Season of change Santa Fe Playhouse
SANTA FE PLAYHOUSE
There aren’t many places in Santa Fe to put on plays. National and international theatrical productions sometimes fill the 821-seat Lensic Performing Arts Center or the 500-seat Greer Garson Theatre, but few local groups command audiences of that size. Many local theater groups lease rehearsal space in the office parks in an industrial area off Rufina Street, near Henry Lynch Road, and then stage their productions downtown at the Santa Fe Playhouse on E. DeVargas Street, where they pay a rental fee. This arrangement has been in effect for decades, but a new decision by the Playhouse’s board of directors to eliminate outside rentals has left other groups, such as Ironweed Productions and The New Mexico Actors Lab, looking for performance space.
“That is correct,” Peter Sills said when called for confirmation about the new policy. “We used to, in the past, rent the Playhouse space to other prodoing duction companies in town, and we are no longer that.” Sills, semi-retired from a career in the computer-gaming industry, moved to Santa Fe from Chicago three years ago. He is a member of the Playhouse board and serves in a volunteer capacity as executive director of the theater. “I’m not a theater creative. My background is entirely in business. I came on to oversee the day-to-day business of the Playhouse and serve as a liaison between our staff, who I manage, and the board, who I report to on a regular basis. We’re moving the board to being a true board now, which means oversight and strategic development, looking out for financial concerns and long-term viability. Artistic decisions, decisions about our season, our actors, directors, etc., are in the hands of our artistic director.”
The Playhouse hired its first paid artistic director, Cristina Duarte, in the summer of 2014. She oversaw the 2014-2015 season but opted not to renew her contract. A new artistic director, Vaughn Irving, joins the Playhouse full-time in November, just in time to direct a radio-show-style version of
It’s a Wonderful Life as a Christmas show. (After that, the theater closes for renovations and then reopens on what Sills referred to an “annualized” season schedule, January through December, rather than the September-through-August seasons of the past.) Irving grew up in Santa Fe and graduated from Santa Fe High School in 2002. He earned a bachelor of fine arts in musical theater from Illinois Wesleyan University and since then has been acting, directing, and teaching in the Washington, D.C. area. He wrote and produced the musical Disco
Jesus and the Apostles of Funk, winner of the Capital Fringe “Director’s Award” for outstanding production, Maryland Theatre Guide’s Reader’s Choice Award for “Best Fringe Show,” and Broadway World D.C.’s pick for “Best Capital Fringe Production.” The Playhouse has also hired a new technical director, Michael Oldham, a student at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.
Kelly Huertas, president of the Playhouse board, clarified that the restriction on rentals is temporary, and will be revisited after the 2016 season. “When we do rentals, the overhead is twice what those companies can afford,” she said. “We thought we could be a rental house and lift up all the other theater companies in town, but we need to make sure we can survive. Until we get our own house in order, it’s difficult to help the rest of the community in that capacity.”
Money seems to be the driving issue, although in September 2014, Pasatiempo reported on a “rebirth” of the Playhouse, which included the hiring of three paid staff members — an artistic director, technical director, and theater manager — as well as rental of offsite rehearsal space so that the Playhouse stage would be available for more productions each year. These costs were covered by a large donor gift, and the plan was to fundraise to cover future salary costs. All three staff members hired at the time have left. “It has been a bit of a roller coaster year and a lot of hard decisions have had to be made,” Huertas admitted. “But there have been so many positive changes going on at the theater, and the 2016 season is going to be incredible with the team of Vaughn, Michael, and Jennie.” ( Jennie Lewis is the theater manager.) “The three of them are already working so hard to bring a new identity to the Playhouse without erasing all that is good about it.”
Part of the new identity the board members have been discussing is expressed in a revised mission statement, which now maintains that it is the Playhouse’s vision to be “the driving force in establishing Santa Fe as a destination for quality engaging theatre.” The Santa Fe Playhouse was founded in 1919 and incorporated in 1922 as the Santa Fe Little Theater. It claims to be the longest continuously operating community theater west of the Mississippi River, and historically it has been home to the homegrown: Kids who acted there tended to become adults who acted there. For decades it was called the Santa Fe Community Theater. The name was changed to the Santa Fe Playhouse in the late 1990s, when Argos MacCallum was president of the board. “I’m very much for the community,” said MacCallum, now the director of Teatro Paraguas, a bilingual theater he co-founded in 2004. “But the board decided they wanted to try it, because ‘community’ is a loaded word. Right away attendance went up 30 percent. We didn’t change anything about ourselves but our
First off, we don’t use really use the word ‘community’ anymore. From a marketing standpoint, people hear ‘community’ and think that means small, local theater.
— Peter Sills, executive director, Santa Fe Playhouse
name.” The Playhouse was still known throughout Santa Fe as a “community theater” because everyone was welcome to get involved in plays regardless of experience, and because the mission of the organization was to bring theater to the people of Santa Fe, but Sills, who joined the board in June, rejects that term.
“First off, we don’t use really use the word ‘community’ anymore. From a marketing standpoint, people hear ‘community’ and think that means small, local theater. Being a theater for the community doesn’t mean we can’t put on world-class productions. These productions involve the community, obviously. We believe that there are a tremendous number of great actors, directors, and other theatrical talent in this town,” he said. “One of the objectives that the new board for the Playhouse has is to work to make Santa Fe a center for theater. The town is a Mecca for art and opera and food. We consider theater to be the missing component, and we’re taking a leadership role in that.”
Scott Harrison, director of Ironweed Productions, is currently looking at alternative performance spaces so that he can confirm whether or not he’s doing a play next summer. For several years, Ironweed has had a collaborative agreement with the Playhouse, in which Ironweed pays a rental fee for the space and the Playhouse receives a portion of ticket sales. Past collaborations include Death of a Salesman (2015), Good People (2014), and Buried Child (2013). “I wasn’t aware that this was going to happen,” he told
Pasatiempo. “It’s sad not to continue our partnership, but I understand the reason.” When asked whether he also envisions Santa Fe theater attracting destination travel on par with Santa Fe Opera and Canyon Road, Harrison said, “The way to bring appreciation to Santa Fe theater is to produce high-quality shows that people want to see. That’s the starting point, and I think that’s what the Playhouse is striving for.”
Others were somewhat more cynical about the idealistic if laudable vision. “Local theater has a long way to go to meet that goal,” said John Flax, director of Theater Grottesco, which is dedicated to progressive and alternative theatrical performance outside of traditional plays. The group has rented the Playhouse many times, including for The Moment of
Yes in 2015. “For the size of Santa Fe, we have a lot of good theater, but it’s hard to accomplish goals like that without huge financial resources,” Flax said. “An organization’s mission statement is up to them, and it seems like the Playhouse is beginning to explore aspects of being a small regional theater instead of a community theater.” Grottesco has always wanted its own performance space, but time and financial support have not made that possible.
“To ask a town of this size to support destination theater isn’t reasonable,” said longtime theater professional Robert Benedetti. “There isn’t a large-enough, strong-enough base audience. We have small theater groups with very loyal followings, but not at the scale needed to produce destination theater.” Others have tried and failed, he said, recalling Santa Fe Stages, which held summer seasons in the 1990s at the Greer Garson Theatre at the College of Santa Fe. Stages lost its funding due to creative differences between the main benefactor and the artistic director. Benedetti has been acting, directing, writing, and producing since the 1960s. He was an early member of Second City in Chicago and won two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Made for Television Movies (Miss Evers’ Boys, 1997; A
Lesson Before Dying, 1999). He has taught at numerous colleges and universities, and was chairman of the acting program at the Yale Drama School and dean of theatre at California Institute of the Arts. He recently founded a new theater company, The New Mexico Actors Lab, for which he directed a production of
Sylvia at the Playhouse in 2014. He had intended to rent the space for a production of Proof this fall, but that has been rescheduled for summer 2016 at Teatro Paraguas Studio. Teatro Paraguas also now houses the Southwest Children’s Theater, which was held at the Playhouse from the early 1990s until 2014.
“I’m actually in the position of turning people away at this point,” MacCallum said. “There is such a need for more affordable small venues, not just for productions but for poetry workshops and readings, and acting and directing workshops.” Rental income helps cover the costs of keeping his theater open, which costs $60 per day. “I wish I could say yes to so many more people. People are so grateful to have a place to congregate and be creative together, which is more important than attracting tourists.”
Huertas is banking on getting attention for a new theater festival the Playhouse is organizing, to be held in the fall of 2016, that combines Benchwarmers, the popular one-act playwriting competition, with the full-length Playwright’s Forum competition started last year. “I think people might be really interested in spending a weekend in Santa Fe seeing brand-new theater. Being a theatrical destination for tourists is a goal to strive for,” Huertas said. “Not in one year; not in five years. It’s a standard to reach for. Part of the reason for terminating rentals at the Playhouse is that we need to figure out who we are. Are we following our own mission? We need to preserve who we were, but we can’t just stay who we were. All ‘community theater’ means is that you’re not an equity theater. Our open-door policy still exists — and you can come to Santa Fe and have a good night of theater. That’s all. I don’t want world domination.”
There is such a need for more affordable small venues, not just for productions but for poetry workshops and readings, and acting and directing workshops. — Argos MacCallum, director, Teatro Paraguas
Top, a melodrama at the Santa Fe Community Theater, circa 1930s, courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), Neg. No. 093553; bottom, Vaughn Irving, newly appointed artistic director, Santa Fe Playhouse; opposite page, Kev Smith (left) and David McConnell in the Playhouse’s current production of The Foreigner, photo Lynn Roylance
Far left, Jonathan Richards’ sketch for The New Mexico Actors Lab production of Sylvia, directed by Robert Benedetti (pictured) at the Santa Fe Playhouse Above, Scott Harrison, director of Ironweed Productions; right, Peter Chapman, Campbell Martin, and Jonathan Harrell in Ironweed’s 2015 Death of a
Salesman, directed by Harrison, at the Santa Fe Playhouse