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Celebrating a century of theater in Santa Fe

A performance of three one-act plays from the first season of the theater group that would eventually be known as the Santa Fe Playhouse is being restaged on Saturday in honor of the group's 100-year anniversary. (Courtesy of Santa Fe Playhouse)

A performance of three one-act plays from the first season of the theater group that would eventually be known as the Santa Fe Playhouse is being restaged on Saturday in honor of the group’s 100-year anniversary. (Courtesy of Santa Fe Playhouse)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

It was 1919.

World War I, “the war to end all wars,” had recently ended. Women were still a year away from gaining the right to vote. Prohibition was right around the corner, and the country was mourning the death of former President Theodore Roosevelt.

In Santa Fe, that year marked the first season for the Community Theater of Santa Fe. Later called the Santa Fe Little Theater, the company went through several names before landing on the one it has today: The Santa Fe Playhouse.

The original season consisted of two, one-night-only performances in February and May in the St. Francis Auditorium at the New Mexico Museum of Art.

In 1922, the organization would officially incorporate as a business and produce the first Fiesta Melodrama, spoofing local politics and mores. Today, it is the oldest continually operated theater company west of the Mississippi.

Recognizing the 100th anniversary of the inaugural season, a re-imagining of the May 1919 performance will be staged at the St. Francis Auditorium Saturday night.

The “script-in-hand” performance – meaning the cast will have costumes and setting, but will still hold onto their scripts throughout – is something of a prelude to more centennial celebration projects planned for 2022, according to Santa Fe Playhouse artistic director Vaughn Irving.

For that anniversary of the company’s incorporation, the Playhouse hopes to produce either a book or a short documentary chronicling the history of the company.

“To me, it is really a celebration of the last 100 years of theater in Santa Fe,” said Irving. “I want it to be a lot of fun, I want it to be historically relevant, but really we’re all coming together to celebrate the fact that this (company) has been around for 100 years.”

Recreating the evening of three one-act plays was put into the hands of Santa Fe-based playwright and author Mark Dunn. Saturday’s performance includes abridged – and slightly modernized – versions of the old theater pieces.

The evening will have an emcee, via a portrayal of historical figure and Playhouse founder Mary Hunter Austin, who organized the shows in the company’s first season.

The writer, environmental advocate and women’s rights activist moved to Santa Fe in the early 20th century, at a time when many other artists were flocking here as the city was establishing itself as an arts hub.

As the visual arts were taking off, Dunn said, Austin realized there wasn’t a theater group yet established in the City Different.

“There was no Little Theatre movement; obviously we were light years away from having a opera company with an international reputation,” Dunn said. “I think they were just finding their way through the visual arts, with the painting and the sculpture inspired by where we live. And (Austin) sort of added that artistic, aesthetic layer to what was going on here artistically. And she helped to make this a real arty little town way back in the day.”

Austin will be played by Emmy Award-winning actress Michael Learned, known for her starring role as Olivia Walton on the 1970s CBS show “The Waltons.”

According to Irving, Learned, who used to have a home in Santa Fe and still has friends in the city, was interested in doing a local show. The podium she’ll stand at during the performance, Irving mentioned, was also used in the 1919 show.

‘The Neighbors’

The first play is “The Neighbors,” a 1914 play by early 20th-century playwright and author Zona Gale.

“We’ve forgotten her but, at the time, she had a huge following,” Dunn said of the writer, who was the first woman to win a Pulitzer prize. He’s pared down her play with a Midwest, “small town flavor” – about a woman who is helped by her neighbors as she takes care of a young boy – to focus on a love story between two of the characters.

The only local play in the show, “El Conejo,” was written by Fayette Curtis Jr. The amateur playwright was also a teacher at the Los Alamos Ranch School, the boys school that closed in 1943 after the government needed the property for the Manhattan Project.

The play is a love story that also includes a man rescuing a woman who has been accused of being a witch. Dunn imagines that Curtis was influenced by the silent movies of the era, many of which include the knight-in-shining-armor cliché.

“He wrote this play and probably just submitted it to Miss Austin, and she liked it and decided, because it’s the only play in the evening that has a strong Spanish feeling to it, that they probably needed to have something like that in the evening.”

The play that needed the most updating for today’s times, Dunn said, was the 1915 French play “The Man Who Married A Dumb Wife.” The word “dumb” in this case refers to someone who cannot speak.

“As awful as that title is, this is a very famous play … . It wasn’t just this weird, misogynistically titled play that appeared out of nowhere,” he said. “It was a play a lot of people were doing because it was very, very farcical.”

Playwright Anatole France’s work is about a man who marries a woman who is mute. After he takes his wife to a doctor who performs surgery on her so she can speak, the wife does not stop talking. In the original ending of the play, Dunn said, the woman talks so much that she ends up going crazy and biting people, who then also become crazy. Dunn condensed the play and has rewritten the ending.

In Saturday night’s show, it’s Austin and her contemporaries in the Santa Fe Women’s Club who make the changes.

“Because she (Austin) is a famous feminist, and I can’t see how – she did, but I can’t see how she would have stomached the ending of that play,” said Dunn.

Dunn said he hopes the updates make the works more “palatable” for today’s audience.

“And there’s also going to be some real tongue-in-cheek (moments), because we also have the pleasure of looking back at this with perspective,” added Irving. “So there’s going to be some meta-humor in there about how we now recognize this is not necessarily where theater stayed.”

In between the one-acts, Dunn has also added historical elements and characters, including World War I doughboys, suffragettes and the presentation of a speech originally given by Roosevelt during a visit to Santa Fe in 1903. Dunn wanted to add extra theatrical elements to the show in case the plays don’t have the same flair they had a century ago. But Irving also said the additions help provide context for a past time that may be a little “abstract” to people; a time that doesn’t have the same renown as the Roaring ’20s that came next.

“I love those interstitial moments because they do give us the sense of how long ago this was and what was going on,” said Irving.

“And some people do watch the Super Bowl for the commercials,” Dunn added with a laugh.