It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with small-town theatre companies around the country that the biggest challenge to New Mexico theatre is audience. The population of 2 million is spread out across the country’s fifth largest state, and much of the economy is tourism driven. For context, consider that the Santa Fe Opera and its magnificent opera house pull the vast majority of ticketbuyers from tourists—according to SFO public relations director Joyce Idema, that base is divided into globetrotting opera fanatics, repeat Santa Fe visitors looking for something to do and single-visit passers-through.
Contrast that with the audience for local theatre. Martin at the Lensic says that, in general, he wouldn’t be able to fill the house if he programmed for tourists. Music, lectures and the popular HD services for the National Theatre and the Met fill the majority of the Lensic’s programming. Martin says that he was able to contract with FUSION because the company came to him with a full season, which builds more momentum for potential theatregoers than one-off productions.
Blackout, meanwhile, has filled the audience void with virtual programming. “Our online audience is from all around New Mexico, but I think people are reluctant to travel outside their city to see a show,” Andersen says. “We are trying to connect the disparate audiences by creating interactive content and a lot of videos that promote our live productions.”
Like Tricklock, Blackout was established by a group of former UNM students. Since 2007, the company has experimented constantly with new methods and material. They’ve run a rock musical, an interactive horror show and a play in which the audience picked the order of the scenes. They’ve also improvised Shakespeare. Last year’s focus was a host of original, ensemble-created works, and they’re entering 2014 with a comedy cabaret in collaboration with a student production company, as well as a new round of web shorts for May.
While young audience members remain a perennial challenge for many New Mexico theatres, the real coup would be a company that attracts Native Americans and Hispanics to its seats. “The Hispanic audience fluctuates, depending on how closely the play reflects their daily lives, and word of mouth,” says Argos MacCallum of Teatro Paraguas. “The local Hispanics seem to have lost the rich theatre tradition in their culture, and the immigrant communities don’t have the time or the money for theatre.”
New Mexico doesn’t necessarily have more history than, say, New York or California, but that history just seems more recent. Pueblo Indians still live here, as do Mexicans, descendants of the Spanish conquistadors and “crypto-Jews,” whose ancestors escaped persecution by pretending to be Catholic. Since the 1950s, artists have come to New Mexico for the dry air, the supernatural light and the undulating landscapes. More recently, the state capital has built a reputation as a retirement community. And one cannot ignore the legacies of the atomic bomb and of Roswell, or the New Age phenomenon that has people treating Tarot like religion, for instance, or warning of mind-controlling “chemtrails” in the sky. In short, every fringe idea has a community here, and that has everything to do with New Mexico theatre.
“In New York City and other major theatre towns, everything has been tried 1,000 times,” Gromelski ventures. “Here, if you have an idea that you believe in, you can either follow tried-and-true production methods, or you can create your own and still find an audience. There is still a sense of the Wild West in this amazing state.”
Matthew Irwin is an arts writer currently living in Albuquerque.