFR. "I cried, I laughed, I cried again, I laughed again. And I said, 'Okay, this is the play I need to come back to Santa Fe [for].' It was like a big circle closing for me."
She's particularly enamored of the portrayal of Puerto Rican culture in the piece. "I want [my actors and our audiences] to understand that our culture is very strong," she says. "It is based on the mother, the matriarch. … We go back to the family for healing as part of our culture. And it's important that my cast understands that that makes us strong."
Indeed, in Spoonful, it's now about five years after Elliot (Juan Mendoza Solis) has left Iraq, and he is trying to come to terms with his changing and tumultuous family dynamic—as well as his own ghosts, figurative and maybe even literal. He is shepherded by his strong cousin Yazmin (Cristina Vigil). Meanwhile, his biological mother (who, we find out here, is not Ginny from Fugue) runs a chatroom for recovering addicts; those characters and their relationship to their virtual matriarch Odessa (portrayed by Alicia Lueras Maldonado) make up a large part of the family structure we see onstage.
It is in this play, too, there's the heartbreaking reality of trying to recover—from injury, from trauma, from addiction, from heartbreak, from loss. The scene from which the title is drawn explains that when a child is dehydrated, water must be doled out slowly, teaspoon by teaspoon. As Rivera told the audience at a recent Theatre Lovers Club talk, "This is a story about addiction, a story about recovery, about struggling to get out of addiction, and about lives unfulfilled. … Little by little, little by little, emotional input, support from the family, little by little, you will recover. But if you try to recover quickly, it won't work."
The trilogy closes with The Happiest Song Plays Last, presented by the Santa Fe Playhouse and directed by Robyn Rikoon. The most traditionally structured play of the trilogy, it takes us further into the future, when Elliot is now trying his hand at an acting career (yes, really; Elliot is based on a real person, the playwright's cousin, and this part of the story is even true). Elliot (played by Devin Zamora) is in Jordan filming a docudrama about the Iraq War with Arab-American actress Shar (Tara Khozein) and their guide in Jordan, Ali (Robert Henkel, Jr.). Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, we see that his cousin Yaz (the aforementioned Roxanne Tapia) has become the matriarch that her aunt Ginny once was, and she takes care of the neighborhood, if not always herself.
The relationships between characters are paramount, says Rikoon. "It's exciting to me to see how these characters affect one another … just from walking their path, and from allowing themselves to be witnessed," she tells SFR. She says she's particularly enamored of the relationship between Ali, Elliot and Shar. "To serve the story, Ali has to be so kind and compassionate, and almost a catalyst for these two people to awaken to themselves. Compassion allows us to wake up. That's what is happening underneath this text; he's holding space and witnessing as these two people wake up."
The question always remains, "Why this play here and now?"—part of the answer to the "now" part is simply that the community has finally banded together and found the time to make it happen, after years of planning and wanting.
Specific to Santa Fe, Teatro Paraguas' MacCallum (who also appears in The Happiest Song) theorizes that Santa Fe is finally ready for Latinx playwrights' work to be produced more often.
"It's been kind of a struggle to produce Latinx theater and attract different kinds of audiences," MacCallum says of his experience at Paraguas, which he founded in 2004. "The regular theatergoing audiences, they're not attuned to the fact that there's such an incredible genre of Latinx theater that is so imaginative and fresh and vibrant."
As for his goals, besides putting on three great plays, he says, "I'm speaking selfishly for Paraguas; I'm hoping that one of the outcomes for the trilogy is that the theater audience that one sees in Santa Fe will become more and more attuned and appreciative of Latinx theater. … And I'm seeing that that's starting to happen."
And it's to the benefit of everybody that Santa Fe and its visitors see more of this work, says Happiest Song director Rikoon. Following in the tradition most visibly exemplified by Gabriel García Márquez of Colombia, much Latin-American literature has an enticing, enchanting, surreal quality that translates wonderfully to the stage in Hudes' masterful magical realism.
So much Latinx theater "is based on poetry, and that's so different than if you look at Arthur Miller or William Inge or Tennessee Williams," she says. "I'm excited about the weird line that Quiara Alegría Hudes walks between realism and magical realism."
To get her audience into the groove of a world in which not everything may be what it seems, she continues, "We have, in our design choices, tried to make the space a little disorienting. … So the play itself is traditional, the theater itself is traditional, but in the way we're approaching it, there's a little twist. It might make people go, 'I don't know, what is that supposed to mean?'—and so maybe by questioning what they're seeing visually, they'll subconsciously question what's going on onstage."
There are all the geographic and artistic reasons, but in the bigger picture, the importance of Latin American and otherwise non-Anglo American art in the political sphere is more and more important. Specifically, the president's repeated lashing-out at Puerto Rico, not to mention persistent racism against nonwhite Americans, have created a climate of a country hostile toward its own citizens; it follows that recognizing the beauty of the culture feels paramount.
"Puerto Rican culture is very active. We are activists," Rivera tells SFR. "We took out a governor the other day! I was marching with my grandchildren there; five million people marched. … There's so much that has been said about Puerto Ricans not being Americans. We are Americans! And doing this play helps my actors to understand what it is we are. We are strong, we are activists, we fight in war. We are Puerto Rican Americans."
Not only is community, family and healing a huge part of the plays presented, but it's a huge part of presenting the plays. This theme reverberated again and again, whether via Tapia and Harrell inviting newcomer Hudson out for a meal and telling her about Hudes, to Harrison's Ironweed production finding a cast, a director and a venue in short order, care of a generous scene.
Every person SFR interviewed for this project explained in their own way that the joy of working with those around them made this project stand out from the rest.
"I feel the collection of people, from the actors, directors, producers and creative teams, it feels like a—a collection of good people," Harrison says. "There's been a really good collective spirit around it. And it just reverberates out."
Irving of the Santa Fe Playhouse agrees. "I think there's a little bit of competitive pressure between the members of this collective to say, 'I've gotta be as good as this other show,'" he says. "We don't want to let down the trilogy on the whole, and it has to be on a certain level."
And that attitude will affect more than just this one project. "We've all seen this change in the amount and the quality of theater that is happening in town these last couple years," Irving continues. Rather than simply aspiring to be the best, he says, when theater folk see plays here in town, "there is this element of, 'Oh wow, that was really good. I want to do something that good.' And that's how you build community and build an audience and build—well, theater."
Perhaps that is how you heal a contentious theater scene: community. And, if you ask Rivera how you heal your own trauma, her answer is the same.
"You go home. You sit with your aunt or your grandmother. Our nucleus. Our family is very important," the Puertorriqueña told the audience at the Theatre Lovers Club panel. "And it's crucial to understand that family is not only by blood, but also family that we choose. Puerto Ricans are very much, 'Come over. I'll cure you. I'll take care of you. … Vente á donde. Vente aquí. Vente pa'cá.'"
Elliot: A Soldier's Fugue
7:30 pm Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 pm Sundays Sept. 26-Oct. 13.
3205 Calle Marie,
Water by the Spoonful
7:30 pm Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 pm Saturdays and Sundays Oct. 3-20.
Teatro Paraguas Second Space,
3205 Calle Marie,
The Happiest Song Plays Last
7:30 pm Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 pm Sundays Oct. 10-27.
Santa Fe Playhouse,
142 E De Vargas St.,
Individual tickets $15-$25; three-show package sees $10 discount. All tickets available at santafeplayhouse.