Sea­son of change Santa Fe Play­house


Pasatiempo - - CONTENT - Jen­nifer Levin

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

Vaughn Irv­ing

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

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