Tourists cruising State Road 75 on a mission to check the “High Road to Taos” off their sightseeing lists might all too easily mistake Peñasco for a mere signpost along the way, but those with the wisdom to stop and look around will be rewarded with a wealth of scenic and cultural treasures.
The Peñasco Theatre Collective may be one of the most surprising of those treasures. The decades-old adobe structure (the only solar-powered, hand-built adobe theater) has, for the past 18 years, been home to a core group of artists with stellar résumés. Revolving caravans of artists-in-residency add their talents to the mix.
The arts represented span an eclectic spectrum of circus skills, movement, theater, music, dance, visual arts, puppetry, poetry and much more.
After-school classes offer young people an opportunity to study and create with world-class creative artists. A monthly “Open Stage” invites local talent of all experience levels to perform in a nurturing environment. Every summer, the collective hosts youth arts workshops for performers ages 5-17. Collective members also travel, bringing arts instruction to schools all over Northern New Mexico.
Circus artist and lifelong activist Alessandra Ogren acquired the PTC building in 2000.
“It drew me,” she said. “I had this vision of an artistic community in the mountains. I went to Peñasco and took a look at it, and right away it was incredible to be in the space. Before I knew it, I found myself buying a theater. From that beginning, it took a lot of energy to create the space we have now. We’ve had an incredible 300 artistic residencies in the last 10 years, people coming from great distances to create and share their skills here.”
Ogren was a founding member of Santa Fe’s legendary Wise Fool New Mexico. In her years with Wise Fool, she directed projects around the globe: Circus Across Cultures, a performing and teaching tour reaching over 10,000 young people in India; Rosebud Giant Puppet and Stilt Camp with elders and youth from the Rosebud Lakota Nation; a circus tour to flood-damaged areas of Nicaragua; and a circus arts program for underserved youth at the Miami Performing Arts Center.
“I think that my interest in theater was always about wanting to use it as a way to express a message, to make people think about things,” Ogren said. “Even as a child, that was what was interesting to me as an outlet. My whole childhood was making up shows. It was my passion. I feel grateful that as an older person I get to keep making shows, and get to share that joy with younger people. In our summer camps and workshops, the most critical part is learning how to work in service to creative expression. Learning about consent, and how to work together in a group to do anything, how to disagree, how to collaborate — people aren’t given that in the school system or in life. This is what we’re teaching through these art forms.”
Artist, writer, educator and PTC co-founder Rafa Tarín spoke of the theater’s rich history in Peñasco. “The collective has been here for 18 years, but the building has been here for over 75 years, made by the (Amado) Roybal family (in 1940). Over the years it’s been a place to hear music, to see movies, a place to go to find out what was going on. People from the surrounding areas would walk or ride their horses over. We have people coming in and telling us stories their grandparents told them about their times here, people who recall having their first kiss in this space. It makes it all the more important to us that what we offer here is accessible to the community. We charge the minimum amount we can, nothing exorbitant. We try to run it, as our collective, with an awareness of empowering young people to use art as a vehicle for transforming themselves and the community.”
Tarín’s powerful, thought-provoking paintings were presented this past summer in a solo exhibit titled “For Now,” at Taos’ Harwood Museum of Art.
Serena Rascon was born in Las Cruces and began dancing at the age of three. By 17, she was off to San Francisco for a year-round program with LINES ballet. After extensive travels, Rascon returned to New Mexico and began teaching at Moving Arts Española with its co-founder Roger Montoya.
“Working in the arts-in-schools program, working with kids — that was life-changing. I recognized the importance of being a grown person that believed in them. I wanted young people to really see themselves, that they’re valuable and important. That’s where I met Alessandra and Rafa. All the things they were talking about as empowerment, they offered those things to me as a young person. All the things entrenched in the mission statement for the collective are things that are real. Not some fantasy ideal, but actually a practice. I’ve learned a lot about myself and how I can really contribute to the world in a productive and effective way, putting it into practice more and more.”
That practice for Rascon has included teaching and performing with PTC and Wise Fool, and recently creating a solo show with the multilayered title, “As I Rite Myself.”
Multidisciplinary artist Nikesha Breeze is known and loved by Taos audiences for her work in theater, movement and visual arts.
Breeze has been doing theater and acrobatic work since early childhood. “I grew up in a poor rural family,” she said. “As soon as I could work, I was modeling, acting, film and TV, helping to support the family. At 18, I left home and began to focus on visual arts and photography.”
A show of Breeze’s original oil paintings and sculptures, “Within This Skin,” garnered rave reviews at the Harwood’s Studio 238 earlier this year.
“I heard about the Peñasco collective while I was in Chiapas, Mexico doing street theater,” she said. “Someone there told me about this amazing group. I’d been living so close by in Taos and hadn’t even known about it. I found Alessandra as soon as I got back to the States and it was love at first sight.”
Breeze spoke of her dedication to working with PTC. “What I love the most is the constant emphasis on deconstruction of the master narrative, that narrative structured on white supremacy and ‘hetero-normativity’ that is constantly being fed to us. At the collective, everything we are doing is put through that critical lens of conscious, messy deconstruction process. In our own way, we’re creating space for people of color, for all kinds of queer communities, for communities in marginal spaces.”
Most recently, the theater has hosted a showcase of new work by aerial artist Sandia Delavibora, and a weekend workshop in tumbling and acrobatics with San Francisco circus artist Oriana Doria-Quesada. Upcoming projects include a revival of the collective’s 2016 production of “The Gaza Mono-Logues.” The show is told in the voices and personal stories of students at Palestine’s Ashtar Theatre, and has been performed in venues around the world since its inception.
Peñasco Theatre Collective is located at 15046 State Road 75. For performance and class schedules, visit penascotheatercollective.org .