August 2016

The Paolo Soleri Amphitheater

Envisioned as a Center for Native American Performing Arts


Conrad Skinner


 Charles Loloma, Hopi jeweler, brought Cherokee educator Lloyd Kiva New to visit visionary architect Paolo Soleri at his Cosanti Foundation in Arizona in the fall of 1962, recalls ex-Cosanti apprentice Ruth-Claire Weintraub. The three discussed building a theater for contemporary Indian performing arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where New was the arts director. Loloma, working in cast metals, evidenced curiosity about Soleri’s silt-cast bells. Soleri, an ex-Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice, had also been casting on a much larger scale, shaping his foundation’s campus in concrete over molded-earth forms. 


The Paolo Soleri Amphitheater, built between 1966 and 1970 and named by New in its architect’s honor, today remains embedded in the earth of the ancient Santa Fe watershed plain.


When established in 1962, the IAIA offered the first academic curriculum in multidisciplinary arts education to indigenous students from the Americas. Native drama and architecture were prominent innovations contemporaneously born at the IAIA. Christy Stanlake, in her Native American Drama: A Critical Perspective, while acknowledging early 20th-century public Indian writer/performers such as Te Ata (Chickasaw), Lynn Riggs (Cherokee) and Will Rogers (Cherokee), cites the IAIA program as the first formal training dedicated to Indian writers and performers. Lloyd New believed that earth-formed construction suited an Indian theater.


NewCredo for American Indian Theater provided the framework within which drama instructor Rolland Meinholtz, dance instructor Rosalie Jones Daystar and others invented tenets of Native performance, some of which seem to derive from ritual but remain secular.


We believe that young Indian People must be trained in the fullest degree regarding all aspects of theatre; the history of universal forms, the technical aspects, acting, speech and movement. Against this understanding they must then be led to examine culture for that which is theatrical and then find ways to interpret those unique aspects for contemporary audiences in true theater settings.


New proclaimed the requirement for an IAIA theater building:


If Indian theater is to happen, the emphasis must be upon that which is culturally unique to the American Indian, in terms of performance, actor-audience relationship and a uniquely conceived architectural setting…it must be a highly functional theatrical machine designed to encompass the unique needs of Indian theater.


Rolland Meinholtz, in Notes on Indian Theater and Practice, voiced the theater’s architectural program:


The theater should be designed in such a way that theatrical action is not necessarily localized to the stage area. Action in the aisles, at the sides, in the midst of and behind the audience should seem feasible.


The arrangement of spectator and audience should make it plain that the theater is a three-dimensional art.


Soleri’s imagination transformed the IAIA ideas into architecture. The theater divides vertically into upper and lower zones, with the lower level—the main stage—backed by a cave-like shell, labeled in his sketches as “physical,” and the upper level denoted as “ghostly.” Double worlds. Soleri programmed the upper in two modes—weather and the diurnal cycle that coincide in a central sun symbol. At the extreme left, a moon bridge crosses a canyon ramping down from an artificial hill.


From among the IAIA’s theater innovators, seven aspiring thespians traveled to New York City, in 1972, to join nine other players comprising the American Indian Theater Ensemble, assembled by Hanay Geiogamah (Kiowa/Delaware) at La Mama Experimental Theater Company. Soon, the renamed Native American Theater Company was headlining two plays, Geiogamah’s Foghorn and Na Ha Zaan by Robert Shorty (Taos/Navajo). They performed in New York, toured American venues and did a residence in Germany. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and numerous local papers reviewed their performances.


The IAIA withdrew from the campus during the 1980s as the Santa Fe Indian School returned, with its student body drawn largely from New Mexico pueblos. The Indian School used the amphitheater for its graduation, promotion ceremonies and spoken-word performances. The school also opened it to privately booked concerts ranging from Bob Dylan to Bob Marley to the Tibetan Gyuto Monks, events extremely popular in Santa Fe. From 1995 to 2008, Seth Roffman produced or coproduced 14 Native Roots & Rhythms festivals, which were impressive showcases for traditional and contemporary Native American music, dance, storytelling, theater and comedy. In 2010, the Indian School suddenly announced the amphitheater’s planned demolition, which drew a great outcry, and fortunately, for a building with such a rich history, is, for now, in abeyance. The amphitheater is currently crumbling behind a chain-link fence with new campus buildings built close by. Its future is uncertain.


The IAIA, with the 2014 hiring of associate professor Daniel Banks, revived its performing-arts program following a 20-year funding hiatus. Among the notable instructors and workshop leaders are Hanay Geiogamah, founder of the American Indian Dance Theater and UCLA’s Project Hoop; recent Albuquerque Poet Laureate Hakim Bellamy; and Ty Defoe (spirit name Giizhig), Ojibwe Grammy-winning performance artist and playwright. In March 2015, in conjunction with a Defoe workshop, poets and actors including two-time Truman Capote writing-scholarship winner Collistipher Chatto (Navajo), performed their works. Banks, Bellamy and Defoe performed at the same event. The Spring Student Showcase, on April 29, featured a medley of spoken works on themes from love to sexuality to politics. Students Teklu Hogan and Maria Fairbanks performed in Ty Defoe’s play Red Pine, depicting tensions between a reservation homeboy and his girlfriend returning from the Ivy League. The evening closed with a young dancer performing to the drum. 


Modern life and tradition seem to be the two threads of indigenous performance. Ty Defoe recites a creation myth in his native Ojibwemowin and writes on contemporary reservation life. In the repertoire of the Native American Theater Ensemble, Robert Shorty’s Na Ha Zaan is a play of creation, and Geiogamah’s play, 49, is about tradition embedded in modern Native life. The IAIA continues to build on its original incubation of contemporary indigenous performance and its unique architecture through the powerful and sometimes-angry voices it nurtures today. IAIA students pursuing internships at the Intiman Theatre’s Emerging Artist program in Seattle, Fringe Benefits in Los Angeles, and the Journey Home Internship testify to the potency of the school’s performing-arts rejuvenation.




Conrad Skinner is writing a history of the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater. In 2014, he delivered a TEDxABQ talk, Architecture Ahead of its Time: The Paolo Soleri Amphitheater.




Native Roots & Rhythms Performing Arts Festival

Paolo Soleri Amphitheater – 1996–2008

Over the course of 13 years, as a result of the Native Roots & Rhythms Festival, the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater at the Santa Fe Indian School became the country’s leading venue for contemporary and traditional Native American performing arts. In respectful and creative ways that bridged heritage and talent, NR&R showcased established entertainers while providing a platform for up-and-coming performers. The ambitious productions were designed to appeal to both Native audiences and visitors from around the world. The festival was profiled in national and international media.

Each year took a different approach; from a show with a traditional focus that projected close-ups of the performers, combined with recorded images of land and culture onto large screens above the stage—to a variety show that featured Native rock, rap, blues and reggae. Award-winning musical acts were often interspersed with dance troupes, comedy and film clips of Native actors. Some years the production was more theatrical.

Fifty singers and dancers from New Mexico’s 19 pueblos opened the show in 2004 with a traditional song. NR&R presented the American Indian Dance Theater several times. Some of the other performers that were featured: Buffy Ste. Marie, Floyd Westerman Red Crow, R. Carlos Nakai, Joanne Shenandoah, John Trudell, Robert Mirabal, Bill Miller, Ulali, Walela with Rita Coolidge, Joy Harjo, Kevin Locke, Litefoot, A. Paul Ortega, Vincent Craig, Mary Redhouse, Brent Michael Davids, Mary Youngblood, Derek Miller, Black Eagle, Drew Lacapa, Charlie Hill, Keith Secola, Radmilla Cody, Arvel Bird, Casper, Native Roots, Clan Destine, Levi and the Plateros, Hopi Second Mesa Dancers, Pamua (from Alaska) and many others.

In addition to the performances, NR&R provided positive role models for Native youth and mentorship to aspiring producers and performers through workshops facilitated by participants and collaborators that included GRAMMY in the Schools® and Emergence Productions. Native Roots & Rhythms was sponsored by the Santa Fe-based nonprofit, Southwest Learning Centers ( The festival received funding from the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Acoma Business Enterprises, New Mexico Arts (then a division of the New Mexico Dept. of Cultural Affairs), the New Mexico Department of Tourism, the McCune Charitable Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.


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