Longtime children’s theater producer spun humorous fairy tales | Local News

Rebecca Morgan spent much of her childhood at a public library in Kansas City, Kan., losing herself in myths and fables.

“They were just a wonderful place for me to live my childhood, so I want other kids to be able to live there, too,” the longtime Santa Fe children’s theater producer told The New Mexican in 2009.

Morgan, 69, died of cancer April 5 at the University of Kansas Hospital, where she had gone for treatment earlier this year.

Known to some as the matriarch of local children’s theater, Morgan co-founded Southwest Children’s Theatre in the mid-1980s.

The company produced stage adaptations of fairy tales and comic mysteries featuring child, teen and adult performers until a few years ago.

Those shows drew on fairy tales and nursery rhymes — such as Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and Puss in Boots — for inspiration.

But Morgan, who possessed a quirky sense of humor and an exuberant sense of theatrical passion, imbued them with her own personal touches.

Mixing and mismatching such stories was part of the fun. If she wanted to convey an environmental message, what better way than with Snow White and the Seven Conservationists?

And who cared, really, if her production of The Emperor’s Ugly Daughter was one part Rapunzel and one part The Ugly Duckling? It was the moral of the story — beauty is not just skin deep — that mattered in the end.

The world Morgan created was one of friendly monsters, confused heroes, determined lasses, pun-spouting jesters, and kings and queens who were not particularly bright.

These characters often engaged in slapstick shenanigans and comic wordplay that couldn’t be found in the original fables.

“It was definitely a land of enchantment when she worked,” said Joanna Becker, who performed as a child in about 20 plays for Morgan starting in the mid-1990s.

Playing a genie in a stage production of Aladdin, Becker got to emerge in a cloud of smoke from the trap door at the Santa Fe Playhouse.

Looking back on that production with its colorful costumes, sets and props evoking another world, Becker said, “It was all just a fairy tale.”

But professional decorum was expected and maintained.

Morgan taught her students how to enunciate correctly, how to accept criticism and how to strive to be better actors so they could get a shot at playing larger, more challenging roles.

“Rebecca demanded nothing short of perfection, even from children, because she believed we could do it. She believed in every single one of us,” said Jeni Nelson, another of Morgan’s former child actors.

Morgan’s theater program, Nelson said, “was intense. It set you up to be a success. We were professional actors as children, and that was huge.

“I knew how to take criticism and critique and pick myself up and do it again.”

Morgan was teaching important life lessons, Nelson said.

Becker’s mother, Mary Becker, who made props and costumes for Morgan’s shows when her daughter was performing, said Morgan had an innate ability to instill a sense of confidence in actors.

“She gave them the feeing, ‘I can do this,’ ” Mary Becker said.

Still, Morgan was known to be prickly with those who distracted her from putting on a show.

As a result, friend and theater collaborator JoJo Tarnoff and Celeste Allerton, Morgan’s partner for decades, usually stepped in to quell potential disturbances with adults.

“She got along better with children than she did with adults,” Tarnoff said of Morgan.

Morgan and Allerton, who died in 2018, came to Santa Fe in 1975.

Morgan earned a degree in education from the Teacher’s College at Emporia State University in Kansas and briefly taught high school drama and debate in that state before moving to Santa Fe, where she initially worked as a real estate agent.

She had a passion for Betty Boop collectibles and Barbie dolls, Tarnoff said.

She also liked to sew, travel, create and dream.

After falling ill late last year, Morgan asked Tarnoff and her husband, Jeff, to come to her Santa Fe home to witness her signing her will.

“This is just a precaution,” Morgan told the Tarnoffs in an effort to appease their concerns. “I’m coming back.”

Tarnoff said though the company had been on hiatus during the pandemic, Morgan planned to produce more shows. She and her husband plan to keep the group operating.

Morgan is survived by two sisters, as well as five nieces and nephews.

Tarnoff said she hopes to organize a local memorial to honor Morgan’s life and work.

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