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Santa Fe as a place for ‘destination theater’?

SANTA FE, N.M. — People come from around the country for Santa Fe’s world-class opera season and some might even make the trip for its chamber music festival.

But will they make a special trip here for a week or long weekend of theater?

That might be a tough nut to crack, although some folks want to take a shot at it.

The Santa Fe Playhouse, in operation since 1922, says on its website that it wants to be “the driving force in establishing Santa Fe as a destination for quality engaging theatre.”

Perhaps its plan to combine its Playwrights Workshop and Benchwarmers series into one multi-day event with performances of brand new plays could turn into an attraction for people interested in new works, said board president Kelly Huertas. The other way to attract out-of-towners? Develop a known track record of offering quality productions.

The newest theater in town, which won’t even offer its first production until January, also professes an intention to offer “destination theater.” Maureen J. McKenna, co-founder of Adobe Rose Theatre, has written that she wants to attract theater-lovers from around the country by growing “a true community of actors, directors, writers and technicians,” and paying them Equity wages.

And both talk about offering “destination theater” with local actors.

Is it possible? It might depend on how you define the term. Does “destination theater” mean that people come to Santa Fe primarily to see a series of performances, or that they might take in a play or two while they’re here for a vacation covering a wide variety of attractions?

If we look at the opera and the chamber music festival as destinations for the performing arts, we must note that they bring in quality musicians and singers from around the country, and even the world. It is undoubtedly those “names,” along with a history of fine performances, that attract their audiences.

Can Santa Fe develop theater with the same pulling power?

At first blush, the only place that comes to mind for people to visit simply to take in the theater scene would be New York City. There might be others, depending on how connected people are to the theater world and what they are willing to travel to see.

Fans of the bard might head to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland – where the company boasts of three theaters to accommodate its long-running offerings.

The Actors Theatre in Louisville, Ky., says on its website it draws 36,000 people with its five-week Humana Festival of New American Plays, but its line-up of events suggests that its intended audience includes a great many people in the industry itself, as opposed to a general audience.

And the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland draws an international audience. It also offers, according to its website, “over 3,193 shows from 51 countries in 299 venues” over a period of 25 days, based on 2014 figures.

For Santa Fe, a first step might be to incorporate local theater offerings into someone’s overall visit to the City Different. There’s already no good reason why people coming to Santa Fe’s museums, restaurants, outdoors activities and more shouldn’t be considering going out in the evening to take in a performance.

But there’s a problem with that: The summer height of the tourist season coincides with the summer downtime in the local theater season, which tends to run fall through spring.

Nevertheless, it might be helpful to include more mention and description of theater offerings in the city’s tourist information and advertising campaigns, along with information packets in major hotels where tourists might be staying.

Talk to anyone involved in local theater – many of whom have had significant performing arts experience in other parts of the country – and they rave about the local talent available. In my quarter-century of attending local productions, I’ve found the acting and production values reliably competent, and reasonably often excellent.

So another question might be why people who already live here don’t attend more regularly – especially outside of the gray-haired demographic that usually fills the seats. After all, ticket prices are affordable – rarely over $25 and often less. Sometimes seats are filled, particularly at the Playhouse, which seems to have established a coterie of regular attendees, but often seats are empty at other venues.

It’s happening everywhere – fewer people are attending live theater across the country, according to Laura Fine Hawkes, chair of the performing arts department at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design.

In past conversations, she and others have told me that everyone is wrestling with the dilemma of how to get more people excited about watching performances live onstage, rather than on a screen or a digital device – if at all.

Indeed, a report released at the beginning of this year by the National Endowment for the Arts has indicated audience slippage over a decade in almost all areas of the arts. The percentage of adults who attended at least one “benchmark” arts event over a year’s time fell from 39.4 percent in 2002 to 33.4 percent in 2012 – and those figures are down from 41 percent in 1992.

If you look at the percentage attending non-musical plays, the dropoff goes from 12.3 percent in 2002, to 9.4 percent in 2008 and to 8.3 percent in 2012, according to the report. Musicals are a little more popular, but the percentage of adults who had attended one still dropped from 17.1 percent in 2002 to 15.2 percent in 2012.

Many theater companies and performing arts venues in town have been trying to boost attendance by outreach efforts to schools, whether taking a mini-performance to them or busing kids to the theater for a special free performance, and by providing acting and other classes to children and youth.

You would think the enrollment at SFUAD and the New Mexico School for the Performing Arts, along with the programs at Warehouse 21, would boost young adults’ presence at local productions.

So local companies have been struggling with finding regular attendees locally, as well as trying to attract them from elsewhere.

It shouldn’t be impossible. After all, when the Santa Fe Opera offered its first season in 1957, many probably would have scoffed at the idea that it would attract patrons from the far reaches of our shores – including a regular from the bench of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Can the same thing be done in theater? It may take generous angels with deep pockets, along with a willingness to import an occasional “big name.”

But it’s encouraging to see the energy and desire out there to attain that ambitious goal.

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