Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"To be honest, I don’t even know if we’re supposed to be in here."

Posted By on Tue, Jul 28, 2009 at 5:15 PM

On Friday, Creative Alliance of New Orleans’ startup arts and education colony Studio at Colton will officially disband, with no definitive word on its future plans. Closing the studio this week are two events that couldn’t be more fitting: a dedication ceremony (5 p.m. tomorrow) honoring the students and artists that collaborated on the Colton vestibule mural, a 13-panel project undertaken by Xavier Community Arts Program, Bottletree Productions, Young Aspirations/Young Artists, G. W. Carver High School and the New York 2 New Orleans Coalition; and the Cripple Creek Theatre Company's final two performances of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (8 p.m. Thursday-Friday; read Gambit's review here). Gambit sat down with Cripple Creek co-founder and director Andy Vaught during dress rehearsals to discuss the show, the company and the uncertain fate of Colton artists.

Give us a brief history of the Cripple Creek world.

We started out at 3 Ring Circus' (The Big Top Gallery) for the first two shows (in 2006). Our third show was in a public park (Washington Square). That was a fun one. Then we found Convergence (Center For the Arts) on Magazine (Street). They were just starting out too. We were in what is now the Swan River Yoga Studio for Waiting for Lefty. Then they moved upstairs, above the Jewel Grocery. When I first came down here, I had looked at St. Mark’s (Community Center). Those balconies — it’s just an amazing space. Inked a year deal with them, where we would pay them $10,000 for four shows. We wound up subletting one of those slots to ArtSpot (Productions) and MondoBizarro to do Flight. Then we did a show above the Jewel Gallery. That’s when the AC blew out. It was an attic production. I’m fine with [the heat] at this point. We’re going to give out free lemonade at the show.

This season we found [the Mount Calvary Fellowship Church]. We were able to do a lot with the space. They were really hands off with what we could do, so we had fundraisers. It was interesting having all-you-can-drink events in an old church. I wanted to call it the Temple of the Common Man. We weren’t there long enough to make the sign. Then we did Kingdom of Earth again at Le Petit, which was the first theater we were in. So this is actually the second theater we’ve ever been in. That was intense. There was just two shows, 130 people every night. I was like, “Why don’t we get this normally?” It was going to spoil us. Luckily that ended quickly, so we couldn’t get too used to it.

You guys get around.

[Laughs] Yeah, we’re Bedouins. Just a little bit of everywhere. I’ve been wanting to do this play since college. We agreed to do it, then it was about where we could do it. Thinking about the play, and thinking about, you’re watching a play falling apart in front of your face, and about these people struggling to keep it going. It seemed like this was the best place for it. Here’s this old, rustic — decrepit maybe — auditorium. We came in here, and there’s so much cool stuff. A lot of these chairs are just loose around here, so we’re using those in the show. We kind of came in here with the idea to use as much of Colton as we could in the show. It was a free space. That’s always really important. A lot of people think the Bywater is coming into its own as an art area. Marigny Theatre, Sidearm Gallery. Stuff along this strip is really popping up.

Tell me about The Skin of Our Teeth. It’s kind of got microcosms within microcosms.

I think the show itself is pretty perfect for New Orleans. Crap happens, and you have to just keep going. It’s never perfect. It’s weird, because it’s such an absurd play. Our Town’s very serious, and this one seems to be kind of, this guy just threw everything he could think of on a page. It’s these people dealing with disasters and history and culture. It’s all these things that people here have to deal with. And this building itself — I don’t know how old it is. There’s buildings like this all over New Orleans, and you can never get in them.

What’s next for Cripple Creek?

We’re hoping to be in the Fringe Festival for a play I wrote called Major Swelling’s Salvation Salve Medicine Show. It’s about a guy who’s hawking this salvation salve, and he brings Huey P. Long back from the dead. Then he enters into this epic confrontation with Bobby Jindal. And it’s a musical.

[Laughs] Of course it is. On a side note, have you kept up with the backstage drama surrounding White Noise? Can you imagine being the one guy standing between Cripple Creek and a successful show?

I probably have been that many times.

How did you come to Studio at Colton?

We had done one show here: Mondo Bizarro and ArtSpot did something called The Saint Plays a while ago. We were on a hall on the second floor, which was a different experience entirely. … We had sent an email. To be honest, I don’t even know if we’re supposed to be in here. We sent some stuff in, then we found out Colton was closing early. This run was supposed to go to Aug. 8. That was just passed down to me. (Board member) Joanna (Russo) was like, "You can do it here, just don’t expect anything." Which is fine. We’re kind of used to not having help. I hope we get to stay. We lock it up every night. This whole production kind of felt like skin of our teeth. Things keep happening that get in the way, which is fine. That’s probably the way it’s supposed to be.

Have you had any other involvement with the studio?

We had looked at spaces (here) at the beginning. It was a little too quick. We run on such a skeleton crew. It was always from the beginning, like, “You will lose this space.” Some things, I think, are great. It’s wonderful to have a space where people can go. But you come into this building, which has been neglected for years and years. And this isn’t even storm damage. It looks like the last time it was renovated was 1953 — because there’s a plaque on the door that says that.

What’s your take on the studio’s closing?

It was just such a massive project. I wonder if anyone could’ve done it. (Program Manager) Sarah (Hess) was the point person on getting people in here. She’s about to have a child. It’s like a ghost story at this point. You walk through the halls, and you have these spectral images of Michael Jackson around.

I think when they started out, they were going to give you this space in exchange for some kind of work with the kids. And there are classes going on; kids are in videos here a lot. There’s a guy who tunes pianos. There was a real kind of hands-on, grassroots element: Here are people who set up shop; they did what they could. They opened their doors and if people came in, that was great. Not everybody came in. I don’t know what else could’ve happened, really. If there was more money behind it, something could’ve happened. But there was no money to begin with. Two KIPP schools on the second floor? That’s the rumor I heard. I’m hoping that an RSD member will see this and they’ll be like, “Hey, why don’t you just take it?”

You have lots of friends in the Colton family. Have they talked to you about their plans going forward?

I think the arts community here — specifically talking about Colton — it’s going to get by. It’s going to survive, but you always kind of feel like you’re scraping by. In New Orleans you can do art. What’s so great about New Orleans is, anyone can do the art they want to do. There’s endless opportunity. The problem is, are you going to make a living at it? Or is it going to be successful? Is it going to be noticed anywhere outside of New Orleans? I don’t know what the answer is, but you got to keep slugging away.

I feel like there’s just no one here anymore. It’s like a ghost town. Joanna’s on the board. (MondoBizarro's) Nick Slie was on the board. You see people packing up every day, and you just wonder where they’re all going to go. Because I don’t think they’ll be able to start again, or to find another building like this. Unless the Catholic Church starts opening up some things. It’s interesting being in a theater where you don’t know if you’re supposed to be in here. They know we’re here. But last night, one of our actors was standing behind that wheel and a piece of chain fell from the ceiling. Almost hit him in the head. Things are kind of falling apart around us. So we just hope it lasts until the end.

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