Just as actor/writer/director Robyn Rikoon was gearing up to take the reins as artistic director of the Santa Fe Playhouse—the oldest continually operating American theater west of the Mississippi River—COVID-19 struck. It’s a common refrain at this point, but one that still stings no matter how often we hear it. Rikoon was set to take over for Santa Fean Vaughn Irving, who moved into the artistic director job in 2015 after a stint in Washington DC, steering the theater from its amateur leanings toward a decidedly more professional operation. There is absolutely nothing wrong with community theater, but what the Playhouse started to achieve under Irving was magical: Bigger, better and more challenging shows from playwrights whose names you knew; pay for actors that amounted to more than a couple hundred bucks for an entire run, including rehearsals; and higher attendance numbers than the Playhouse had seen in years.
“I’m a fan of ‘the rising tide rises all boats,’” Irving told SFR in 2016. “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.”
The Playhouse had reinvented itself before.
We can trace its roots back to 1919, and the mysterious artist Mary Austin. Like so many others of the day, she was lured here by Santa Fe arts grand dame and patron Mabel Dodge Luhan. Austin formed a group of unlikely community theater lovers to start producing shows. By 1922, the troupe had incorporated as the Santa Fe Players—and included one John Gaw Meem, with whose architectural work Santa Fe is lousy. The Players initially performed in the then-new St. Francis Auditorium adjacent to the Plaza, which Meem designed, and over the following 40-ish years, they produced shows under various names, such as the Santa Fe Community Theater, wherever they were able. In 1964, the Players moved into a more permanent home within an old livery stable on DeVargas Street, where the theater exists to this day.
By 1997, the company officially adopted the Santa Fe Playhouse name and, in 2008, it bought the building, which has played home to countless shows since then.
Meanwhile, that renaissance to which Irving referred in 2016 feels like it’s truly under way at the Playhouse under Rikoon’s vision. With new Executive Director Colin Hovde now in the mix and with a more supportive and engaged board of directors than ever, it seems obvious the Santa Fe Playhouse is on the cusp of something special. With all respect to Santa Fe’s myriad talented thespians, the shift includes importing pros from out of town, including El Paso, Texas-based actor Juan-Andres Apodaca, who recently killed alongside Santa Fe actors Alexandra Renzo, Danielle Reddick and Geoffrey Pomeroy in playwright Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, directed by Rikoon. It’s a daunting and haunting piece about mental health, big pharma and love told with a mix of heady dialogue, dark comedy and, fascinatingly, some fairly heavy monologues. And that’s just one example of the rising theatrical tide.
As the Santa Fe Playhouse looks toward its next 100 years of theater, there is perhaps no better time than to check in for a state of the union. As the Bard would say, now let it work—mischief, thou art afoot.
Quality and care are certainly on my mind when I meet Rikoon and General Manager Ryan Williams for a bit of chat and chocolate one recent late morning. Rikoon is preparing for a brief trip out of town, and Williams shows me the various chocolates and truffles from local business Chocolate+Cashmere, with whom the Playhouse has partnered. The candies are meant to be part of some upcoming experiential offerings from the theater, Williams says, and he has plenty of other ideas in store. Together, he and Rikoon’s energy is palpable, even on a dark day for the theater.
Rikoon recalls that her first show at the Playhouse was in 2017.
“I did 39 Steps with director Barbara Hatch,” Rikoon tells SFR, proving her bonafides. “I directed 1984 in 2018, then in 2019 came The Happiest Song Plays Last and...I was part of The Elliott Trilogy [with Teatro Paraguas], I did Santa Fe Performing Arts when I was a kid; went to North Carolina School of the Arts for a degree in drama; moved to New York and did TV and movies; started an underground arts collective called Archaic Remnants that did site-specific, immersive work; took a couple years off, traveled the world, got really into circus—specifically Cambodian circus, which I didn’t perform, I just loved—came back to the states, landed in Santa Fe, got re-involved with the Playhouse, directed a Benchwarmers [show of one-act plays]; decided directing was where my heart was and applied for a fellowship at the Kennedy Center in DC, got it and did a year-and-a-half residency, technically a fellowship, and then came back to New Mexico to do a New Mexico Actor’s Lab piece.”
Notably, Rikoon barely takes a breath while delivering the abridged version of her theater journey, and whereas her return to New Mexico might have been triumphant, especially with a new job prospect looming, her partner of two years tragically died in his sleep shortly thereafter.
“I went to the memorial and then came back and interviewed for the Playhouse job,” she says. “And to be completely honest, and I know we’re on the record here, I did not know what I was doing, I did not know what it meant to be an artistic director. But I’m a super-scrappy producer and director, and I love Santa Fe—I believe in the people here, and I believe in the live theater experience. The collective experience of bringing people together? I believe there’s potential for Santa Fe to be a theater town.”
Williams agrees. His own background is impressive as well, particularly for someone from a tiny town in rural Oklahoma. Williams would catch the theater bug at 4 after seeing his grandmother perform. He “fell in love with the idea of transforming oneself,” and he’d go on to attend the Oklahoma Arts Institute, which conducted auditions annually throughout the state. Later came a position studying with legendary Yale theater educator Earl R. Gister, and Williams additionally studied at the Interlochen Arts Academy and Sarah Lawrence before heading to work at New York City’s MMC Theater under Robert LuPone. By 23, he was in a relationship with a Broadway director and, he says, everything seemed perfect.
“But I didn’t like the person I was becoming,” Williams says. “So I moved onto the Navajo Nation to teach, and I lived in the school there with the students.”
He taught there for three months, then moved on to do the same in Ghana. He traveled to Spain and Lebanon, but in the end, Williams returned to the theater, and he arrived in New Mexico permanently when his husband took a job at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Williams worked for the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum right up until the pandemic, when he was laid off, but once public health orders relaxed, he auditioned for a show at the Playhouse. He didn’t land that role, but it opened the door for him to join the theater in an administrative capacity. Now, he’s working toward collaborative experiences both in and out of the space, including the aforementioned project with Cashmere+Chocolate and a special blend of coffee from Santa Fe’s 35 North Coffee roasted with the theater’s current production of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance in mind. Wiliams says he’s also working on other partnerships with local businesses.
“The idea would be that we would curate a night for you,” Williams explains. “Or maybe it’s a day of food pairings and an experiential night at the theater.”
Playhouse Board President Kent Kirkpatrick is all about such experiences—and elevating local theater. He’s a lifelong actor, producer and director with ties to most if not all of Santa Fe’s more notable theater companies, and though he’s performed numerous roles on and offstage at the Playhouse for years, he has served on the board for six.
“What they told me was that the goal for the board was to raise the quality and the professionalism of the Playhouse,” Kirkpatrick tells SFR, “and I said, ‘I can get behind that goal.’”
When it comes to a theater so physically small in a town that seems to thrive on informal relationships, however, that’s a taller order than one might expect. Kirkpatrick and the rest of the board face a challenging task list, from fundraising and budgeting to working with Rikoon on selecting each season; producing the annual Fiesta Melodrama; and keeping the lights on in yet another Santa Fe arts organization that often does so much with very little. The Santa Fe Playhouse is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and though ticket sales account for some revenue, much of its funding comes from donations and grants. Stacked up against an entire country of small theaters, particularly in a post-pandemic world, it can’t be easy. Even so, for Kirkpatrick and, he says, the rest of the board, the art’s the thing. He appears as Tobias in A Delicate Balance, for example, and he had to get approval through a board vote to even audition. It’s just another way the Playhouse is working behind the scenes to up its professional inner-workings.
“I came to Santa Fe back in ‘95, and back in those days there were lots of little theater companies competing for money, audiences, whatever—which is typical of a small town,” Kirkpatrick says. “But we’ve really wanted to change the narrative and become collaborators. Vaughn Irving was brilliant at that, acting in other companies and reaching out to the community, and Robyn has done a great thing and come in, in sort of the same way [as Irving], and I see the results of that here in her work. It shows.”
Kirkpatrick also cites Executive Director Hovde as a turning point for the Playhouse, pointing to his professional experience and connections.
Hovde attended the same school as Rikoon, the North Carolina School of the Arts, though he’s a tad older. Like so many, he came to the theater by way of acting, but says that “I realized everybody else in my class was better than I was at acting.”
No matter, though, according to Hovde. He never wanted to tread the boards of Broadway or be showered with roses. For him, it’s about the process and the artistry, not the glitz and accolades. After school, he headed to China to work in freelance theater positions. He returned to America to do the same in Washington, DC, where he crossed paths again with Rikoon. He took over a struggling company called Theater Alliance in DC, and over an eight-year period, he transformed it from a troupe on the brink to a self-sufficient company that still exists today.
“I learned how to balance sheets, write for grants, plan a season, all sorts of things,” he says. “But I’d also become very burnt out and started to wonder if there was a place in American theater for me. I like supporting arts, I enjoy supporting artists, but I don’t like giving speeches or being the center of attention. What I like is for things to be in a place to help artists succeed.”
The Playhouse job seems a good fit for that desire, to the point that Hovde and his longtime partner were willing to leave Seattle, where they were living, behind. He points to how appallingly little theater workers are paid, and he’s working to improve compensation in Santa Fe.
“Historically, actors get paid a pittance in the industry,” he notes. “It’s generally anywhere between $300 and $1,000 for the whole run, and if you break it down to 20 or 30 hours a week, it’s embarrassing. What we’ve done is to break it down to, instead of paying one sum, we pay people every single week. That also makes it a lot easier for me to advocate for myself when creating and presenting a budget to the board.”
Actor Alexandra Renzo, whose recent performance as Connie in The Effect was unequivocally masterful, says she’s already seeing changes in how actors are treated during Playhouse shows.
“It’s the most I’ve ever been paid in this town—on-par with off-Broadway theaters in New York,” she says. “Not only that, but the process was on-par. They even have an apartment where they house non-local actors.”
And Renzo would know.
Like Rikoon, she’s seen a bit of success back East with film and television. She was also a producer for the 2018 Meow Wolf: Origin Story documentary. Renzo has been acting since 15 and attended the New School in New York in pursuit of that. After college, she worked with New York’s LAByrinth Theater Company, a troupe that was originally formed for and by Latino actors who, according to its website, wanted to “interrupt the racial status quo” of the NYC theater scene. Renzo conducted a year-long fellowship there and later founded her own troupe dubbed the Vertigo Theater Company, which focused on site-specific works and a more experiential theatergoing milieu.
As much as I try to get Renzo to talk about herself, though, she keeps coming back to Rikoon.
“I’ve learned more from Robyn in the last two years than anyone else,” Renzo says. “She just zeroes in on things in a really humble yet strong way, and I think she’s bringing such an eclectic lineup to the Playhouse. I’m so interested in how people are going to stay here, get uplifted and how we start to celebrate the craft in this town.”
Hovde’s credentials will surely help, as will Williams’ quest to create experiences, as well as Rikoon’s overall vision.
“What we’re creating as a synergy between striving for artistic excellence, but also taking more risks and allowing theater to flow with the changes that are happening in bigger cities,” she says. “I think our model is different in that fact that we’re not creating a company.”
To that end, all shows at the Santa Fe Playhouse will henceforth feature open auditions. And though Rikoon rightly points out that such a step adds extra work, it could also result in the types of urgent performances not always possible for long-term companies.
“There is something really beautiful about working with a company and ensemble, because you develop trust and you can get performances out of people you wouldn’t get when you’re constantly working with new ones,” she notes. “But right now, we want to work with new people. We want to give people opportunities.”
This includes for set and lighting designers. With longtime light tech Annie Liu moving on to other opportunities in Seattle last year, the Playhouse has been working with freelancers more often. In a show like The Effect, for example, lighting from Maryland-based designer Max Doolittle was a triumph in terms of atmosphere and tension, or even just alleviating those feelings. So often in film, score and sound help establish mood; onstage, the lighting does much of that heavy lifting. Rikoon says she always looks for local light smiths first when mounting a show, but no matter from whence they came, professional lighting as a priority is just another example of the Playhouse’s commitment to improvement.
Even tackling a show like A Delicate Balance with director L. Zane Jones feels like a small but meaningful step. Albee’s works are complex and full of lengthy dialogue, but a recent preview performance proved that the staff and actors are more than up for the task. This says a lot about trusting audiences, as well. Albee’s work can be very funny, of course, but also cutting and raw—or perhaps brutally honest. But then, that’s the essence of stagecraft, is it not? It’s meant to cut to the heart of our shared experiences in all of their beautiful, ugly, life-affirming, gut-wrenching intricacies.
“It’s hard for me to be like, ‘Great job, Robyn!’ so I need to practice doing that,” Rikoon says. “We’ve had some wins, but there’s so much more to do. There is always going to be room to grow.”
Once A Delicate Balance closes May 15, Rikoon and company will delve into Everybody by playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins, a 2018 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the drama category, with Los Angleles-based director Zoe Lesser. The play tells its story with characters taking on the roles of moral concepts like Kinship, Evil and Strength. Based on the 15th century morality play, The Everyman, Lesser’s version features an onstage lottery through which the fates of each character might change from performance to performance. After that, the Playhouse mounts The Mountaintop by playwright Katori Hall, which has not been cast yet, but did recently pick up director Zuhairah McGill. It’s a relatively simple piece with a stripped-down cast, and it follows Martin Luther King Jr. on the night before he was killed in 1968. Then, of course, there’s the Fiesta Melodrama and various other collaborations, including one ongoing with the Southwest Association for Indian Arts that has found Native dancers taking to the stage. Rikoon also notes that we can expect shows for children produced by adults, including one based on the beloved Frog and Toad children’s books, talkback sessions and who even knows what else. The Playhouse could still do a lot of things, and that’s kind of the beauty of where it has found itself as an organization.
“The legacy of this company is beautiful,” Hovde tells SFR. “What Robyn and the board and I are all trying to do is to honor that legacy while, at the same time, acknowledging that nothing is un-changeable. We’re finding the next evolution, and I think the staff and the board are really in sync, really locked-in about where we are and how we’re rallying behind Robyn’s vision—and finding the support.”
Hovde freely admits that communication within the community will play a key role. The Playhouse, for example, raised ticket prices slightly this year, by $5 per tier—hardly a hardship for theatergoers, but one that has surprised some, according to Hovde. Still, given the Santa Fe Playhouse’s 100 years of shows, it seems a small price to pay.
“My hope is that I can speak to a variety of audience members, not just our normal demographic,” she says. “Luring people into the theater and blowing their minds...it’s not just picking the shows, it’s got to draw a variety of crowds. And when they see the quality of work and the production value and the acting and directing and lighting, hopefully it piques their interest. To put together a creative season, a creative team—it doesn’t get much better than that.”
A Delicate Balance:
7:30 pm Thursday, April 28-Saturday, April 30; 2 pm Saturday, April 30. $15-$75. Santa Fe Playhouse, 142 E De Vargas St., (505) 988-4262
100 Years of Melodrama
“Vaughn Irving brought us to a spot that we never could have gotten to without him,” says Playhouse board secretary and longtime Fiesta Melodrama co-director Andy Primm. “I believe in the organization, and I know the commitment it takes to keep it going, and I feel a lot of what the board does is to keep it on the rails, allow it grow and sustain. I love thinking of it as sustainable, and I want it to last.”
If nothing else, the Santa Fe Playhouse has kept its long-running Fiesta Melodrama, which runs in tandem with Santa Fe’s annual Fiestas celebration, sustainable. A sendup of all things Santa Fe written by an ever-shadowy, secret collection of locals, its roots go back to before anyone alive can even remember, and while its mandate is to be as dumb and silly as possible, it has often been rife with incisive observations doled out in digestibly humorous ways. Primm has been involved since 2011, and says the show’s upcoming iteration will be the theater’s 100th.
“The melodrama is traditionally set 100 years [from when it is presented], and 1922 was a very interesting era in Santa Fe,” he says. “As I’ve done more research, I’ve found it’s when a lot of things about Santa Fe style were codified—Fiestas, too. In a modern sense, Santa Fe was reinvented in the 1920s, like with pueblo-style architecture, and much of ‘the myth of Santa Fe’ comes from then. To my mind, at some point things stop being myths and just become how they are, and that’s something I find truly fascinating.”
As always, Primm is tight-lipped about the particulars of the show, save to mention that former Playhouse board member Eliot Fisher will make his return to the production this year. Additionally, like last year, the company aims to mount productions outside of its downtown HQ. In 2021, the melodrama hit the stage at Tumbleroot Brewery & Distillery for several performances—not bad considering it was presented in episodic form online in 2020 while COVID-19 raged and roiled. Primm doesn’t know where it will land this year, but Midtown or Southside performances are definitely in the works.
“The main reason I keep coming back [to the Melodrama] is the people,” says actor Felix Cordova, who has performed in the show since 2013. “Andy Primm, the Playhouse staff, all the wonderful actors we have in our great city, they’ve helped me grow, not only as an actor, but a person. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t fall in love with the Playhouse once they’ve been a part of it. There’s so much history inside those walls.”
Some of that history will likely spill out across the melodrama this year, and it’s always enjoyable to see notable local people and customs get lambasted. Its continued success is likely the sum of many parts, but, Primm says, much of it has to do with the team running things.
“In Santa Fe, there’s no way around the size of the town, that’s just the reality,” he tells SFR. “We’re not a big giant market, but I think that we can actually compete with those markets says a lot about what the organization is doing. We hired Robyn to do what she does, and we trust her. Colin stepped in during the middle of the pandemic and found grants and resources, updated our bylaws and solidified our taxes. Even beyond putting out content—which we’ve done—I’m so proud of the organization and where it is. I’ve seen a lot of changes, and it’s nice to see that we just keep getting a little better all the time.”