A couple of weeks ago, Heather Hitchens, Executive Director of the American Theatre Wing, was in town to talk about the contributions performing arts make to a local economy and the local culture. She noted at one point that she felt Albuquerque didn’t need any more performance spaces, but our artists and groups needed support.
I would agree, with one exception.
If you think about the performance spaces this town has, you see a preponderance of theaters — usually found spaces converted to theatrical use — that fall in the 75-200 seat range. A few more fall into the 200-700 seat range, including the purpose-built Albuquerque Little Theatre and the renovated-for-live-theater KiMo. The National Hispanic Cultural Center has just under 700 seats. If you need more seats than that, we have Popejoy Hall, which has nearly 2,000 seats.
What we may well need is a well-designed, highly functional 800-1,200 seat theater. The Hiland used to seat about 800, but the recent renovation by National Dance Institute of New Mexico brought that down to 614 seats.
Back in the 1980s, there was a lot of talk about building a local performing arts center. The idea was that we needed a slightly-larger-than-Popejoy space so the symphony would have a suitable hall for its needs, a mid-sized theater with anywhere from 750-1200 seats depending on who might be the primary renter (it was a toss-up between the New Mexico Repertory Theatre and Albuquerque Civic Light Opera Association). There would also be a black box space seating about 200.
After some interest in the idea, I decided I was against building a performing arts center. I favored supporting the artists and the organizations that kept them working. If you notice, the three organizations mentioned as “anchor” tenants for the performing arts center either no longer exist or live on in a greatly reduced circumstance. The two that are out of business paid their artists.
So Ms. Hitchens is probably right: we need to support the organizations and their artists before we sink money into buildings. Having spaces with no artists or organizations to perform or produce in them makes no sense.
It would be nice, though, to think ahead to one new space that has a full fly loft, a sunken, under-the-stage orchestra pit, ample wing space, and modern lighting and sound to accommodate locally produced musical theater (and anything we might imagine for it). Only one theater in town comes close to this: The National Hispanic Cultural Center. And with 691 seats, it could well fill the bill for either of the two local companies producing musicals — Musical Theatre Southwest and Landmark Musicals — for the short term. But if either or both grow as they should, somewhere down the road, they’d outgrow that space.
If our community does support the artists and their organizations as Ms. Hitchens suggests, we might well have a need for that one more theater. Should we start planning now?
Terry S. Davis
Photo: Cutaway view of the original design for Popejoy Hall, a theater UNM President Tom Popejoy determined was needed for Albuquerque several years before it was built.