An inclusive organization based in Corrales called Heartstrings Theatre Company is preparing a musical production of “Matilda” after emerging from a two-year hiatus last year. The production will premiere on July 21 at the Sky Room at Campus Park in Rio Rancho.
The 501(c)(3) nonprofit invites children ages 5-18 to perform several times a year, regardless of skill level, race, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, income level or personal background.
Heartstrings Theatre Company artistic director Somer Sloan founded the company eight years ago while she was in the process of getting certified to teach drama.
“Our heart is really to make theater for all kids. And I think one of my favorite things about what we’re doing now is creating a safe place where students can actually succeed,” Sloan said.
The company has taken steps to promote inclusivity inside and outside of the community. Earlier this year, it partnered with the New Mexico Autism Society to put on its first sensory-friendly show.
The students performed a production of “Treasure Island” that included dimmer lighting, a smaller audience and fewer sound cues. The facility is also wheelchair-accessible, and several performers in the past and present have been wheelchair users.
Sloan said that the biggest obstacles Heartstrings encountered were during the pandemic. In addition to the usual challenges that many people faced starting in 2020, Heartstrings also experienced loss when instructor Jackson Koewler died in a car crash.
“He was one of my best friends,” Sloan said. “He was a big part of Heartstrings.”
During this time, the company was also turned away by the church it was rehearsing at due to conflict regarding LGBT+ issues. Several instructors moved away, and the company was unsure whether it had enough funding to continue.
“We really lost everything,” Sloan said.
But Heartstrings Theatre is still standing and now rehearses at Corrales Elementary. In June 2022, Sloan said that the company decided to try to reopen one more time.
“We felt like we needed to try, and we wanted to honor Jackson,” Sloan said. “So we were going to do it, for him.”
This year, the company has its highest enrollment, with about 200 students. It had to turn away students for the first time for this summer’s production due to an abundance of interested students.
Sloan emphasized that the company wouldn’t turn away students for any other reason, including finances. Several students participate for free, and audience members in the past have been offered a pay-what-you-can deal.
“Every student, whether or not they can pay, gets to be a part of our show,” Sloan said. “We don’t want theater to just be for kids that can afford it. We want any kid that wants to do it to be able to do it. So I think it levels the playing field for them.”
The company is also LGBT+ inclusive, and students are welcome to share their pronouns and be open about their identities. Sloan said that she strives to create a safe space for members of the community.
“We’ve gone as far as literally moving buildings so that our students can be safe,” Sloan said. “I hope and pray that our LGBT+ students feel seen and known.”
She also puts an emphasis on pushing kids to perform well while feeling comfortable in the space they’re in.
“I think sometimes we teach down when we need to be teaching up, because we’re constantly amazed at the level kids will rise to when they’re properly trained, and when they are taught what it means to be a great performer and actor on stage,” Sloan said.
Zach Garcia, 14, has learned what that means through Heartstrings. He has been with the organization for several years and has now landed his biggest role as Trunchbull. Garcia is one of the older students in the production and said that he had been hoping to get the role as a villain.
“It’s great to see how they will come up with ways to outwit the hero,” Garcia said.
Garcia sings and acts in this summer’s production and has a lead role in several musical numbers. He said that theater plays an important role in his own life.
“We need theater, because it gives us triumphant heroes and people who come back and stare evil dead in the eye,” Garcia said.
In addition to helping out her own students, Sloan makes an effort to help out the community. The company donated bunk beds from its past productions to Beds4Kidz, and it pays for student scholarships in addition to accepting donations.
“We need joy right now in the world. And we need goodness and innocence and hope,” she said. “So I think that the more that we build that here and create that here, I think it ripples out into the community.”