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Renaissance Period 

One of the perennial local problems when it comes to theater is theaters. There aren't enough places to put on a show. Everyone heaves a sigh of relief when a new theater opens (and goes into mourning when we lose one -- like the late, lamented Pickery). Recently, the situation has changed somewhat, so it may be a good time to review the scene.

First, we can congratulate ourselves on the last batch of upstarts -- which have since become familiar stand-bys. True Brew, the Shim Sham Club and le chat noir strutted onto the scene with more than the usual flair -- offering well-appointed settings and service in addition to memorable presentations. At these impressive establishments, you might almost be seduced into thinking New Orleans was a "normal" city, like Chicago or San Francisco -- that is to say, capable of the necessary modicum of planning, organization and bookkeeping required to sustain show business (in the best sense of the word). Let us pause to give thanks to a benevolent creator and to some savvy entrepreneurs for the continued existence of these glorious exceptions to the oft-repeated dictum, "the Third World starts here."

Perhaps, we also should include the venerable Southern Rep in the above group, for it also boasts a happy mixture of comfortable setting and adventurous offerings -- and recent shifts in the organization made us all painfully aware that it also could be lost.

But, on to the "new wave" of theaters. One group is what you might call "low-rent chic." In these endeavors -- born of youthful bohemian energy -- the only frills are extravagance of spirit. Nothing is so like the pre-renovation Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), when it first took shape in an old warehouse, than the Pickery or the A.R.K. (or the A.R.K.'s short-lived predecessor, The Rooster). By the same token, nothing points out how inexorably and completely the CAC has changed since then. For two handmade, low-tech, wildly active theaters were renovated into a pair of state-of-the-art, up-to-code theaters on which few plays are ever seen. The A.R.K., the surviving member of the youthful, no-frills outburst, lacks heating and air conditioning -- so it is a fair-weather friend. But it has certainly proved a boon for those seeking to try out or to experience the cutting edge.

A further outpost of the counter-culture is Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, formerly known as Dryades Street -- that most melodious of locations! Zeitgeist, back when it was on Magazine Street, mounted some extraordinary productions in its upstairs room. Currently, while there have been some interesting shows, the attempt to run multiple functions in one large, open space has hampered the theatrical efforts. And then, there are the problems of the neighborhood itself. Will audiences come? Or will fear and habit keep them away? The jury is still out on that one.

But some other energetic organizations have also set up shop in that same corridor and, if the dream works, this strip could become a thriving little arts district with a promising new cultural mix. The Ashé Cultural Center sports a stage and the Neighborhood Gallery just opened a charming, if rudimentary, storefront theater. Both Ashé and the Neighborhood Gallery are predominantly African American in outlook and programming -- just as Zeitgeist springs from a predominantly white bohemian impulse. But this is a new millennium; there are new possibilities, and the very proximity calls out for new combinations and exchanges.

Speaking of African-American efforts, I am amazed at the sudden mushrooming of such theaters. There was a long fallow period, after the heyday of Dashiki and Free Southern. Now, in what seems like the blink of an eye, the whole scene is re-invigorated. The Anthony Bean Community Theater, after two successful seasons, appears to be safely established. With his Riverbend location, Artistic Director Bean has no public skittishness to fight, and a clever use of local celebrities has served to bring his fledgling theater into the public eye.

Meanwhile, another constituency has claimed a stage. The Cow Pokes bar, on Marigny Street and St. Claude Avenue, has given over its back room for dramas with gay and lesbian themes.

Finally, some educational institutions are reaching out to the theater community. UNO recently took over the classically columned Scottish Rites Temple on Carondelet Street in the CBD, with the intention of turning it into a public-outreach theater. This summer, Delfeayo Marsalis mounted his annual kid's musical there, and we hear the university is planning more extensive and ambitious undertakings. Also, NOCCA is offering its Bywater building -- spanking-new and with convenient parking -- to outside groups. We've already had Wendell Pierce's acclaimed Jitney as a result.

Looking at theater spaces, as we roll into spring, the glass seems half full, once again.

click to enlarge Neighborhood Gallery co-founders Sandra Berry and Joshua Walker have helped Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard turn into a promising strip of cutting-edge theater.
  • Neighborhood Gallery co-founders Sandra Berry and Joshua Walker have helped Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard turn into a promising strip of cutting-edge theater.
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