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    Posted September 11, 2006

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The Show Goes On in New Orleans

By John Bostic

Mahalia Jackson Theater and the Louis Armstrong Park in front of the theater after the storm. Notice the absence of vegetation.
Photo-Janet Wilson, Director of Marketing and PR-New Orleans Opera

One year has passed since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. It has been a year of extreme sacrifice and frustration for the many people who call this region home. Over the year, we have received aid and sympathy from people of all economic and social levels and feel grateful and most fortunate for we could not have survived to this point without it. At this time, the nation has pretty much exhausted its support, which is completely understandable. There are, however, literally tens of thousands of homes and businesses that haven't been able to even start the rebuilding process. In addition, many of the brave residents who have returned (less than half who were here before the storm) are now finding the situation too daunting and are leaving. It is in this climate that a core group of individuals and organizations, including a great many artists, has dedicated themselves to rebuilding what was once a beautiful and vibrant southern lady.

I have spoken to many professional theatre artists about their struggles and triumphs. Most theatres in our area suffered the loss of some sort of space, either performing or office. The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane, also known as New Orleans' Shakespeare Festival, lost all of its archival materials when the basement offices on Tulane's campus flooded during the storm. The Sanger Theatre-New Orleans' road house; the Contemporary Arts Center Theatre; the Orpheus; the Mahalia Jackson Theatre, where the New Orleans Opera was housed, and several smaller venues like the True Brew Playhouse, all sustained significant damage and are still in the process of renovations which could take another year. Southern Repertory didn't lose space to the storm but its offices and rehearsal space were taken over by recovery groups. After several months, they have found new administrative space, at great expense, and are having the added inconvenience of building their shows off-site. Le Petit Theatre De Vieux Carre was in the middle of a major renovation. Since the storm, construction work has been very expensive and hard to secure, which has delayed the re-opening until this coming Fall.

Help Wanted

Space is a major issue for everyone in the recovery zone. The lack of affordable housing has driven off many of the theatre community's designers and actors. The actors who are here are busy and the reduced number of professionals has given the remaining ones extra work. However, most of the actors are living in FEMA trailers and have no idea when or how they are going to be able to get their homes repaired. Designers and technicians are in high demand. Unskilled labor can work in the construction field at $25/hour so most theatres can't even find assistance with set building, forcing administrative staff to participate in all aspects of getting the show up. Experienced union stage managers have been very scarce and the hope is that more will come back soon.

Pumps working to remove water and debris from the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival's Offices
Photo by Brad Robbert, Operations Director

Loss is the key word here. Along with the loss of housing, there is the loss of friends, families, schools, businesses, corporations, funding, tourists and many of the subscribers. When Southern Repertory examined its mailing list, over 25% of its subscribers were in areas that were totally devastated. People who have been displaced, are living in trailers for the most part and mail is being returned to sender. In addition, there is no bulk mail in the city. This has forced theatres to find other more expensive ways to reach audiences. Local critic, David Cuthbert, has become more of a voice for the arts than a critic since the storm. His column is often the only way to let people know where groups have moved and what they are doing.

Corporate funding has started to return, but the amount lost is staggering. The general consensus is that it will take two to three years for most of the theatres in the area to get back to the same financial place they were before the storm.

Positive Signs

On the positive side, it is quite exciting that during this time of great upheaval, New Orleans' theatre community has rallied to produce some fine work. In the last few months, many have conquered the odds and produced their entire summer seasons and have begun work on next year. Both Tulane Summer Lyric Theatre and The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane had to shorten their seasons due to Tulane's extended school year; however, both played to packed houses. The Lyric produced two shows, including a well-received revival of BYE, BYE BIRDIE!, while the Shakespeare Festival produced three works by the Bard and toured ten devastated parishes in the spring, despite the untimely death of one of their premier actors at age 41. The young NOLA Project, led by NYU grad student Andrew Larimer, produced a second successful summer season playing to crowds of up to 300 at the Lakefront and the New Orleans Museum of Arts. The Jefferson Performing Arts Center reopened in the spring for its last five productions. And after eight months, Southern Repertory reopened with the comedy KIMBERLY AKIMBO and went on to house THE LAST MADAME and ALL NIGHT STRUT. All productions played to sold-out or nearly sold-out houses. In addition, several other groups, including All Kinds of Theatre and TAP Productions, produced various theatrical works in the area.

Photo by Brad Robbert

Meanwhile in Baton Rouge, the Swine Place reduced its four show main stage season to three, replacing two productions with an original work, TENNESSEE IN QUARTER TIME. Through an agreement with the Tennessee Williams Estate, Artistic Director John Dennis took scenes from various plays and made a stirring and heartfelt tribute to New Orleans through the voice of Tennessee Williams. The show raised money for the New Orleans theater community. After the initial impact of the storm, the theatre decided to make cuts in the size of shows and the number of offerings, to address the possible unknown economic effects of the storm. At this time, Baton Rouge has had an enormous influx of people. The theatre is in the process of trying new ways to reach this potentially new audience. Because the storm came after fundraising for last season was well on its way, the full financial impact of the storm will not be realized for at least a year, but they are optimistic. The 2006-2007 season opens on November 1.

New Orleans Shakespeare Festival's Offices after flood waters have been pumped out
Photo by Brad Robbert, Operations Director

As for the future, Southern Repertory is planning eight shows in two series for 2006-2007. They will be producing four original works, including General Director Ryan Rilette's production of THE SUNKEN LIVING ROOM, which won the outstanding Drama award from the Miami Sun Post, when it was co-produced with New Theatre in Coral Gables Florida last spring. The second "City Series" will be four shows produced by local theatre groups, using the Southern Repertory space. The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane will be touring ROMEO AND JULIET this fall, as well as producing several teacher workshops for the enrichment of area children. JPAS has a full season and will open URINETOWN in September/October at about the same time that Le Petit's THE FULL MONTY will re-open their large theatre space in the quarter. Many other theatres, including the Anthony Bean, which has tentatively said it will produce one of August Wilson's plays for the fall, may be coming back, but like many things in this area, communication is difficult at best. Phone numbers that have been the same for years are disconnected. Email addresses are no longer the same. Internet services have changed and sites are unavailable or not updated. Because of this, some of our most reliable theatres from the past still cannot be reached. Funds are short and the obstacles high, but the dedicated artists of our city continue to move forward. It is going to be at least a couple of years before the destiny of most theatres is finally known but most producers are "cautiously optimistic."

You Can Help

So, how can Equity members help? Well, Southern Repertory Director Ryan Rilette suggests you volunteer at a theatre near you. By helping any part of the community, we help the whole. Also, come down and see us. Tulane Shakespeare Director Aimee Michel suggests coming and seeing New Orleans first hand. It is a great time to be a tourist here. The tourism industry has recovered but the tourists aren't back. The revenue will help all of us rebuild. Or come and help our actors rebuild their homes. We can always use the extra hands. Finally, everyone I talked to said "Thank you". Thank you for your concern, support and prayers over the last year. We couldn't have survived without them!

John Bostic has been a member of Actors' Equity since 1992. He has performed principal roles in musicals, dramas and comedies in theatres along the East Coast, throughout the South and in Europe and is currently based in Hammond Louisiana.

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