The Box

by Christie Chisholm, LocalFlavor Magazine, July 2010

The Box Performance Space & Improv Theatre should have failed. Based on the predictions of any experienced businessperson, the outlook for the upstart theater was grim. Its owners, Doug Montoya and Kristin Berg, had no business plan. They had no capital. They bought no ads. They sent no press releases. It was an unknown venue on an unremarkable block in a desert town. It was an accident.

But The Box didn’t fail. On its opening night, which featured an unpublicized “secret” show, the line to get in overflowed into the parking lot. So many people came, Montoya and Berg had to turn some away. Within a few days, theater patrons the city over were talking about the space. Within a week, the local press was calling. And now, three years later, The Little Theater That Could has done what no one would have predicted: survived. 

The Box is no ordinary theater. It’s not exclusionary, and it doesn’t have a sole purpose. It’s not seeking fame, and certainly not fortune. The shows that appear on its stage are of no particular genre. To borrow from an obvious idiom, you can’t put The Box in a box. But that’s not to say it’s without a mission.

Montoya says The Box has a strong mission, which is “to create an environment where children of all ages can feel comfortable expressing themselves.” That’s because The Box is, first and foremost, a children’s theater. Montoya and Berg offer classes and put on shows through their theater company, Cardboard Playhouse Productions—although unlike most children’s theaters, parents don’t have to pay a tuition for their kids to perform. The attitude they embrace also differs from other theaters. “A lot of children’s theater talks down to kids, and they’re smart,” says Berg. “They’re smarter than I think most grownup actors are.” Montoya and Berg expect kids to be smart and treat them as such, and the result is that their productions don’t feel like “children’s” theater—they just feel like theater. 

Next on the space’s list of priorities is improv comedy. Along with hosting performances, The Box offers classes for both kids and adults and puts on the annual Duke City Improv Festival, which brings in teams from throughout the region. Beyond that, The Box is a sort of catchall. It opens its doors to outside theater companies, taking a chance on anything that succeeds at being, as Montoya puts it, something that can be not just viewed but experienced. Among the groups The Box has played host to are Tricklock Theatre Company, the Pajama Men, Harrington & Kauffman (in the vein of the PJ Men, a theatrical comedy duo from New York City) and its now company-in-residence, Blackout Theatre.

But Montoya and Berg didn’t plan any of it. And while Berg had worked in children’s theater for years, serving previously as the stage manager at Albuquerque Little Theatre, the last way Montoya thought he’d be spending his life is teaching kids how to act. 

Montoya moved to Albuquerque about 14 years ago from Los Angeles, where he’d been involved in the theater scene. He continued working in theater when he came to New Mexico, and a few years ago he was active with the now-defunct Gorilla Tango Theatre (a branch is still open in Chicago). The space was looking to bring in some extra revenue around the holiday season one year, and Montoya came up with the idea to put on A Charlie Brown Christmas. He wanted to use child actors, of course, thinking that any stumbling over lines would only add to the legitimacy of the play. It was a huge success, and soon Montoya found himself planning more children’s productions. 

It was during round two that Berg came on to help. Together they put on a kids’ parody called LOST on Gilligan’s Island, which turned out to be another success. But on the heels of two high-selling shows, Gorilla Tango closed. Parents were upset and encouraged Montoya and Berg to continue with their work, and so the two toyed with the thought of opening their own theater. A month and a half later, they did.

That’s when the idea of “community” theater became tangible. Kurly Tlapoyawa, owner of Burning Paradise Video, told them about an available space on Lomas near 12th Street. When they went to look at it, the landlord said he was going to rent it to someone else the next day but would rather give it to them. If Montoya and Berg could come up with the $1,500 they needed for a deposit within 24 hours, it was theirs. They didn’t have it. But some of those parents did. And collectively, along with other supporters, Montoya and Berg gathered enough donations within a day to secure the space.

Of course, they still didn’t have seats. Or lights. Or a sound system. Or anything else a theater needs. And who even knew about next month’s rent? But the community kept coming through. A friend told them about 60 old seats Theater Grottesco in Santa Fe was giving away. Another friend gave them some used lights and a sound system. And with only a couple weeks to go before their scheduled opening night, and no idea what they were going to put on stage, they ran into the Pajama Men (full disclosure: The author is dating one of the group’s members). The duo said they’d perform for the opening and put out the word about a secret show. They even got New Mexico native Zach Condon of the band Beirut to accompany them. And that’s how Montoya and Berg found a long line twisting around their brand-new building on its very first night.

The Box left its Lomas home last year and moved Downtown to 100 Gold SW, Suite 112. And again, the way the theater found its new location was, as Montoya and Berg call it, “accidental.” Feeling that their old space was getting too small, they called their realtor to let him know they might be looking for something else. But their realtor was already about to call them to talk about an available spot—because the manager for the space hoped they’d move in.

The Box has always billed itself as a community theater, but since relocating Downtown, the space has now become not just a fixture in the theater scene but in the neighborhood as well. 

Rick Rennie is the guy who wanted The Box to move to Gold. He’s the asset manager for the Historic District Improvement Company (HDIC), which, among other things, means he’s responsible for the block the theater now sits on. HDIC is leading the campaign to revitalize Downtown, and Rennie is passionate about the tenets of urbanism. He wants to see the neighborhood morph into a “center for creativity and innovation,” he says, where lots of eclectic, smaller spaces continuously draw different demographics to the area. It’s about building a walkable environment that caters to both the young and the mature, singles and parents, businesspeople and those looking to play. 

At a time when retail was hurting, Rennie thought bringing in more performance spaces would help invigorate the area, and he was right. “There was an immediate effect, as soon as they moved in,” he says. The building where The Box is located has spaces for businesses on the ground floor but residential lofts above, a number of which were sitting vacant before the theater moved in. But almost as soon as it opened its doors, someone purchased a loft because The Box was there. And the trend stuck. Three of the four ground level corners of the building have been empty for months. But in the last two months, after the theater increased traffic on the block, seven restaurants came to look at the spaces, and Rennie’s now in negotiations with three of them. Rennie says existing restaurants on the block are already benefitting from the theater, which hosts either classes or shows nearly every night. 

Most of those classes, which run from improv and acting classes to workshops on filmmaking and theater production, are taught by members of Blackout Theatre, The Box’s company-in-residence. Montoya and Berg have worked with Blackout for the last two and a half years, but the group only became the space’s resident theater this spring. 

Jeff Andersen is Blackout’s artistic director. He says working with The Box has been a great boon to the company because their missions align. Blackout, which is also very improv-based, has always put education at the forefront of its work. “They have very similar views to us,” Andersen says. “A lot of places see it as a way to make money, but we want to make it available to as many people as possible and keep it high-quality.” 

Montoya and Berg feel the same way. They want to keep classes affordable so anyone can take them. They charge enough to keep the theater open, but there’s not much left over. Both Montoya and Berg have day jobs separate from their roles at the theater. Additionally, the kids productions they cast are tuition-free. Most children’s theater companies charge parents a fee for their kids to be cast in shows, Montoya and Berg say, but that’s not the way The Box operates. Kids who take classes at the space are welcome to audition for parts, but kids who have never been to the theater before can audition, too. And there’s no guarantee that a child who’s taken a class will get in. Roles are cast based on who’s best for the part, says Montoya, because there’s no point in giving something to someone who doesn’t deserve it.

It’s a philosophy that feeds back into The Box’s mission—theater isn’t about ego or oneupmanship, it’s about creating and sharing. “We want to take that ego part out of it,” says Berg. “This isn’t just about you. It’s about the audience, it’s about the rest of the company of actors that you’re working with. It’s not just about Doug and I as directors of whatever we’re doing, it’s about the production as a whole and doing it for the good of everybody else.” 

Montoya and Berg, along with the Blackout crew, want the kids they teach to learn valuable skills and gain confidence and eventually move on to other theaters. And with regard to adult theater, Montoya thinks of it as a free-for-all. Whenever their space is dark, Montoya and Berg hit the town, seeing as many shows as they can. They let the parts they love influence their own work, and they hope other theaters do the same. 

“We’re constantly changing, we’re constantly adapting,” says Montoya. “I think that you have to be flexible, you have to be able to change. Otherwise, you become rigid, and you can possibly break.”