Back in 2000, just before the members of FUSION Theatre Company banded together under that name in Albuquerque, N.M., the nascent production team staged a performance of Wakefield Mystery Cycle’s The Crucifixion. After one week of rehearsals, they opened the piece in Cerrillos, an incorporated village of less than 300 people just south of Santa Fe. The site was a burned-out shell of a New Deal–era grade school with a small gymnasium where Georgia O’Keeffe once roller-skated as a kid. Sculptor Jesus Morales had gutted the building, tearing out the roof and digging an amphitheatre into the foundation.
One night, as the Crucifixion cast performed the Stations of the Cross and the Jesus character rose to his place above the audience and took his final breath, a flock of swallows suddenly burst into the building, settling into nests they’d assembled in the walls. A pink and violet New Mexico sunset filled the sky.
“It was a stunningly beautiful, truly New Mexican life moment,” says FUSION executive director Dennis Gromelski.
Northern New Mexico is home to around 60 theatre companies. Albuquerque, which claims more than 40 of them, is the heart of the scene, though companies in the state capital, Santa Fe, and the state resort town, Taos, have traditionally held the outpost for theatre in a corridor mostly known for visual arts. The total population of the state is only about 2 million, which doesn’t make for many potential in-state audience members, and out-of-towners don’t think “New Mexico” when they travel for theatre.
Yet the state attracts a surplus of talent, from longtime New Yorkers looking for a change of pace, to young talent dissuaded from the big cities by the cost and competition. The companies in this corner of the country do just about everything you’d find on the coasts, from community, children’s and puppet theatre to experimental, people’s and professional theatre (i.e., Actors’ Equity). There’s also at least one Shakespeare company, and one company—Blackout Theatre—has been streaming online. A devoted community of theatre people are finding various ways of making it work, going so far, in the case of two directors, as living in cars.
It may be hard to understand for someone who hasn’t spent much time in New Mexico, but synchronistic moments like the one at The Crucifixion are the reason that people live and work here. Knowing full well they might have greater professional success elsewhere, New Mexicans exist in a purgatorial condition they affectionately refer to as the “Land of Entrapment” (spinning off the state motto “Land of Enchantment”). We residents believe it’s related to centuries of unsettled history—cultural conflicts over this dry square of land that have continued since the U.S. stripped Mexico of the territory in the mid-1800s. You’ll notice the word “land” keeps coming up. After all, the landscape determines all.
“There is a dichotomy of endlessness and scarceness in New Mexico,” says Jeff Andersen, artistic director of Albuquerque’s Blackout Theatre. “The sky, horizon and natural beauty of the state seem endless. This inspires a feeling of hope and a sense that anything is possible. I think this feeling inspires creativity and fearlessness. The scarcity of resources, however, such as water and vegetation, can add a bleakness to the area. This comes out whenever you see a play set in New Mexico—at its most apparent, entire plays will revolve around the relationship with the land, and the characters’ fates are often tied to the fate of the land.”
There’s a lot of New Mexico theatre to cover and only so much space in which to cover it. I won’t spend much time here on the Adobe Theater, a community theatre in Albuquerque that has been filling the house on traditional works since 1957; nor will we go up to the town of Peñasco, where its namesake theatre runs a program of circus arts, dance and experimentation on the High Road to Taos.
Instead, the focus will remain on two categories of New Mexican theatre: original works that play off landscape, history and cultural diversity, and great works (new and old) from the theatre Meccas.
Several companies stand for the history and cultural diversity of the region. Santa Fe Playhouse was founded by the writer and activist Mary Austin in 1922 as a community theatre, providing unseasoned actors, directors and writers the opportunity to work with professionals—a vision that continues today through the annual Benchwarmers series for local playwrights and directors.
Teatro Paraguas was founded in Santa Fe in 2004 to perform a show of Pablo Neruda’s poetry on the 100th anniversary of his birth and stayed together to perform bilingual plays and evenings of bilingual cuentos and poetry.
Theaterwork, also in Sante Fe, relocated from Minnesota nearly two decades ago; it will produce its 107th show this season. In addition to traditional and original works, Theaterwork does story-collecting projects in the tradition of people’s theatre, workshops, school visits, residencies and poetry projects.
Camino Real Productions of Albuquerque, on the other hand, produces original radio plays, as well as a “Theatre from the Land of Enchantment” series, composed of radio-adapted live work from New Mexico’s theatres. The original works live online at the Public Radio Exchange (www.prx.org). The group also produces New Mexico–centric works for the stage, such as Secret Things, a piece about “crypto-Jews” that ran last summer.
Some of the region’s more recent and cutting-edge material comes from companies such as FUSION, Mother Road and Tricklock Company, all in Albuquerque, as well as Theater Grottesco in Santa Fe.
FUSION, the only Equity company in the state, combines the ability to snatch new plays (often before they premiere on the West Coast) with a business model that allows it to float around to different venues, depending on its needs. FUSION will open a play at its home theatre, the Cell, then head a few blocks over to the Kimo for the bigger stage, and end up in Santa Fe for a run at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. FUSION will even head down to Los Alamos for a couple of weeks and over to Gallup, among other remote communities throughout the state. Its 2013–14 season began with Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike in September 2013, followed by Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop and Sharr White’s The Other Place. Tribes, by Nina Raine, and The Pajama Men, by Shenoah Allen and Mark Chavez, open this month, and “The Seven,” FUSION’s annual short-works festival, runs June 5–15. The season closes with the bi-annual family theatre tour of Princess Marisol & the Moon-Thieves, adapted by Jen Silverman from Alex Paramo’s e-book.
Tricklock, the resident company of the University of New Mexico, runs an ensemble theatre with an open process that depends on audience feedback. Founded in 1993, Tricklock also oversees “The Manoa Project: Teen Playwriting and Ensemble Apprenticeship” and the annual “Revolutions International Theatre Festival,” which brings talent the company has encountered during its world tours back to Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
This past September, the company staged Strangeways, based on the death of river kayaker Hendrik Coetzee. And it has been working on two more original works: The Timothy Leary Project, based on the controversial figure’s autobiography, and Nick and Emily, an eight-episode series inspired by graphic novels. “[Patrons] might call and complain that something was too much, but they come,” says co-artistic director Juli Hendren of the company’s often edgy programming.
In Santa Fe, the Lensic Performing Arts Center has been hosting “Under Construction: New Works in Progress” since the beginning of the millennium. The Lensic’s executive director, Robert Martin, started the program with Joan Tewkesbury when she was working on a play about Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband Alfred Stieglitz, titled A Visit. Olympia Dukakis read the part of O’Keeffe and Harris Yulin read Stieglitz. The program is currently presenting The Queen of Madison Avenue by Santa Fe resident Ron Bloomberg, with film actress Ali MacGraw reading the lead role. “They’re not huge audiences,” Martin says. “It’s about local people wanting to stage something.”