Last year found countless businesses struggling to survive a global pandemic and a string of lockdowns. Not the least of those businesses were ones in the local artistic community. Basically every art gallery and every theater troupe in town closed its doors to audiences in 2020, leaving the Albuquerque landscape bereft of artistic outlets. It’s been a scary couple of years. But some found a way to survive, and perhaps even thrive.
For more than a decade, Albuquerque’s Blackout Theatre Company has been home to countless sketch comedy shows, the annual interactive Halloween event Quarantine, the ever-popular Tom Waits For Christmas holiday specials and more. Early last year, at the height of the pandemic, Blackout came up with a clever way to connect with audiences without actually being in the same room with them. The various writers, directors, actors and technical folks from Blackout resolved to combine their talents to record a podcast. And perhaps in response to the frightening times in which we find ourselves, they decided to make it a scary one. So was born El Campo Santo.
The podcast centers on a young man named Reyes who returns to Albuquerque from Chicago via the train. He’s coming back to his family home in Barelas to attend his mother’s funeral and to take care of her estate. As he grapples with the unexpected groundswell of emotions and the reminder of his own mortality, our protagonist discovers piles of mysterious letters in his mother’s house. The letters keep arriving, addressed to no one. Each one provides the basis of an episode of El Campo Santo, the narrative told through a series of monologues and short audio plays. The letters themselves describe assorted ghosts, monsters and traditional myths of New Mexico—”things that, even after they were gone, left pieces of themselves for us.” Along the way we spend time in Madrid, Wheeler Peak, Magdelena, Mesilla, the Blue Hole, the Sangre de Cristo mountains and other well-known locations. What emerges is a portrait of a land haunted by the past, by tradition and by a few more-than-metaphorical monsters. The first season of El Campo Santo was released throughout 2020. New episodes from the second season started coming out in October of 2021.
“We have been working on this show for over three years,” says Blackout’s artistic director Leonard Madrid. “The idea was to create a show that utilized the voice of regional playwrights in stories about New Mexico. The story takes all the regional folklore and asks ‘What’s missing?’ So, we created new myths and legends for New Mexico.”
The podcast itself is recorded using an app called Anchor, which puts recording and creation tools and even background music at the users’ fingertips. The first episode of Blackout’s epistolary series is set on a train and was recorded on a smartphone aboard an actual train. Even for podcasting newbies like Blackout, Anchor proved “seriously easy to use.” The app even allows the creators to monetize their creation with monthly donations from listeners.
The remainder of Season 1—which finds Reyes attending his mother’s funeral, exploring the house and paging through various supernatural stories—was recorded as live shows at B Ruppe in Barelas. The gallery and performance space used to house the oldest continuously operating pharmacy in Albuquerque and, for decades, served as home to a traditional herbalist/curandera. It was the exact sort of historical atmosphere El Campo Santo was looking for.
According to Madrid, “Season 1 asked the playwrights to create stories as individuals. Seasons 2 was built by the writers in teams. We created ideas as a large group and then wrote the episodes together.” The writers of the series are all regional playwrights, and most of the actors involved are from within the Blackout Company Ensemble. “The main team consists of Blackout’s core members,” says Madrid. “Blackout core members have pretty diverse skill sets, so we work as playwrights, actors, designers and editors for the project. We then invited some of our favorite playwrights and collaborators.”
“I’ve always been inspired by scary stories, especially localized folklore, and a lot of my writing roots back to my personal memories,” says Barney Lopez, who wrote several of the podcast’s key episodes. “There was a house in Los Lunas that we had to walk by on the way to middle school. Growing up we would always spread rumors about this creepy house and the scary old lady that lived inside. Me and my friends had so much curiosity, and we let our imagination run wild with tales made up to scare each other. I guess that’s the root of the inspiration for the ‘Bruja House’ episode. But when we went to look for the Bruja House in Los Lunas, it had already been torn down. So I turned to Google Street View, which allows you to look back in time about a decade. From there I could flip back and forth between the years where the house was there and after it was torn down. We got the idea that we could expand the narrative across time, looking into the future of this haunted house and the curse on the very land it sat upon.”
So what’s in store for the future of Blackout’s original online storytelling experiment? Plans are already in place for a third season of El Campo Santo. According to Madrid, “Season 1 set up the world, Season 2 is about hauntings, Season 3 will be about secret places.”
El Campo Santo is available for streaming on Anchor, Apple, Spotify and other streaming services. For more info go to blackouttheatre.com/el-campo-santo.