Imagine the effect on the city's musical heritage if two-thirds of the its largest music clubs shut down. That, in effect, is what will happen soon in New Orleans' live theater community. Le Chat Noir, the elegant cabaret space on St. Charles Avenue, will hold its final performances this weekend after more than a decade of presenting top-flight entertainment in New Orleans. At the same time, the ongoing battle over the financially troubled Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre means the iconic French Quarter venue will be shuttered until at least fall 2012. Le Petit going dark isn't just a loss for those who enjoy professionally produced comedies, dramas and musicals in the ambience of the Quarter. It's also a big hit to New Orleanians who work in the theatrical arts. The fight over Le Petit's future — which reverberates across the theater community — couldn't come at a worse time.
These are parlous times for the New Orleans theater scene. Earlier this year, Le Petit abruptly canceled its 2011 season and announced it will not stage shows until fall 2012 at the earliest. This weekend's closure of Barbara Motley's Le Chat Noir, where hundreds of local artists have worked since 1999, signals the end of a singular theatrical vision in New Orleans. Le Chat's stage was broad enough to include New York stars as well as up-and-coming local talent. Over the years, Le Chat presented dozens of shows written and performed by and for New Orleanians. It also gave theater people and their fans a place to bond after performances.
By itself, the closing of Le Chat is a blow to the local stage community, but combined with the shuttering of Le Petit for more than a year it leaves only Southern Rep as one of the Big Three stages in town. Simply put, this is not a good time for Le Petit's board and its support guild to be at each other's throats.
For those who aren't familiar with the plot: After several high-profile fundraisers failed to ameliorate Le Petit's debt problems, the theater's board of directors devised a plan to sell 60 percent of the building to restaurateur Dickie Brennan. The main stage would remain intact, but much of the rest of the building would become a restaurant. The sale was imperative, the board says, because vendors have not been paid and the theater was in danger of defaulting on a $700,000 mortgage. Furthermore, the structure needs $1 million in repairs. The $3 million Brennan deal would solve both problems. In the last year, the board staged several high-profile celebrity fundraisers; those efforts stanched immediate financial issues but did little for the long-term viability of the theater.
For its part, the Le Petit support guild questions the Brennan deal. It says the board has been unwilling to entertain other offers and blasts what it calls the secrecy behind the deal with the restaurateur. A group called Save Le Petit has gathered what it says are 1,600 signatures of concerned patrons — and has gone to court to block the Brennan purchase. A hearing on their restraining order is set for July 11.
Is the Brennan proposal the best possible solution for Le Petit's woes? Perhaps, but the secrecy with which the board negotiated the deal gave many of Le Petit's supporters pause. Conversely, some in the Save Le Petit camp have made their dissent way too personal, ignoring the reality that they're all going to have to work together when the dust settles. All in all, this unfolding drama has been, well, too melodramatic.
New Orleans is too small for such backbiting — and the situation too precarious. When Le Petit opened at its present location 49 years ago, it had 3,000 subscribers; today it has roughly 700, according to Save Le Petit. The theater's guild says it aims to rebuild the subscriber base, which should be doable given the many people who claim to love the theater. Perhaps they can take a leaf from the New Orleans Hornets, which mounted the successful "I'm In" campaign to show that the team's continued presence matters to people across the city.
Both sides of the Le Petit battle need to remember that it's easier to keep what you have than to regain what you've lost.