From left, Isaac Carrillo (Michael Caine in the play), director Mel Sussman and Kay Peters Johnson (Lily Adair) chat before a recent rehearsal. “This is gonna be a great play,” says Peters Johnson, 80 and formerly part of a “great theater group” in Dixon, N.M. (Gary Herron / Observer)

Mel Sussman has been a tennis player, a school administrator and consultant for school districts around the U.S., a world traveler and a community theater advocate.

The latter is a real passion. And, thanks to that passion — and he and his wife, Grace, moving a few years ago to the City of Vision — Rio Rancho has a community theater group.

Undeterred, although slowed by the pandemic, Sussman is proud to talk about the Rio Rancho Community Players’ first of three shows this season: “A Little Piece of Heaven.” He can’t divulge the other two shows’ titles but says they’ll “hit the boards” in October and next April.

Inhabiting Avix Art at 4311 Sara Road, Sussman has seen the group grow from a dozen people at its inaugural meeting in September 2019 to 32 people at the next meeting two weeks later – and now to 60 people.

“I’ve been directing community theater for close to 45 years now,” he said. “Up until my wife and I moved out here to Rio Rancho, all of my directing had been back East — I’m a Philadelphia kid.”

Sussman, 72, majored in journalism and minored in theater arts while attending Temple University in Philly, where he was hoping to play collegiate tennis.

The Owls’ tennis coach, after watching him play, suggested that he “might be better off covering the sport than playing the sport at that level,” Sussman recalled.

He stuck with the team but didn’t get on the court, so he followed that advice.

“I did a heck of a lot of directing on the high school level and in the community,” he said, once that tennis dream ended. “I kind of lost my way from tennis, but kind of by mistake, I found my way to theater.”

A theater director’s partner left, and Sussman moved into that role at Coatesville Senior High School.

“I first fell in love with theater when my grandmother took me downtown to the Fox Theatre to see ‘The King and I,’” he recalled.

Years later, he and his wife saw that show on Broadway, one of Yul Brynner’s last performances before he died of cancer. He’s also directed “The King and I,” as well as other familiar shows, such as “Fiddler on the Roof and “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

He decided to leave the high school gig, wanting to return to the City of Brotherly Love, “and had the opportunity to teach in a communications program there and continued to direct theater in high school in Philadelphia, as well as begin to direct community theater.”

When another opportunity came knocking, Sussman became an administrator and eventually a middle school principal.

“One of the educational research companies saw me presenting one day and said, ‘We could use somebody like you,’” he recalled.

The representative gave him a business card, which he basically ignored.

“A year later, I was back at the same presentation place, giving another presentation, and the president of the company walked up to me and said, ‘What happened?’ ” Sussman said.

He hadn’t realized that company was serious about his ability, which was teaching administrators “to understand the foundations of balanced leadership within a school and a district.”

He took a shot at that job, and it worked better than he could have expected.

He said he spent from 2008 to about 2018 traveling the world from Saipan to Canada and around the U.S. “until my wife, Gracie, the love of my life, said, ‘You know, honey, it’s time to get off the plane.’ ”

In his mid-60s, Sussman retired. He and Grace moved to Rio Rancho to be close to family members, including two children in Albuquerque.

“My wide decided that Rio Rancho was going to be the spot,” Sussman said.

He found no community theatre groups existed in the City of Vision, although there was handful of them in Albuquerque.

“I was looking for something to connect myself,” he said. “I had never done startup … from the ground floor up to create a community group.”

Sussman started printing flyers, “dropping them here and there,” putting information on NextDoor and Facebook, and scheduling a meeting for September 2019.

In addition to finding interest from area residents, he found interest from Albuquerque radio and TV stations.

Rio Rancho Community Players stages rehearsals and performances at Avix Art, but Sussman is seeking a larger venue.

“COVID has stopped us three times,” he said.

Nonetheless, the group’s production of “Our Town” was sold out for eight performances over a three-weekend run. Next month’s “A Little Piece of Heaven” will have nine performances.

“What I’d like to do is start a youth component,” he said, “where the plays are geared for youth. And then we bring in a whole new set of patrons to come and see the kids perform.”

If you’re interested in joining the Community Players as an actor or backstage, contact Sussman at mjsussman@gmail.com.

 

Angels Steve Weitz (Henry) and Jeannie Hawks (Elizabeth) say “A Little Piece of Heaven” is a very funny play and they’re happy to be in it. (Gary Herron / Observer)

Grab your own ‘little piece of heaven’ soon

“A Little Piece of Heaven” has 7:30 p.m. performances May 13, 14, 20, 21, 27 and 28; the play has 2 p.m. matinees on May 15, 22 and 28.

Tickets are available at Pet Food Gone Wild, 2415 Southern Blvd., and Beast & Nugget’s Doggy Day Care, 4035 Peggy Road, as well as online at rr-cc.org/buy-tickets.

On show days, tickets go on sale at the theatre one hour before show time.