If the Albuquerque Theatre Guild had a catchphrase, it'd be: “More butts in seats.” The adage best sums up the organization's top priority—plus, it's pithy and would look great on a T-shirt.
A lack of butts is what ignited Ray Orley's frustration in December of 2006. Too few seats were occupied during the run of What the Butler Saw at the Desert Rose Playhouse, a fact Orley observed from the stage nightly.
“I kept noticing that this was happening,” Orley says. When he and his wife moved to Albuquerque from London nearly eight years ago, he was astonished by the large quantity, and quality, of theatrical activity for a city this size, he says. “I also noticed the city itself isn't aware that it has this treasure here.” The result is too many great plays staged without enough audience members to pack the house every night.
The poor attendance of What the Butler Saw was Orley's final straw. He sent an angry e-mail to everyone he knew in the Albuquerque theater community detailing his irritation. But instead of just blowing off steam, he started a firestorm. “I thought I was just getting something off my chest,” he says, “but there was this absolute flood of e-mails and replies saying: Yes, yes, yes—we need to do something about this.” So he did.
After a few organizational meetings, the Albuquerque Theatre Guild officially incorporated on March 14, 2007. Virginia Ludvik immediately jumped onboard, having been one of the people to receive Orley's e-mail. "I always like to say it started when Ray got mad," she says. The contents of his e-mail focused on the weekend's events—three performances going on simultaneously at different theaters, all without reviews in the newspapers, with plenty of open seats and loads of talent—but spoke to a larger problem. "People just started to respond," Ludvik says. "Pretty soon there was this whole dialogue going on—back and forth, back and forth, back and forth—to the point that he said, Let's have a meeting."
Ludvik moved to Albuquerque just two years ago and submersed herself in the theater scene, starting by volunteering backstage at the Vortex Theatre's production of Hamlet. "It was a wonderful, fantastic play," she says. "I came from San Francisco, I was a snob; it was the first community theater production I'd seen in years, and I couldn't believe how good it was."
While working on Hamlet's crew, Ludvik met Paul Ford, a local actor-director who teaches at the University of New Mexico's Theatre and Dance Department and is the founder of Theatre-
Now Ludvik is the executive director for Theatre-
Even before becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Albuquerque Theatre Guild pursued its mission. The members formed three committees—Unity, Buzz and Web—to open communication lines between theater groups, promote member performances and get as much information on the guild's website, abqtheatre.org, as possible. Orley, who was the president of the guild until becoming treasurer in early July, says the main purpose of the guild is to let potential audience members know what's going on around town and really toot Albuquerque’s horn as a theater city. "It also has another purpose to help the various theaters in town cooperate with each other towards this end and also to share resources," he says.
Becca Holmes agrees. Holmes is the artistic director of Albuquerque Little Theatre (ALT), a standard in local performing arts about to celebrate its 80th season. ALT has overcome many tough runs to reach this momentous achievement, just two years ago majorly revamping its seasonal lineup after some changes to the artistic direction that brought a new outlook on how to grow an audience. Holmes says ALT has been a member of the guild since the beginning, and with the membership came the opportunity to bring artists, organizations and audiences together. "It brings the artists together onto a common ground even though our art forms and what we specialize in may be very different," she says. Beyond sharing resources such as volunteer information, Holmes says the guild is a great way to start talking about the theater community as a whole, not just looking at it from one venue's point of view. Holmes says the guild could possibly prevent simple scheduling problems like multiple shows opening on one night or different theaters doing the same show in a season. These timing issues can cause conflict among patrons—conflict that is readily avoidable.
Whereas ALT has been around for years, newer theaters with grand aspirations are also joining the guild. Tom Schuch represents the Mother Road Theatre Company on the guild board. Mother Road got its start in June of 2006 and has since become the resident company at The Filling Station. Schuch says Mother Road aims to be a professional theater company and already offers one Actors' Equity contract per production. Schuch says the guild will help build collaboration within the theater community that has so far been lacking, and that it will raise the quality of theater as well. "It's so easy for theater companies to isolate themselves," he says. With this organization, all the participating theaters can work toward solving the equation that leads to "butts in seats," he says. It’s a tough task, given theater's need to compete with all other forms of entertainment media.
While each individual theater has, to date, relied solely on its own methods of promotion, the guild offers multiple avenues to reach more potential patrons, Orley says. On top of the website—which hosts links to member theaters, résumés of individual members, a calendar of performances and more—the guild published a brochure with a write-up on each theater and plans to publish at least one a year. Salomé Martínez-Lutz, the president and artistic director of Teatro Nuevo México, says she's thrilled to have her performance troupe included in the brochure, as it can only help more people discover the Latino company. She says there was no question when it came to signing Teatro Nuevo México up for membership. "This is on a level where the movers and the shakers are," she says. "I want to move with them and shake a few trees with them, if I can. Everyone is very receptive of what we do."
As receptive and inclusive as the guild strives to be, not every theater in town has joined. Richard van Schouwen, q-Staff Theatre's artistic director, says his theater is not a member, but there have been talks. "It's always, always a struggle for theaters, and ours is no exception, to try to make your way—moneywise," he says. While q-Staff is not a member, the option's not off the table, he says, but for now it’s just not financially viable or attractive to become a member theater.
As it stands, dues are paid on a sliding scale once a year, according to the membership guidelines on the guild's website. Organizations with an operating budget of $25,000 or less pay dues of $125; groups with an operating budget between $25,001 and $100,000 pay $250; and groups with an operating budget of $100,001 or more pay $375. Membership includes all benefits, as well as a representative on the board. The Albuquerque Theatre Guild is run completely by volunteers, Ludvik says. All dues go directly into promoting the members. "It's not our goal to sell the guild," she says, "but to sell theater."
Though q-Staff is not a member, van Schouwen says q-Staff is into the idea of the theater community banding together. "My impression is everybody is kind of in a frantic struggle for survival," he says. Everyone within the theater scene is friendly and wants to help each other, he adds, but realistically, that's hard to do without some sort of structure and with limited time. "I'm glad the Theatre Guild is trying to formalize that."
Another major theater company in town not directly involved in the guild is the FUSION Theatre Company. Dennis Gromelski, executive director of FUSION, says that while FUSION isn't a member of the guild, it completely supports the mission of the guild. "It's opening dialogues and communication in this city that has not existed before," he says. Gromelski says the guild is a great idea that is long overdue and similar organizations in cities nationwide have proven to be an asset to their communities. As one of the few Equity theater companies in the Southwest, Gromelski says FUSION is currently directing its energy on maintaining financial independence to continue offering professional theater in Albuquerque.
Over the course of the past year, the Albuquerque Theatre Guild has grown from an electric rant to a theater-promoting engine, pushing toward the goal of filling every seat of every theater for every show in the Duke City. "On a weekend night, Albuquerque probably has more theatrical productions going than any other city its size, except for Cleveland," Orley says. "I grew up in Cleveland, and I'd rather be in Albuquerque."