Inside the New Mexico Actors Lab Robert Benedetti leads a new theater group
ROBERT BENEDETTI LEADS A NEW THEATER GROUP
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.”