Inside the New Mex­ico Ac­tors Lab Robert Benedetti leads a new the­ater group

ROBERT BENEDETTI LEADS A NEW THE­ATER GROUP

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - James M. Keller

Santa Fe’s pro­fes­sional the­ater scene has waxed and waned through the years, but the up­swing it is show­ing just now can only warm the hearts of play­go­ers. The new­est group strid­ing into the spot­light is the New Mex­ico Ac­tors Lab, which, fol­low­ing a few years of ten­ta­tive stops, this week­end launches a full sum­mer sea­son of three plays.

The com­pany is the brain­child of artis­tic di­rec­tor Robert “Beny” Benedetti, who moved to Santa Fe six years ago fol­low­ing a dis­tin­guished half-cen­tury in­volve­ment in many aspects of the­ater. Early in his ca­reer, he per­formed with Chicago’s Sec­ond City and then he veered to­ward di­rect­ing, teach­ing, and pro­duc­ing. He was com­pany di­rec­tor of the Mil­wau­kee Reper­tory The­ater and was a guest di­rec­tor at many lead­ing stage groups, in­clud­ing the Guthrie The­ater and the Ore­gon Shake­speare Fes­ti­val. He has served as head of the act­ing pro­gram at Yale Drama School and as dean of the­ater at the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of the Arts, and he taught at such other schools as the Univer­sity of Wisconsin; Carnegie-Mel­lon Univer­sity; The National Theatre School of Canada; the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, River­side; and (un­til his “re­tire­ment” in 2011) the Univer­sity of Ne­vada, Las Ve­gas.

Quite a few of his stu­dents made names for them­selves, Ted Dan­son, Ed Har­ris, and Don Chea­dle among them. One day, Dan­son called and asked if he would be in­ter­ested in be­com­ing the pro­ducer for Anasazi Pro­duc­tions, a tele­vi­sion-film in­cen­tive he was start­ing at Para­mount Stu­dios. “I be­came a movie pro­ducer overnight,” Benedetti said. “Nei­ther of us was in­ter­ested in com­mer­cial prop­er­ties; we wanted to make plays that would change the world.” The most fa­mous of their pro­duc­tions was Miss Evers’ Boys, a dra­ma­tized story (star­ring Al­fre Woodard, Lau­rence Fish­burne, and Craig Sch­ef­fer) based on the morally in­de­fen­si­ble 1932 “Tuskegee Study of Un­treated Syphilis in the Ne­gro Male.” Whether their projects suc­ceeded in chang­ing the world is hard to judge by quan­tifi­able stan­dards, but their ef­forts did reel in three Em­mys, two Hu­man­i­tas Prizes, and a Pe­abody Award.

The im­pe­tus be­hind the New Mex­ico Ac­tors Lab is not en­tirely dif­fer­ent. “A qual­ity I hope we will have,” Benedetti said, “is con­cern for rel­e­vance and ap­pli­ca­bil­ity of the shows we do to the prob­lems of con­tem­po­rary life. I do my best work when there’s an is­sue of so­cial jus­tice in­volved in the show.” Each of the three plays the com­pany will mount dur­ing this ini­tial sea­son prom­ises to res­onate in this re­gard, be­gin­ning with David Auburn’s Proof, which in 2001 won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as the Tony for Best Play, the Drama Desk Award for Best New Play, and the Lu­cille Lor­tel Award for Out­stand­ing Play. It’s a thought-pro­vok­ing piece in which a woman who has spent years look­ing af­ter her math­e­ma­ti­cian-fa­ther pro­duces a note­book that con­tains the proof of an elu­sive math­e­mat­i­cal co­nun­drum and then enters a swirl of con­tro­versy about its au­thor­ship. “Proof,” Benedetti said, “is not strictly a fem­i­nist play, but it is partly about the fact that it’s pretty hard for a fe­male ge­nius to be rec­og­nized.” The next of­fer­ing, Al­fred Uhry’s now-clas­sic Driv­ing Miss Daisy, spins a tale around a cranky, el­derly, well-off Jewish woman in mid­cen­tury At­lanta and her ge­nial but far less priv­i­leged African-Amer­i­can chauf­feur. “It is ob­vi­ously a doc­u­ment or an ar­ti­fact of the civil-rights move­ment.” It, too, was rec­og­nized with a Pulitzer Prize, in 1988. The fi­nal of­fer­ing is Art, a 1994 play by Yas­mina Reza, trans­lated

from its orig­i­nal French by Christo­pher Hamp­ton. Three long­time friends find their re­la­tion­ship se­ri­ously ruf­fled when one of them spends a huge sum to ac­quire a can­vas painted en­tirely in white. The paint­ing be­comes a bat­tle­field on which the trio’s in­ter­per­sonal con­flicts are played out. It was widely ap­plauded, with its English ver­sion be­ing anointed with the 1998 New York Drama Crit­ics’ Cir­cle Award and the Tony Award for Best Play. “Art will have a mes­sage that is highly rel­e­vant to Santa Fe,” Benedetti ob­served. “It has to do with the dif­fer­ence be­tween mon­e­tary and in­trin­sic value. It looks at how art is a Rorschach test that brings out peo­ple’s val­ues and the ef­fect those val­ues have on peo­ple’s re­la­tion­ships.”

What has grown into the New Mex­ico Ac­tors Lab be­gan with a se­ries of three pro­grams of Shake­speare scenes that Benedetti di­rected three years ago at Santa Fe Univer­sity of Art and De­sign. The same en­sem­ble re­con­vened the fol­low­ing year for A.R. Gur­ney’s Sylvia, at Santa Fe Play­house. Plans were al­ready in place for the group to con­tinue with Proof at the same venue, but the Play­house changed its mis­sion such that it is re­serv­ing its the­ater for plays that its pro­duces it­self, mak­ing its space un­avail­able for rental or co-pro­duc­tions. “So I thought we would start our own com­pany. We in­cor­po­rated, which is sur­pris­ingly easy to do, and we were lucky that Teatro Paraguas was able to make its the­ater avail­able to us for the en­tire pe­riod we wanted, from now through early Au­gust.” A small space, it ac­com­mo­dates an au­di­ence of 56, but it is in the rapidly de­vel­op­ing Siler-Ru­fina arts dis­trict, which is also home to such or­ga­ni­za­tions as Meow Wolf and the Adobe Rose Theatre. Word is get­ting around that this is a hot neigh­bor­hood for ad­ven­tur­ous per­form­ing arts, and Benedetti does not un­der­es­ti­mate the value of word get­ting around. In fact, he was in­tent on spread­ing out per­for­mances of each of his plays across three week­ends, since he has found that the­ater at­ten­dance in Santa Fe is al­most al­ways spurred by word-of­mouth rec­om­men­da­tion, which needs time to gather mo­men­tum.

Still, he ac­knowl­edged that a 56-seat the­ater se­verely lim­its the in­come that can be gen­er­ated through ticket sales. He has ac­cord­ingly set a fundrais­ing goal of $10,000 for this sea­son, and he is happy to re­port that the com­pany was al­ready halfway there even be­fore its open­ing per­for­mance. Benedetti came of age when reper­tory the­aters were emerg­ing across the coun­try as a model for artis­tic suc­cess, and he is car­ry­ing over that ideal to the New Mex­ico Ac­tors Lab. The com­pany is struc­tured around a core group of 10 ac­tors, and for the most part he has cho­sen his plays with their abil­i­ties in mind. “When I picked the plays,” he said, “I had spe­cific ac­tors in mind for spe­cific roles. It is im­por­tant for me that they be right in terms of act­ing qual­i­ties and also that they are age-ap­pro­pri­ate for their roles.” He also gave him­self lee­way to bring in a few ac­tors from out­side the core group to fill spe­cific needs, and those per­form­ers then be­come part of an “ex­tended fam­ily” of the reper­tory com­pany.

All his ac­tors are paid for their work, “enough to ac­knowl­edge the value of their con­tri­bu­tion.” Al­though he would like to en­vi­sion the or­ga­ni­za­tion grow­ing into an Ac­tors’ Eq­uity com­pany — staffed by mem­bers of the the­atri­cal union and re­mu­ner­ated at union rates — that day would lie con­sid­er­ably in the fu­ture. For the time be­ing, he is con­tent to in­clude oc­ca­sional Eq­uity ac­tors on an as-needed ba­sis. In­deed, both of the lead­ing parts in Driv­ing Miss Daisy will be Eq­uity ac­tors — Suzanne Led­erer and Tone For­rest — and Benedetti is meet­ing the req­ui­site union com­pen­sa­tion by of­fer­ing the play as a co-pro­duc­tion with an­other lo­cal the­ater or­ga­ni­za­tion, Red Thread Santa Fe Pro­duc­tions, which con­ve­niently has some over­lap in pro­duc­tion and act­ing per­son­nel with New Mex­ico Ac­tors Lab.

Even with the lim­i­ta­tions of a small space, a small com­pany, and a small bud­get, artis­tic pos­si­bil­i­ties re­main vast. “I re­cently went through the whole list of plays that have won the Pulitzer Prize,” Benedetti said, “and I dis­cov­ered that you can do more than half of them with just four ac­tors. Of course, I had to con­sider the scale of Teatro Paraguas. With the au­di­ence six feet away, I needed plays that would ben­e­fit from an in­ti­mate, de­tailed style of act­ing. We could han­dle even a slightly larger cast. In fact, I would very much like to do a rarely pre­sented Lan­ford Wil­son play, An­gels Fall, which is ac­tu­ally set in this re­gion. It’s about an ac­ci­dent at Los Alamos, the re­lease of ra­dioac­tiv­ity, and the ac­tion takes place in a Catholic mis­sion — with six char­ac­ters. Maybe next year.”

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