In 2001, the nascent members of what was to become Albuquerque’s FUSION Theatre Company drove to Cerrillos to perform “The Crucifixion” inside the scorched shell of a New Deal grade school.
Sculptor Jesús Moroles had converted the WPA space into a mini-amphitheater, complete with three rows of seats. Fresh from a week’s rehearsal, the fledgling troupe created a 16-foot-tall cross, and strapped in their Christ.
“At the moment of his death, we had these red rose petals in his hand and they came down on his mother,” said Dennis Gromelski, now FUSION’s executive director.
The sky striped in a classic New Mexico paintbrush sunset of purple, pink and orange. Then the birds swarmed in.
“The swallows had been nesting in the stone windows of the school,” Gromelski continued. “They all came back at that moment to nest in the middle of the New Mexico dusk.
“That was a sign that we could do this – we could change people’s lives,” he said.
While most Albuquerque theater companies may not have formed under such seeming divine guidance, the city boasts an abundance of outlets for drama, comedy and cutting-edge productions.
In fact, anecdotal accounts maintain that with more than 40 performance spaces, Albuquerque has more theater per capita than many U.S. cities of the same size.
During the gestation of the Albuquerque Theatre Guild in 2005-06, the group umbrella organization, the wife of founder Ray Orley conducted what she called “unscientific research” on the issue. She compared the number of theaters (as gauged by listed phone numbers) in 10 cities of comparable size (Atlanta, Tulsa, Okla., Raleigh, N.C., and Charlotte, N.C., among others) to Albuquerque.
“We came out way, way over other cities,” Wendy Orley said. “We do have an extraordinary amount of stuff here.”
No one really knows how or why the city came to be such a theater magnet. But educated guesses and theories abound. Some credit an influx of newcomers from major cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles, who expect quality playhouses.
Others credit the creation of theaters with specific niches like comedy, drag performance, classic drama and cutting-edge contemporary plays. Many say New Mexico, already a mecca for artists of all kinds, lures actors and directors determined to practice their craft outside the country’s major performance centers.
The film industry creates a double lure for actors wanting to appear both on stage and screen. Newer residents credit local theaters for refusing to establish impenetrable cliques around charismatic directors or permanent ensembles. Others trace the boom to the city’s large gay population.
If you’re one of nearly 1 million viewers of 2012’s “Sh*t Burqueños (New Mexicans) Say” on YouTube, you’re familiar with Blackout Theatre’s quirky comedy.
Its most famous video went viral.
“It put us on the map way beyond Albuquerque,” founding member Barney Lopez, a University of New Mexico graduate student, said.
Lopez helped launch Blackout in 2007 as a stand-up comedy vehicle. Comprised of mostly 20-somethings, its members wanted to study comedy styles unavailable at UNM. Today they regularly stream their work online.
“Last year, we created a haunted house that became an experiential theater piece,” Lopez said.
“Theater geeks” are attracted to Albuquerque in part because it’s affordable, he added.
“It’s really low-rent, so being an artist here is entirely possible,” Lopez continued. “There seems to be a very nice, supportive community that’s starting to communicate more.”
When the Albuquerque Little Theatre’s artistic/executive director Henry Avery first came to the 85-year-old theater five years ago, it was $100,000 in debt. A Broadway veteran, Avery had managed the vaunted St. James Theater.
“I just was amazed that there is so much out here,” he said. “When ALT started not being as popular, people split off and formed their own groups. It’s just amazing that there are so many theaters in a town this size.”
Avery turned ALT around by broadening its appeal. He added musicals, children’s programs and classics like “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“When I first took over, there was hardly any staff,” he said. “Now we have people working in 10 half-to-full-time positions.”
While musicals are pricey to stage, they produce hefty profit margins.
“We just did ‘Cats,’ which was our biggest ever,” he said. “I just paid $20,000 for ‘Grease.'”
Producing “Little Women,” “Tom Sawyer’ and “Young Frankenstein” lured younger families, he added.
“When you have kids in shows, it brings in audiences.”
Like many local groups, the company offers an educational program, where the actors rehearse and perform in the schools.
“The problem we run into is the talent pool,” Avery said. “Sometimes it’s hard for us to find people because they’re doing other shows.”
Albuquerque Theater Guild board president Vicki Singer said the guild exists to help companies communicate and loan or rent costumes, props and sets, as well as collaborate. She espoused the New Mexico-as-culture-magnet theory.
“Look at the artists we have, from Georgia O’Keeffe to Allan Houser,” Singer said. “This is a place where people who love art pull together.”
Albuquerque has produced its own stars, she added, think “Modern Family’s” Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Neil Patrick Harris of “How I Met Your Mother” and, most recently, Jonathan Ragsdale, plucked for the national tour of “Memphis.” Vivian Vance launched her acting career at Albuquerque Little Theatre.
A growing allure
The city’s oldest black box theater, the Vortex, is expanding into an $875,000 space. The company recently staged Neil LaBute’s biting “Fat Pig.” When board member and director Leslee Richards first moved here, she worked as a waitress in a now-defunct dinner theater.
“It exploded in the 2000s,” she said of the city’s theater choices. “I think Albuquerque is the red-headed stepchild of the Southwest. I don’t think it gets nearly enough respect for the quality of the arts here.”
Some local actors head to New York or Chicago, then realize they miss New Mexico’s mountains and mesas. They return determined to find a way to make a living here, she said.
Educational programming is luring more and more young people both into the audience and onto the stage, she added.
“When the Vortex did ‘Macbeth’ at the KiMo, 650 kids from the high school stood up and cheered,” she said. “They were taken by their language arts teachers.”
The Aux Dog Theater’s producing artistic director Victoria Liberatori credits the transplants with filling local theater seats. The Aux Dog also hosts The Dolls, the city’s popular drag troupe. The theater recently expanded its space by one-third when it moved into the building next door, known as the Aux Dog X-Space.
“I think there is a concentration of newcomers who are from theater cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago,” she said. “And Albuquerque and Santa Fe have developed some real serious theater patrons. Everyone is vying for the top actors.”
Gromelski’s FUSION Company is the only professional theater company in town. Today it boasts too many subscription holders to fit inside its 90-seat theater space The Cell. In 2010, the American Theater Wing (producers of the Tony Awards) named FUSION one of 10 of the most promising emerging theater companies in the United States.
“I am contacted so often by actors seriously considering moving to New Mexico,” Gromelski said.
FUSION produced the regional premiere of “August: Osage County.” But FUSION’s version bombed at the box office.
“We lost our shirt,” Gromelski said. “But our number of subscriptions shot up 300 percent.”
The play won both a 2008 Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
“Albuquerque’s a hell of an exciting place to be as an artist,” Gromelski said. “I’m a firm believer in success breeding success. There are plenty of theaters where you can come if you want to direct a show and there’s audiences galore. You can really find a way to make that vision happen. It’s like the Wild West.”