SANTA FE, N.M. — Growing up in Santa Fe, Vaughn Irving said he’s “always had the dream of having a theater here.”
Well, some dreams do come true. More or less.
Irving may not be the owner of the Santa Fe Playhouse but, as its new artistic director, he is instrumental in guiding the theater to fulfill an ambitious vision shared with the board.
And he got connected to the job in true Santa Fe fashion.
“One of the board members lived across the street from my father. He mentioned (the job opening) to him and he (his father) mentioned it to me,” said the Santa Fe High School graduate. Working on projects in Washington, D.C., at the time, he applied and here he is – home again.
“When you go away and see the rest of the world, it helps you appreciate home,” Irving said.
And one of the things he appreciated about the job, he said, was the chance of “having more control over what I was saying” – a desire that grew as he participated in various productions in which the lines and the messages didn’t particularly reflect his own ideas. The most satisfying and perhaps the best-received things he had done, he said, were ones he wrote and produced in the Capital Fringe Festival.
After 13 years away, earning a BFA in musical theater from Illinois Wesleyan University and pursuing his art in more than 50 productions in seven states, Irving said he’s relearning Santa Fe, looking to meet members of the theater community and their supporters while already directing his first production (“It’s a Wonderful Life – A Radio Play”) and setting a plan for the theater season after stepping into the job in November.
In the season he put together, Irving said he wanted to provide an eclectic mix with a thread of continuity. Here’s what he came up with:
• “The 39 Steps” by Patrick Barlow, based on Alfred Hitchcock’s movie of the same title (Feb. 24-March 20). Called both a comedy and a thriller, Irving said that, in this play, “the story is exploded from the inside.” Four actors take on the roles of 34 characters.
• “The Children’s Hour” by Lillian Hellman (March 30-April 24). This is the season’s classic play, which shows how the lie told by a young woman has dramatic repercussions on her teachers. Irving said he was on a plane the first time he read it. “I couldn’t put it down,” he said. “I couldn’t get off the plane because I was reading the play. The flight attendants herded me out.”
• “She Kills Monsters” by Qui Nguyen (May 4-22). This is the newest play of the bunch, published in 2012, and a regional premiere. “I love the young characters” in the play, Irving said, explaining that a girl tries to reconnect with her younger sister after she dies, using the younger one’s Dungeons and Dragons notebook and entering the fantasy world she created. “I definitely want to bring more young people into the theater,” he added.
• “The Last Five Years” by Jason Robert Brown (June 8-July 3). “My degree is in musical theater, so it was important to me to put a musical in the season,” Irving said. “This two-person show is one of the newest beautiful pieces in musical theater that I know.” It tells the story of two people who fall in love, get married and then split. The man tells the story from beginning to end, but the woman starts at the end and looks back.
• “The Pillowman” by Martin McDonagh (July 20-Aug. 14). This play “is as dark as dark gets,” Irving said. “It has serious themes and adult content.” It tells of a man who writes stories about children’s horrific deaths and officials in a totalitarian state grill him on the resemblance to actual events. “It’s about what power or value art has in human society,” Irving said. “It’s also very funny, but very dark.”
The thread linking them all is the power of story-telling. “That’s the connective tissue,” Irving said, although the dynamics within each play might be markedly different from the others.
He noted that he is coming to the Playhouse after a period of transition, a time when it has been moving in the direction of behaving more professionally and raising the bar for its productions.
“I would love for the Playhouse to be a must-see, must-do event for Santa Fe, both locally and with people coming in to visit,” Irving said. “There is a such a vibrant arts community here, but people have never noticed theater as much as the other arts.”
It’s not the first time people here have talked about offering “destination theater” and Irving knows he faces a tough task. He acknowledged that theater attendance nationally has been declining pretty much ever since he was born.
“We have entertainment at the tips of our fingers, every minute, every day,” he said, noting that Netflix streaming costs only $7 monthly.
But live theater is something different and to illustrate that he offered an anecdote about his father, who is “not a theater guy,” but who does attend shows with his son or by his son.
“My father falls asleep instantly when you turn on the TV,” Irving said. “But when I go to the theater with my father, he never falls asleep.”
When he asked what made the difference, Irving said his father told him that there’s an energy in the theater that makes him feel a part of what his happening. “It’s a communal activity,” Irving said. “You’re all living out the story together in the same space at the same time.”
Theater in years past may have lost attendance by catering too much to the art and not enough to the audience, he said. The theater community needs to reconsider how to offer something that has artistic and intellectual value, that doesn’t talk down to the audience, but that a viewer also will enjoy, he said. “Give them something challenging, but entertaining.”
Ultimately, viewers want something that is emotionally moving and offers a catharsis at the end, he added.
One thing Irving said he hopes to do is offer quality productions that in turn attract more viewers – and more donors, raising enough money to in turn improve the production values of what’s offered onstage.
Cooperation among various theater professionals in the community also is key, he said, with people crossing over the lines of directors and theater groups they work with, giving recommendations and tips to help each others’ productions, and promoting each others’ efforts. A relatively new website, www.theatresantafe.com, is helpful in centralizing information about performances in Santa Fe, Irving said, adding that a visitor from Canada called for tickets after finding the Playhouse through that site, which Irving said he’d like to see expanded.
“That website can be so much more,” he said, “if all buy into the fact that a rising tide lifts all boats.”