The New Mexico Actors Lab needed a bigger home.
Created eight years ago, the performing troupe includes about 14 actors and runs by its own rules. “We operate a little differently than most theaters in that we don’t pick a play and then decide how to cast it,” says Robert Benedetti, founder and managing director of the New Mexico Actors Lab. “We pick the plays that we think will showcase and challenge the actors that we’ve got.”
The lab took advantage of smaller stage spaces in the Santa Fe area until recently, when they effectively outgrew their occasional home at Teatro Paraguas. The space at Paraguas was ideal for intimate plays, but not big enough to accommodate a larger production and cast. Santa Fe has few other options for small, homeless theatrical companies.
“In the last four years, Santa Fe has lost three other smaller theater spaces: The Armory for the Arts, which was reclaimed for use by the military to turn into a museum; Warehouse 21, which had a theater on the second floor and was closed (I think the city is in the process of selling it), and there was one other theater space that really didn’t work at the James A. Little Theater at the School for the Deaf,” Benedetti says.
The lab, though, came across a bigger space almost by accident.
Benedetti heard that the Adobe Rose Theatre, composed of modular seating and technical equipment, was about to be disassembled and carted away. Financed by Bruce and Maureen McKenna, the Adobe Rose was built inside a warehouse in the Siler industrial district. Only a few years old, the theater wasn’t financially sustainable and the McKennas donated it to the International Shakespeare Center
Santa Fe. Benedetti was a board member for the center, which renamed the theater The Swan, according to Shakespearean tradition. The center, though, had to part with The Swan after just a year. The warehouse (now called the New Mexico Actors Lab, 1213-B Parkway Drive, nmactorslab.com) is in the burgeoning Siler arts district.
“We went over there literally a day before they had crews coming in to start the dismantling,” Benedetti says. Workers were preparing to break down the theater and put it in storage. Benedetti and the lab had to act quickly.
“It was really a no-brainer. We had to take over the Adobe Rose, even though we knew that there was gonna be at least six to eight months, minimum, that we could not use it because of the pandemic,” Benedetti says. “But we decided that it was worth losing eight months’ worth of rent so that we could have what was, in many ways, an ideal home for our company.
“In the Adobe Rose, we’ll be able to create spatial environments for every play that we do,” Benedetti says. The theater, with modular seating, can accommodate a cast of more than a dozen, socially distanced seating, and tennis court staging. (During the 17th century, indoor tennis courts proved popular in France, and theater companies found that they could be easily converted into performance spaces by adding a stage at one end of the court.) In technical terms, The Swan, now renamed the New Mexico Actors Lab, is a black box theater. It’s a simple and transformable space with lots of potential.
“Paraguas, as much as we love the time that we spent there, is limited in terms of seating capacity and in terms of seating configuration. We did manage to squeeze in a few alternate configurations to the best of our ability, but it’s not like a flexible black box like the new theater,” says Nicholas Ballas, artistic director of the lab. “The way I look at it is kind of like moving from two dimensions to three dimensions.”
It’s also got a substantial price tag. Ballas, an investor in the Cowgirl BBQ and former student of Benedetti’s, negotiated a reduced rate for the duration of the pandemic, driving the early cost of leasing the theater down to about $20,000. That amount more or less covers rent and utilities until the theater can open in June 2021. “It’s a daunting proposition to be paying for empty space,” says Ballas, who says donations are welcome through the website or by mail (New Mexico Actors Lab, P.O. Box 6025, Santa Fe, NM 87504). He’s confident, though, that it’ll work out.
Benedetti hopes that the pandemic will have abated enough to stage plays next summer. With more than 135 seats, their new theater can operate at 25 percent of capacity and still accommodate roughly 35 people. The lab splits its finances between grants, donations and ticket sales. The lab sells season tickets, which cover their five performances at a cost of $100. In 2021, they plan to stage five plays and end their season in November.