During July's closing weekend at Le Chat Noir — the cabaret/theater that brought a touch of Manhattan bandbox glamour to a previously unglamorous block of the Warehouse Arts District — many of Le Chat's signature performers took to the stage to salute the theater in song. But one act had to be first on the bill: Waiting Around, a musical revue about the New Orleans restaurant industry, written by local tunesmith Harry Mayronne Jr. and actor-musician RIcky Graham.
The cast wasn't being temperamental by going first and leaving immediately thereafter; it was Waiting Around's opening night, and they needed to leave pronto to make their first curtain across town. Two years ago, the natural home for a lyrically witty revue like Waiting Around would have been Le Chat Noir, or perhaps the community-theater dowager queen of the French Quarter, Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre. But Le Chat was shuttering after 11 years, and Le Petit, citing extraordinary financial difficulties, had completely shut down operations at the start of its 2011 season — leaving Southern Repertory Theater as the only one of the "big three" still operating.
So a show whose natural audience would seem more piano bar than punk bar was opening at the AllWays Lounge on St. Claude Avenue in the Faubourg Marigny — in a space that not long ago was a gay country-western saloon called Cowpokes. Moreover, Waiting Around turned out to be a success, selling out shows and adding performances for an audience that combined the local stage world's old guard with some of its more avant-garde members.
"I looked around at the crowd and thought, 'I could be at any theater.' This was not [AllWays'] usual gang," says Aimee Hayes, Southern Rep's artistic director. "These people had ventured out and are feeling comfortable, because the play is not experimental.
"It's like a gateway show," Hayes says, laughing.
In many ways, Waiting Around symbolizes the current passing of the baton in the New Orleans theater scene — from the established Warehouse Arts District to the experimental Marigny arts district, from St. Charles Avenue to St. Claude Avenue and beyond.
Le Petit's members voted Aug. 16 to allow its board to sell off 60 percent of the theater to restaurateur Dickie Brennan in a bid for financial stability; the plan is to begin staging shows again in late 2012. Meanwhile, Le Chat Noir proprietor Barbara Motley says Le Chat may take some other form at some other time, but the cabaret on St. Charles is closed. This means the curtain is down at two of the biggest local regional theaters for some time to come.
"I think the St. Claude arts area is, right now, the leader in theatrical innovation," says A.J. Allegra, who's been artistic director of The NOLA Project theater company since 2009. "I feel there's a missing center right now, a little bit. ... Right now New Orleans has gone from 'beacon' theaters and very little experimentation to just the opposite, and now we have very little traditional base."
"It's the theaters in the middle that are disappearing," says Motley, who opened Le Chat Noir in 1999 as a home for cabaret, but soon embraced all sorts of performances, from Tony Award-winning New York chanteuses to the ragtag, drag-heavy parodic comedies staged by the local Running With Scissors troupe. "There will always be guerrilla theater with energetic young people. And there will always be touring Broadway," Motley adds. "But the theaters in the middle have a staff, overhead and a well-maintained facility.
"And that costs money."
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Dennis Monn was at the bar of the AllWays Lounge, returning phone reservations for the final weekend of Waiting Around. He was wearing a holey Bruce Springsteen tour shirt, cutoffs and a baseball cap that read BULLY. "It really sucks Le Chat is gone — but as far as the influx of people who have come here since it's closed, I'm not complaining," he says, lighting the latest in a chain of American Spirits.
Monn came to New Orleans in 2001. He says he had little success penetrating the established theater scene. "I would walk by Le Petit every day to see if I could get involved over there, but there was never anyone there," he says. "Finally there was an older lady there one day. I told her, 'I'll usher, I'll build sets,' and she just said 'No.'" He ended up at AllWays' predecessor, the gay bar called Cowpokes, which occasionally served up shows in a back room theater, along with country-western dancing and other entertainments up front. "They did some really awful shows, but I just wanted to be involved so badly," Monn says. In the following years, Monn established himself on the fledgling Marigny stage scene; The Turd, an evening of short plays, sold out five nights at the now-shuttered Sidearm Gallery. "There was so much theater in the Marigny and Bywater that the rest of the city had no idea about," he says.
When Monn took over Cowpokes in 2008, he renovated it, downplaying the cowpoke theme for a more New Orleans-after-dark feel. The building has a 100-seat playhouse down a hall from the bar (both were revamped), and the barroom itself is often used for shows, such as the AllWays' acclaimed production of The Threepenny Opera.
Next up after Waiting Around was a "twisted, bloody shock-rock musical" titled La Sirena (now running through Aug. 28). The stars include Vatican Lokey, a familiar performer at Le Petit and Tulane University's Summer Lyric Theater, as well as Otter, the actress/artist/personality who opened the Bywater performance space Backyard Ballroom in 2007 in, well, her backyard.
"You're not going to see Otter in Damn Yankees," Monn says, laughing. "Ever."
The transformation of the Marigny/Bywater into a theater district will probably be sped on by the closing of downtown theaters — but the area has been building its stages for about a decade. Besides the AllWays and the Backyard Ballroom, the theatrical district on and around St. Claude Avenue also includes the Shadowbox Theatre (inside the old Marquer Pharmacy) and the Mudlark Public Theatre, which hosts everything from puppet theater to drag-king shows. St. Roch's Sidearm Gallery closed a couple of years ago. Bars like the Hi-Ho Lounge and "spare spaces" like Lord David's Skull Club also have hosted events. A few blocks closer to the river is the Nims Theater inside the New Orleans Center of Contemporary Arts (NOCCA), which recently presented comic actor Ricky Graham's latest revue. Graham, a staple on both the Le Chat and Le Petit stages, was appearing at NOCCA for the first time, billing his show as "Le Chat Noir in Exile."
Graham, a New Orleans actor since the 1970s (and one of the few locals who makes his entire living from stagework), rose to prominence in the 1980s with campy comedy shows at the now-defunct Mint bar on Esplanade Avenue, often with his cohort Becky Allen. "We're back to bar theater again," he says.
"My audience is kind of middle-class — what I call the '70118s' — and they think the [Marigny-Bywater] neighborhood is totally iffy," Graham adds. "But there are quite a few of them who are really hip. You can't always count on that, but to say they won't come out [to the Bywater] is an easy excuse."
Allegra, who was assistant director of Waiting Around, calls it "a very Le Chat show," adding, "I didn't know if Uptown ladies would be going to this."
But Monn says he was pleased by the response to the show: sold-out houses, featuring a good number of Graham's "70118s." "Some of the older ladies will call and say, 'Is there parking? Can I get a cocktail?'" (The answer: yes and yes.) "And I'll walk them to their cars after the show, but they don't tend to stick around after it's over."
Still, Motley is skeptical about the new theater district's ability to draw the Uptown crowd in any significant numbers, at least on a regular basis. "I'm a pragmatist, as opposed to an optimist. You can barely get [the Uptown crowd] to come downtown," she says. "That audience is going to be reclaimed by Le Petit when they reopen, and Southern Rep is going to make some inroads. ... It has to have enough of a degree of 'upscale' where people feel OK to dress up if they want."
An August 2008 story in the Associated Press, "New Orleans Theater Sees a Post-Katrina Boom," quoted actress Rikki Gee as saying, "We're on the cusp of a renaissance," but since then the renaissance has been more of an explosion, at least in alternative theater. That year saw the debut of the New Orleans Fringe Festival (founded by Monn and Kristen Evans), which began with 41 groups from around the country performing in spare spaces mostly around the Marigny and Bywater; by 2010, the third Fringe Fest presented 180 performances of some 60 different shows around town in five days, on a budget of $70,000.
The success of the Fringe is representative of the growth among smaller stages and independent theater companies. A year-old Warehouse District performance space, the Elm Theater, swept the 2011 Big Easy Awards for its acclaimed production of the drama Blackbird. In 2007 and 2009, it was InsideOut Productions' The Woolgatherer and Coyote on a Fence, respectively, that garnered the Best Drama honor. The Anthony Bean Community Theatre had one of its biggest hits ever earlier this year with Reflections, a drama starring former City Councilman Oliver Thomas as himself. Actor's Theater in Metairie opened just before Hurricane Katrina and was presenting a full schedule by November 2005. Junebug Productions, an African-American theater company since 1980, has received a shot in the arm with new artistic director Gamal Chasten. Several theater companies with no fixed home have sprung up, like Theatre 13, Goat in the Road and Cripple Creek Players, while ArtSpot and Mondo Bizarro are two companies that have often teamed up to present their challenging and critically acclaimed shows in unconventional spaces.
Meanwhile, the traditional musical format at which Le Petit specialized — once the backbone of local theater — has mostly vanished from New Orleans stages, having been ceded to the Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS) and Kenner's Rivertown Repertory Theatre. Rivertown opens its season Sept. 16 with Chicago. While JPAS' 34th season features familiar titles (Fiddler on the Roof, Hairspray) along with more recent musicals (The Light in the Piazza, The Drowsy Chaperone, Xanadu) that might once have made their local debut in the French Quarter. (In fact, The Drowsy Chaperone had been scheduled to make its local premiere at Le Petit Theatre in April.)
JPAS has been growing in recent years — its new season of productions will take it to 12 theaters (including a run of The Light in the Piazza at Tulane University's Dixon Hall in March 2012) — but artistic director Dennis Assaf says the growth came before any upheaval in the Orleans Parish theater scene. "I would guess there'd be a certain gravitational pull," Assaf says, "but we haven't really noticed a trend."
With so much change, and with stages all over the city, it's not only actors, but audiences, that will be forced to adapt.
"The only way to be successful in New Orleans theater is to create an event," says Fred Nuccio, whose new Mid-City Theatre will open in late August or early September ("depending on permits," Nuccio says) with two shows: the recent Broadway hit A Steady Rain, along with Late Nite Catechism, the Catholic-school comedy that's proved a durable favorite with local audiences.
The 80-seat Mid-City Theatre — located in an old Doerr's furniture warehouse on Toulouse Street, behind the American Can Apartments — will soon have a full schedule: evening performances Thursday through Sunday, a playwriting workshop on Mondays, cabaret and musical events on Wednesdays, children's theater on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and even what Nuccio envisions as a sort of Inside the Actor's Studio series, but featuring local musicians. Phase two will include a dance studio and rehearsal space.
Helping him get it off the ground is Su Gonczy, a familiar behind-the-scenes name in local theater, most recently as the lighting designer and all-around backstage jill-of-all-trades at Le Chat Noir. Stage aficionados may not be accustomed to looking for entertainment on the banks of Bayou St. John, but Gonczy says she expects audiences to discover the Mid-City Theatre quickly.
"Every time the page turns [in local theater], people seek it out and find it," Gonczy says.
The transitions in New Orleans theater are part of a national trend in regional theater, Hayes says: younger audiences, smaller budgets, lower ticket prices. The old season-subscription model has been falling away, not just in New Orleans, but around the country. (Several decades ago, Le Petit had 3,000 subscribers; today it has about 700.) Theaters have tried new models for selling tickets, including Facebook and Twitter discounts.
"Groupon did really well for us," says Southern Rep's Hayes. At JPAS, Assaf says, the theater has abandoned the old-fashioned pair-of-tickets, pick-a-date formula for subscriptions in favor of an open-ended model where patrons receive discounts on packages of 22, 18 or 10 tickets that can be used or combined on any date, in any configuration.
Another change: the retirement of David Cuthbert, the longtime theater critic and writer at The Times-Picayune. A major feature or rave review from Cuthbert could boost interest and attendance at Le Petit or Le Chat, but social media has been driving sales at the alt-theater houses. Actor/director Mandy Zirkenbach, one of the stars of Waiting Around, says actors' personal email lists are a big help in selling tickets.
"People want to know 'When are you [Mid-City Theatre] going to get a Facebook page?'" says Nuccio. "Not even a webpage so much any more — a Facebook page."
Funding models have also changed; the economic downturn means "no one gets grant money any more," Graham says. "But these smaller groups, they can design their shows for whatever spaces they need. One show gets done in a park in the Bywater, and the next production is done in someone's attic Uptown. Of course, I have no idea if they make money."
Money has been the crux of the problem at Le Petit Theatre, the French Quarter community theater that's been in continuous operation since 1916. When its board of governors abruptly canceled the remainder of the 2011 season right before Christmas 2010, the theater's financials were laid out before the public: a $700,000 mortgage, more than $1 million in needed repairs. The board's answer: selling 60 percent of the building to Brennan, who plans to build a theater-themed restaurant on the Chartres Street side of the building — a solution criticized by the theater's support guild and some in the local theater community. The disagreement has been rancorous at times. On Aug. 15, the board filed a restraining order against guild president Jim Walpole, who has been a vocal opponent of the sale; on Aug. 16, season ticket holders voted to allow the the board the right to sell the majority of the theater. The vote was 74-58.
At a July 26 meeting where the Le Petit board presented its plan to the public, actor and board member Bryan Batt showed Gambit some of the theater's ledgers. Its splashy musicals — Le Petit's longtime stock-in-trade — typically cost between $120,000 and $160,000 to mount. Many never recouped the money. "What we need to do is alternate comedies and dramas with the musicals," Batt said. "You can easily stage some decent plays for $15,000."
Meanwhile, the entire budget for The Threepenny Opera at the AllWays Lounge — its most ambitious production to date — was exactly $15,000, according to Monn.
"For me, it was like a million-dollar budget," he says. "And you know what? Everybody got paid."