When theater teacher Susan Erickson binge-watched “Breaking Bad,” she spotted some familiar faces among the actors.
“I saw CNM theater students in every episode,” the Central New Mexico Community College instructor said.
This fall, those students will finally have their own 2,372-square-foot theater north of Coal Avenue between University Boulevard and Buena Vista Drive.
Tentatively named the Coal Avenue Theatre, the nearly completed red brick structure is the first in CNM’s 50-year history. Past venues have ranged from the CNM nurse’s lecture hall or a double-wide trailer to a series of Vortex Theatre rentals.
Thanks to 2011 voter approval of an $800,000 bond issue, workers have transformed what had been a document storage warehouse into a black-box theater capable of serving an audience of 65. The space also marks the debut of the college’s first-ever associate of arts degree in theater.
Students can study acting, theater appreciation, acting for the camera, improvisation, voice and movement and beginning screenwriting. The new structure will support everyone from explorers merely dabbling in acting to those interested in transferring to a university to pursue a bachelor’s degree.
“I think it’s going to give us weight or gravitas,” theater instructor Joe Damour said, ” – this is a professional situation you’re in.”
Workers have painted the theater interior completely black, including the walls, floors and ceiling. Black moveable chairs on risers allow for adjusting audience placement.
“It’s creating artistic intimacy,” Erickson said. “Because of film and TV, people are used to close-ups. Actors don’t have to be miked. You want the walls to recede, you want to create a world of light and sound.”
An adjacent “green room” provides the actors with make-up mirrors and storage space for costumes and props. Backdrops lie stacked on the theater floor, awaiting hanging to create a baseball diamond shape for the first production.
“We’re going to go from contemporary to Shakespeare and back,” Erickson said. “We want to give students the full experience. We may visit ancient Greece.”
Students in the introduction to technical theater class will get hands-on experience setting up the light and sound instruments, Erickson said.
CNM theater students range from those who have never attended a play to returning students looking to polish their skills.
“They want to work on their craft,” she explained. “Every time you work on a piece, you start from scratch. Some of them don’t know if they love it or not; they’re just curious.
“The first day, I say to students, ‘I know that you’re very brave and that you need a creative outlet.'”
The opening production – slated for sometime this fall – will be a series of 10-minute plays by known playwrights. Students will perform Jose Rivera’s “Tape” in the spring.
The explosion of film and TV production in New Mexico has cemented the need for a permanent CNM stage.
“I teach them how to go onto the film site; I teach them film etiquette,” Erickson said. “Students network beautifully. They know where to go for the casting calls.”