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BWW Interview: Mel Sussman, Director of OUR TOWN at Rio Rancho Players Community Theatre

Hear from Mel Sussman, founder of the Rio Rancho Players Community Theatre.

BWW Interview: Mel Sussman, Director of OUR TOWN at Rio Rancho Players Community Theatre

At long last, the community of Rio Rancho has its own theatre company, with plans for a production of Thornton Wilder's American classic Our Town this fall. I had a brief chat with Mel Sussman, founder of the Rio Rancho Players Community Theatre, about his experience with the arts, his journey from Philadelphia to Rio Rancho, and why Our Town is such an impactful play in particular at this time in American history.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Tell me about your background in theatre.

Theatre has always been my love -- it's been my whole life. It's really what's driven me since I was a little kid and went to New York to see my first shows, and I was fortunate enough to be able to see Yul Brynner do one of his last performances of The King And I, and I was just absolutely mesmerized.

And I've directed theatre for about forty years now -- I'm an oldie [laughs] -- starting back east in the Philadelphia area, I was a communications and theatre major at Temple University and ended up teaching at a high school called Coatesville Area High School. There was a wonderful, wonderful theatre program there -- I became the journalism, drama, and theatre teacher out there and worked with the choir director, who was pretty well extensively known for his work in the choral musical world -- we came together and I directed a number of musicals out there -- West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof -- before I returned to Philadelphia and continued my directing there and turned a little more towards drama, and did maybe one of the earliest productions of Our Town with an all black cast. It was seriously exciting -- a combination middle/high school group; it was met with really phenomenal reviews and I was extremely excited about that.

I went on to continue directing in Philadelphia until I decided it was time to change my life, and became an administrator and then became principal at one of the high schools in the Philadelphia suburbs. Then my wife and I moved out to Denver, where she had gotten a job as an assistant professor, and I had to recreate myself -- so I got became a principal in a suburban middle school, then a leadership consultant for an educational research firm. I travelled the world for ten years teaching leadership skills to principals and school districts, and then my wife, Gracie, said it was time to "get off the plane and come home." And I did. And it was time at that point, being in my 60's, that it was time to retire, so we moved from Denver to down here into Rio Rancho.

How did you go about starting a theatre company in Rio Rancho?

BWW Interview: Mel Sussman, Director of OUR TOWN at Rio Rancho Players Community Theatre
Mel Sussman;
photo credit Rio Rancho Players

Well, when we got to Rio Rancho, I was looking around seriously for something to do and saw that there were a number of theatre groups in Albuquerque, but none in Rio Rancho, which came as a real surprise, because Rio Rancho has a pretty nice sized population and is a pretty progressive city, even as new as it is. I decided back in September of 2019 that I was going to give it a shot and see if I couldn't form a community theatre group.

What was the response like from the community?

I called for a couple meetings, I advertised for a couple of them, and the response was really, really positive. So it reached the point where we were ready to go into our first production, and I said, "hey, why not do Our Town out here with a new community theatre group? Because it has very basic set design, very basic costuming, a tremendous focus on actors and actresses -- it's something that I thought was very doable, and I was also really comfortable with it as a first show from previous experience. So we started, and we had auditions in January of 2020, with hopes of performing in May -- but of course, the pandemic shut us down like everybody else, so in March of 2020, I had to put a kibosh on our attempt to perform. We were all ready to go, too. We were working with a church -- St. Francis Episcopal Church in Rio Rancho -- which was allowing use of their ballroom for a place to do a dessert theatre kind of format, rather than the normal auditorium type set up... But it all got closed down.

But you were able to resume planning this year.

We set it all back until just this past April, where things took a really incredibly good turn, and I decided it was time to pick it up again and try once again and scheduled two membership meetings, one in April and one in May. To my excitement, close to 70 people turned out that wanted to be a part. Not all wanted to act, either -- a good number wanted to be on the production team, whether as ushers, selling tickets, working on scenery, costumes... we had more than enough and we were able to say we could move forward and produce this thing and be ready for performance in October. And actually, next Saturday, June 12th, is our pre audition meeting, where we'll give out audition study scripts to those who want to audition and meet with other people who want to be on the production team, and then auditions will be June 19th, and on July 13th, we'll start rehearsal.

What's the plan for the run of this show? How many performances will there be?

We will be, god willing, doing 8 performances in the first three weekends in October, six evenings and two matinees... and actually, in the interim of being shut down, a group called the Avix Cultural Performance Group opened up a theatre in Rio Rancho. They're hoping to become a charter school, and have created a wonderful little theatre to start with, along with studios for dance and piano and drama. It fit us really well, so we were able to set up a rental agreement for this year.

What are your plans for after Our Town?

We're hopefully performing three plays in the 21-22 season... first, obviously, being Our Town, then I have two in the works that he's considering -- one is an off-Broadway surprise success from about three years ago called A Little Piece of Heaven and maybe also Almost, Maine, which is nine separate scenes of love gained and love lost. So I'm hoping next over the next year that we'll be able to do those three productions - one in October, one in February, and one in May, to highlight the first season of what we're going to do. We've done a few fundraisers -- licensing shows and buying scripts isn't cheap -- and we've also connected with a nonprofit group called Creative Crossroads here in Rio Rancho; they are helping us find grants and donations and support groups who will help us get started, and maybe be able to eventually find a space for a theatre of our own.

You've had a lot of previous success with Our Town -- is there anything else about that play that makes it work particularly well right now?

I think it's gonna be really special and, I think it's gonna be something that will be really appreciated. The one thing, the reason that I'm really doing this play first -- not because it's simplistic play to produce and it's the most produced play in the US ever -- it's because of where we came from with the pandemic, and that it really is about how life is fleeting and that we should appreciate every moment. That's the underlying theme of this play and I think that it really goes well with what this country and what this area has gone through, and I think that people who will come to see it will leave with a real understanding of what life is all about and why we should appreciate every day that we have.


For more information about auditioning for Our Town or Rio Rancho Players Community Theatre in general, visit https://www.rr-cc.org/rio-rancho-players.html, or email Mr. Sussman at mjsussman@gmail.com. He may also be reached by phone at 970-381-1944.


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