By Jennifer Levin
Eliot Fisher and Andy Primm co-direct A Proud Playhouse Presents a Preëminent Pageant to Puncture the Precious Pretensions of a Pretty Provincial Populace, or A Silly Centennial Celebration Centered on the Scintillating Scandals of Santa Fe or A Riotous Retrospective Chock Full of Gags, the 100th Anniversary Fiesta Melodrama at Santa Fe Playhouse, opening with a gala reception on Saturday, Aug. 27.
Eliot and Andy have been involved with the Melodrama since 2006 and 2011, respectively. They sat for a wide-ranging Q & A with Jennifer Levin about the past and present of the Fiesta Melodrama, where things took a turn for the serious.
How did you get involved with the Melodrama?
Eliot: When I was in college, I was working down in Madrid at the Engine House Theater over the summer [playing piano for their melodrama]. One of the actors asked if I knew about the Fiesta Melodrama. He brought me the “How to Write the Fiesta Melodrama” packet. I guess he must have been an anonymous writer at some point. I took the how-to packet to my senior year of college [at Wesleyan University in Connecticut] and put on a play that was based on that guide, but using my college community. I went and saw the Melodrama in 2005 for the first time, and then, in late spring of 2006, I knocked on the door of the Playhouse and asked if I could be involved. I said I play piano and write songs. It was a real community theater and it was open to someone walking in and asking if they can be involved in some way, and the answer was yes.
And Andy, you’re second-generation Melodrama.
My whole family is here because my great-uncle came out here in the ‘40s. He was an architect and had to do with the designing of the Opera. My uncle was in the show in 1959. My aunt sewed costumes. I went to Melodramas as a younger person, just growing up in Santa Fe. Eliot brought me in in 2011. I was a singing cowboy, the hero in that play. I thought it was pretty cool, but the hero is the worst role. It’s all about the villain’s plot, not the hero’s plot. The hero’s job is to be dumb and nice.
Many of the same performers are in the Melodrama year after year. It’s also the best-selling show of the year, and people who don’t come to other Playhouse productions turn out in droves. Why is this play such a big deal for Santa Fe?
Eliot: This is the story that I tell. Right after I asked to get involved in the Melodrama, we held auditions. Everyone came in together and auditioned in front of each other, which we still do. It’s not a professional practice but it builds community. Auditions are very traumatic and competitive, but we turn it into something where we help each other succeed. So the first auditions I held, Karmela Gonzales walks up on stage in her mail carrier uniform having just gotten off her delivery route. She reads a side, and then she belts out an incredible mariachi tune. She’s a violinist and singer in a mariachi band. That moment remains intimately connected to the Melodrama. She wouldn’t come in to audition for anything else. She was in the Melo a number of times before that.
Can you reveal anything about this year’s plot? Are you doing something special for the centennial anniversary?
Eliot: We’re talking about how traditions change, and that traditions are people. They’re created by people, and so the Melodrama is made by people. The Melodrama is what we want to make it, any of us. That’s the same as our city. I don’t want to be grandiose, but we raise our voices in approval or discouragement of various things in our town, about how we live, which is very much like the democratic process itself.
Andy: We’re trying to be bold this year, as other generations have been. Fake news and disinformation is one of the things we’re touching on, the media and all of the ways information is getting distorted by new communication technologies.
You read through decades of old scripts, looking for inspiration. What sorts of things were still relevant, and what did you need to change?
Andy: The nice thing about those old scripts is that there was nothing boring or offensive! It’s really interesting to look back at history and see what you could say or do 40 years ago and no one blinked. These jokes come across very differently now and they are taken in a completely different way.
Eliot: It seems that the audience was presumed to be a white male. In a ’60s script they were talking about a magic well that never ran out of water. A character mentioned they gave free water to the Natives and that was their contribution to the civil rights movement. It’s a joke that walks a weird line.
The Melodrama started in 1922, as part of Fiestas. It could be seen as the Anglo contribution to Fiestas, given that the founders were the same people that came up with Zozobra a few years later. Do you know if the Melodrama was requested, or how it started?
Eliot: I don’t. The bulk of my knowledge comes from this book by Chris Wilson, called The Myth of Santa Fe. Everything was invented back then. Fiesta as the celebration of the reconquest wasn’t being actively celebrated. [Fiesta] was something unique to bring tourists and sell Santa Fe to other Anglos in the East. At the turn of the 20th century, there was this focus on community pageants as theater. I think this is what The Sorcerers of Nambe was, which was the first Fiesta Melodrama. They had dancers from Tesuque, and some twisted history stuff. The other Anglo contribution to Fiestas was the Hysterical/Historical parade. In 1922, all the Anglo artists were relative newcomers to Santa Fe.
The Entrada is a very serious. Indian Market, which launched that year as part of Fiestas, quickly became separate, but it’s also not humorous. And then you have the Anglos saying “we’re here to be wacky and make fun of all of this.”
Eliot: The Melodrama is a very mixed bag. In its focus on local culture, I think there’s something really special and different than anything that’s being done a lot of places theatrically. It does reflect a distinctly local cultural flavor. The big picture is that race in the United States is really complicated and distinct from many other places in the world, and Northern New Mexico is a really fascinating, contradictory place within the racial scheme of the United States. [There was] brutal colonialism by Spanish conquistadors of Indigenous people. They violently imposed patriarchy and what we understand today as white supremacy, as well as their religion, and tried to stop Indigenous people from practicing their lifeways as much as they could. But [the colonists] were also observant and saw how the people already here could live in such a challenging place. They adopted some of these strategies for survival in this climate. And everyone continued to live alongside each other despite this traumatic history. When New Mexico became part of the United States, Anglos arrived and introduced other forms of domination on everyone who was here. For example, the Forest Service engaged in tons of land-grabbing (of already stolen land) and told the people here they couldn’t share land and water communally as they had been. The Hispano population rightfully felt wronged by this, swindled out of land they believed was theirs after generations — though of course, Spain had no right to grant this land in the first place. And yet they were living off of it in a way that, from our perspective in the 21st century, was fairly sustainable. The tricultural myth is a myth because we’re actually dealing with an enormous spectrum of histories and identities between Indigenous and European—not three discrete cultures.
This is all very serious for a conversation about a play that’s usually on the sillier side of funny.
Eliot: One of the critiques about the Melodrama that we respond to in this year’s show is that if the satire’s not very sharp-toothed, you’re using it as a smoke screen to cover the actual power structures that exist in society. Sure, we poke fun at nepotism and corruption, but does that do anything? It’s blowing off steam to watch the show, but is there an effort in our real lives to unite to bring about change?
Andy: You can look at it as being a little fluff piece of comedy, and that’s OK. Since I’ve been a part of it, we really try to look at issues, and look at things from new angles, blow it open, switch it around. The Melodrama is 100 years old. It comes out of the early ’20s when a lot of things that were going on in Santa Fe—like “Santa Fe Style”—that could be construed as coming from the East Coast, a third-wave colonialism, and this is one of those things. Is the show just white men speaking to white men? I don’t know. I know that deserves to be examined, along with everything else.