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Terry S. Davis has worked in and around theater in Albuquerque since 1980, most notably working in marketing for Popejoy Hall for 24 years. He earned an MFA in Dramatic Writing from UNM and is co-producer for the Enchantment Awards, a regional program for the Broadway League’s Jimmy Awards.

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What’s Next for New Mexico Theaters?

On March 12 theaters across New Mexico closed their doors, dimmed the lights and refunded tickets. Among the first businesses affected by the pandemic, they will be among the last to resume normal operations. While many businesses have been able to keep their doors open to varying degrees, the state’s ban on mass assembly has closed most of our live theaters.

Many are beloved destinations: the KiMo Theatre in Albuquerque, the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe, the Flickinger Center in Alamogordo. On March 12 Popejoy Hall cancelled its six-performance run of the touring Broadway show Escape to Margaritaville, scheduled to open that night. The Shuler Theater in Raton rescheduled that night’s Los Lobos concert to July, then pushed it back again to March 2021.

As the pandemic continues, the list of cancellations and postponements grows.

The Rio Grande Theatre in Las Cruces shifted about 75 shows out of its 2020 schedule. The KiMo Theatre cancelled 170 shows between March 12, 2020 and June 2021. Popejoy postponed its much-anticipated touring production of Hamilton from January to August.

After cancelling four performances and closing its doors, Western New Mexico University’s Fine Arts Center in Silver City hosted performers on its stage and projected those concerts live onto a large outdoor screen they put up on the outside of the building to create drive-in events.

Ronna Kalish, director of the New Mexico Tech Performing Arts Series, said her school’s Socorro Sessions Social Distance Music Fest, held in a campus parking lot, has proven popular. “The people who came had a great time,” said Kalish. “You could see how starved they were for attending a real, live event.”

The Flickinger started presenting live performances in the parking lot of the New Mexico Museum of Space History, though they can only sell 34 tickets to each show. They are building a space in their own parking lot, using grant money, so they can present more performances in the spring.

Without the outdoor performances, “We would absolutely be lights off,” said Elizabeth Fleming, marketing director for the Flickinger. “We still have salaries to pay.”

Western New Mexico University’s Fine Arts Department also had to call off its annual Fiesta Latina. Faye McCalmont, special assistant to the president for cultural affairs, said the outdoor festival supports local businesses and “is an important source of income for the Mexican handcraft artisans who attend from all across Mexico, many from rural areas whose only source of income is their artwork. It is our sincere hope that the restrictions will not last through June of 2021 forcing yet another … cancellation.”

Revenue lost by a theater affects both the theater and the area economy. A leading national arts organization, Americans for the Arts, estimates that patrons spend a dollar and a half in the community for every dollar they spend on tickets.

The theaters have done everything possible to maintain staffs, but layoffs and furloughs have been inevitable. The Farmington Civic Center laid off two full-time staff members and four part-time staff. The Lensic kept its staff intact through the end of June, but then had to furlough 14 starting July 1. Popejoy furloughed 35 part-time staff members in March. Closure at Popejoy also affects employees and their income in two other UNM departments: Ticketing Services and Parking & Transportation Services, as well as an untold number of stagehands hired locally.

James Mills performs a solo from “Patience” in a New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players production called I Have a Song to Sing, O! Popejoy Hall streamed a performance of this show free in October.

To replace lost ticketing revenue, some theaters have scheduled online performances. Popejoy has hosted two, including an event featuring former Albuquerquean James Mills performing with the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players. The Macey streamed pre-recorded shows by regional and national artists.

The Lensic moved into the digital space in a big way, streaming events by national artists such as a fundraiser with Keb’ Mo’ and conversations with performers Jim Dale, Murray Abraham, Jacques Soto and more. The venue also streamed a variety of local artists performing on their stage. “This is something that is scratching the itch,” said Lensic Executive Director Joel Aalberts, “but it doesn’t replace the live connection.”

Reopening won’t be easy. Looking at what theaters will have to do to make reentry into those spaces acceptable for patrons, Larry Parker, manager of the KiMo Theater, said electronic tickets and staggered arrival times are options. Artist contracts are also a concern, he noted. “What will the artists demand of us for their own safety?”

That’s certainly one of far too many questions without answers for the theaters of New Mexico as they try to stay relevant and alive over the months ahead. [ ]

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