Theater, like most everything else, was knocked for a loop by Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. For months, stages were dark, and many actors were displaced and scattered. Le Petit Theatre, Southern Rep, the Jefferson Performing Arts Society, Anthony Bean Community Theater, the Contemporary Arts Center and others closed for a time. Ryan Rilette, the artistic director of Southern Rep at the time, estimated a quarter of his audience lost their homes. Le Petit's then-artistic director Sonny Borey gazed on a newly constructed orchestra pit transformed into a bayou. True Brew was looted and never recovered.
Naturally, the greatest man-made disaster in U. S. history got attention on stage. Eminent Crescent City writer John Biguenet (pictured) penned Shotgun, which premiered at Southern Rep. A study of dislocation after the storm, the play featured a newly homeless white man and his son renting an apartment from a black woman, and racial tensions confront interracial attraction. The Classical Theatre of Harlem produced a version of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, which was performed outdoors amid the devastation of the Lower 9th Ward. Beckett's grim existential humor seemed right at home, partly due to a starring performance by NOCCA graduate Wendell Pierce (one of the stars of David Simon's Treme). More recently, Go Ye Therefore ... by Kathy Randels' ArtSpot Productions, was another outdoor performance. A flood-damaged house in Lakeview served a sprawling set for Randels and collaborator Rebecca Mwase.
Among the positive developments since Katrina are the opening of new theaters and realignments of established ones. Young actors and writers, including the NOLA Project's members, moved here and expanded the city's professional theater offerings. Perry Martin produced The Kingfish, starring John "Spud" McConnell at the Roosevelt Hotel, Long's former hangout and headquarters. Martin took the show to the prestigious Actor's Theater of Louisville, Ky. He also opened the Bayou Playhouse on Bayou Lafourche in Lockport. Actor's Theater of New Orleans opened and is marking its fifth anniversary.
After years of gypsy-like wandering, Cripple Creek Theater has taken up residence at the AllWays Lounge and Theater. This cabaret spot has improved its decor and comfort bit by bit. It's also continued to feature challenging shows. Le Chat Noir and Southern Rep have entered a partnership that has Southern Rep handling much of the programming at the cabaret.
Another promising new addition is the New Orleans Fringe Festival. This potpourri of alternative works got its start in 2008 and has grown steadily. It makes use of conventional and unconventional performance spaces in the Bywater/St. Claude Avenue area for five days in November. Co-founder Kristen Evans says applications from national and international groups poured in for the 2010 festival.
The state passed tax credits for theater similar to the program for film. Projects taking advantage of the program have included the pre-Broadway run of White Noise in 2009, and construction of theater space in the expansion of the National World War II Museum.
In 2007, ground was broken next to Zephyr field on Airline Highway for the Jefferson Performing Arts Center, which will include a 1,000-seat auditorium. It will be run by SMG, the company that manages the Louisiana Superdome.
The revitalization of the theater scene leaves too many names and projects to mention here, but offers much for theatergoers to explore and enjoy. — Dalt Wonk