7:30 p.m., the third Wednesday of the month
Le Chat Noir, 715 St. Charles Ave., 581-5812, www.cabaretlechatnoir.com
Lisa Shattuck, Brian Sands, Pat Bourgeois, James Bartelle and Madison Curry are five of the playwrights who will be writing in repertory for 6x6 (not pictured: Gabrielle Reisman).
One theme. Six playwrights. And a week to write an original 10-minute play. That's the formula behind 6x6, a monthly evening of entertainment that made its debut July 21 at Le Chat Noir and what show producer Mark Routhier calls "a relatively low-stakes evening of entertainment."
Routhier, a veteran of San Francisco's Magic Theatre, came to town in April to direct The Piano Teacher at Southern Repertory Theater and began work as the Southern Rep's associate artistic director in May. Routhier is one of the leaders of Southern Rep's new partnership with Le Chat Noir, and led a brainstorming session about what the St. Charles Avenue cabaret could do to attract audiences on Wednesday nights. 6x6 was the result.
"It's a format I borrowed — or stole — from San Francisco," Routhier says, laughing. "There we had 36 playwrights. You would get a topic on Friday and turn in a play on Tuesday, from which they would choose six to perform." Things are a bit more lenient in 6x6; the playwrights aren't in competition with each other, and they have a week to complete their plays. "It's got to be economical," Routhier points out, "because you've only got 10 pages."
The first repertory group of playwrights includes James Bartelle, Pat Bourgeois, Gabrielle Reisman, Brian Sands, Michael Aaron Santos and Lisa Shattuck. (Should someone not be able to fulfill his or her commitment, Madison Curry and Jim Fitzmorris are playwright "understudies.") Routhier, Chris Kaminstein and Ashley Sparks directed two plays each. Each writer has one 90-minute rehearsal with the cast the night before the show, a brief tech run-through immediately before the performance, and voila: instant theater, which the actors perform with minimal lighting and costuming, no sets and scripts in hand.
Since the rehearsals take place separately, the playwrights have no idea what the others have written — a process Shattuck calls "exciting. I love the challenge of it."
As theater in New Orleans seems to have grown exponentially since Hurricane Katrina, so has audience appetite for live performances. Under the new management of Gary Solomon Jr., the venerable Le Petit Theatre has vastly expanded its slate of offerings year-round. Southern Rep has added shows, and the new Wednesday series at Le Chat Noir continues the trend.
On the second Wednesday of each month, Le Chat has begun presenting Debauchery!, a campy, episodic "live-action soap opera" set Uptown and written by 6x6's Bourgeois. ("It's like The Carol Burnett Show, if the writers were all on hard drugs," Bourgeois says.) Fourth Wednesdays are reserved for "theater slams" — open-mic, spoken-word, anything-can-happen evenings of poetry, monologues and other performance.
All three Wednesday attractions are homemade New Orleans theater, and that's no accident. In San Francisco, Routhier had worked with the Magic Theatre, a nonprofit that only presents new works — by budding and established playwrights alike. Sam Shepard was the Magic's playwright-in-residence for eight years, and it's also debuted works by the likes of David Mamet, Jon Robin Baitz and Paula Vogel.
It's a formula that seems tailor-made for theatergoers like New Orleanians, who have always reacted well to original works by local playwrights about locals (Ricky Graham's ...And the Ball and All and Carl Walker's Native Tongues series being two of the most durable examples). Routhier, who says he's on a "steep learning curve" when it comes to the city, seems to have grasped that fact; he says the themes he'll assign local playwrights will be "very New Orleans-related," and the motif at the July 21 reading was the Animals' song "House of the Rising Sun."
The result? Six very different short plays, some with direct allusion to the theme and others that approached it more obliquely. The biggest audience response of the night seemed to be for Shattuck's "Ham Dance," a goofy, surrealist piece in which three prostitutes in their golden years defended their profession (and their proficiency in "the ham dance") for an unseen judge and jury as a ham swung above their heads. "1614 Esplanade," by Reisman, involved two weary hookers and a talking dog, while Bourgeois' "Turnabout is Fair Play" opened with the ghost of a Storyville madam haunting a modern-day man before going off in an inspired and entirely different direction.
Madison Curry used the song's line "a house in New Orleans" as a jumping-off point for a short drama about a New Yorker coming back to New Orleans to sell the family house. And both "One Foot On, One Foot Off" by Sands and "Top Hat" by James Bartelle followed the theme extremely loosely. A couple of the 6x6 plays seemed to be the seeds for a more polished production, while others fell in the category of a noble attempt — but each of them garnered some laughs in the right places, and the playwrights, who sat together on a back banquette, proclaimed themselves pleased with the result.
That thirst for new New Orleans theater? With minimal publicity, about 80 people turned out on a weeknight for the first 6x6 and gave the cast and playwrights an ovation, which left them beaming — and relieved.
"That's the angst of it," said Bourgeois, relaxing at the theater's bar after the show. "Not knowing how it's going to come together."