The Santa Fe Playhouse has a rich and storied history that started with a singular idea by a woman whose vision lives on more than 100 years later.
Mary Austin (September 9, 1868 – August 13, 1934) was a well-known social activist, as well as a prolific novelist, poet, critic, playwright, and essayist. In 1918, she was drawn to Santa Fe by the town’s growing reputation as a center for artists, writers, and intellectuals, along with her confidant Mabel Dodge Lujan, who later settled in Taos.
In 1919, Austin started a small theater company, aptly named The Santa Fe Players. It was her vision to celebrate and preserve the rich texture of the unique culture of Santa Fe through live theater. She assembled a cast of locals to present the initial productions.
There was a burst of energy in that first year, with three plays presented on February 14 and three other plays on May 13 at the newly constructed New Mexico Museum of Art in the St. Francis Auditorium. (The museum’s architect, John Gaw Meem was an actor in at least one of these plays.)
Three years later, in 1922, The Santa Fe Players incorporated and performed in various temporary venues around town, such as tents at the rodeo grounds, and under makeshift shelters on the Plaza. Some early melodramas – which became an annual tradition to this day – were presented on temporary stages in the outdoor market, now the parking lot of Garrett’s Desert Inn on Old Santa Fe Trail.
In 1964, The Santa Fe Players moved into and renovated an old livery stable in the historic Barrio de Analco, making it into an actual theater space which they renamed “The Santa Fe Little Theatre.” The first sign was hung over the door in 1983 to establish what was, and continues to be, the Santa Fe Playhouse.
One of the original signers to the lease bequeathed a generous gift to the theater in 2008, enabling the Playhouse to finally purchase the more than 100-year-old building, thus giving the theater a permanent home at 142 East De Vargas Street. This prestigious address sits next door to the Inn of the Five Graces, which was named the #1 hotel in the U.S. in 2019 by Conde Nast Traveler magazine. Also in 2019, The Santa Fe Playhouse was awarded “Best of Santa Fe” in the category “Best Theater Group” by the Santa Fe Reporter.
Although the theater has gone through many transformations in name and structure, with uninterrupted seasons since 1922, the Santa Fe Playhouse is the largest producing theater in Santa Fe, and has earned the distinction of being “the oldest continuously producing theater west of the Mississippi.” Carrying on the tradition of our progressive founders, the Playhouse produces exciting plays each year including contemporary, classic, and eclectic theater with a bent toward facilitating rich and meaningful conversations within our community.
The Santa Fe Playhouse is extremely proud and humbled to be at the precipice of its second century. An organization that manages to exist for 100 years is unusual, but a nonprofit arts organization that has persevered for most of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st century is extraordinary.
Pictured above: Celebrating the lease of the building at 142 East De Vargas for Santa Fe Community Theater, January, 1962.
Left to right: Anabel Haas, Robert W. Jerkins, Dorothy Best Donnelly, Joseph E. Paull, and Thomas A. Donnelly. These five people, plus Clay and Liz Buchanan and Bebs Lacey, had written the 1961 Melodrama, the first of the “home-grown” satires, with Sylvia Loomis contributing lyrics. It was the hassle of taking down the wet revival tent (it snowed after the last performance) and the cost of storing it until it could be returned to the tent company that convinced Santa Fe Community Theater President Dorothy Donnelly to find community theater a real home of its own—after years of finding rehearsal and performance space wherever it could.