Ryan Rilette watched his TV in horror that day in September when Canal Place burned. Rilette, the artistic director for Southern Rep -- the nonprofit theater company housed on the mall's third floor -- learned soon enough that his theater wasn't damaged in the blaze. But Southern Rep and a host of other local arts organizations still face a long road back from the dark period ushered in by Hurricane Katrina.
In his four seasons at Southern Rep, Rilette was recognized by the New Orleans theater community for consistently going the extra mile: bringing in top talent; showcasing professional-quality set, costume and lighting designs; and debuting exciting new works alongside innovative takes on the classics. All of which resulted in a vital, interesting theater that seemed well on its way to Rilette's goal of establishing Southern Rep as a regional repertory hub, filling the gap between Atlanta and Houston. The realization of that aim would be an exciting step forward for a city that, while known and loved as a setting for American theater, has always seen its dramatic allure far outstrip its dramatic productions.
"There are a lot of variables here, and it's going to change a lot, just within the community," Rilette says of local theater post-Katrina. "We've always looked for a certain level of training, and we just don't know if those people are back. Fewer professional actors are going to be able to live in the area. Set-construction people are probably making a ton of money building houses. People are going to survive by cutting expenses, and you can't charge more, so nonprofits might be doing lower-quality work. There's a lot of great community theater in New Orleans, but professionals, who have been paying everyone, are going to find it harder to navigate that line."
For now, Rilette says he's trying to maintain production values by choosing plays with smaller casts and sets that can meet the Southern Rep standard without overspending. Southern Rep has also lost its office space, which had been donated by the mall but is now being rented by the Small Business Administration.
In November, representatives of Canal Place told Rilette that the mall would reopen between mid-February and mid-April. To be safe, he scheduled rehearsals for Southern Rep's first post-Katrina production -- Kimberly Akimbo, starring Becky Allen, which opens May 3 -- to begin in April. Before Rilette gets there, though, he's got quite a to-do list. The only member left of what had been a staff of four full-timers and two part-timers, Rilette these days tries to balance fundraising, casting the two remaining supporting roles in the May show, hiring a tech crew, and finding a new office space, rehearsal space and scene shop -- all within seriously compromised means.
"As early as the day after the storm, we were putting out feelers around the country for Southern Rep," Rilette says by phone from Atlanta, where he's still living part time. "And we raised [$25,000] or $30,000, so we're able to reopen, and we're applying for anything we can find."
Southern Rep had an annual budget of about $400,000, but, like most nonprofit arts organizations in town, now has only about half that for this season. For most nonprofits, the ratio of earned revenue to donations is roughly equal. With extra expenses brought on by hurricane damage and half a season's lost ticket sales, including subscriptions that may have to be reimbursed for missed performances, many theaters are scrambling -- and the immediate aid so many organizations and individual donors provided after Katrina probably won't be enough for the long term.
"It's going to be a decade, at least [of rebuilding]," says Rilette. "And large corporations tend to give to the larger organizations first, based on the idea that if you're a real city, you have an opera or a symphony."
To some extent, corporate donors have stuck with their long-term beneficiaries. BankOne, Chase, and Freeport McMoRan have pledged to continue to sponsor the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO). But grander and more broadly based gestures will be needed to keep all the arts afloat.
"Certainly, Bill Gates could save New Orleans by himself if he wanted to," says Rilette. "Right now, giving programs are still working with the pre-Katrina model. Companies give in the cities they're based in. In Atlanta, though, you've got a hundred Fortune 500 companies. In New Orleans there's one (Entergy), and they might not be sticking around. Nobody's changed the rules at these huge corporations yet. If Home Depot just said, 'Come get a thousand dollars' worth of free lumber,' that would set us up for a year. But there's just not enough manpower now to do the big 'asks.'"
The LPO, though more visible than most other arts groups on the national scene, isn't high and dry, either; its standard operating budget of $4.5 million has been cut in half, according to Managing Director Babs Mollere. Like Southern Rep, the symphony has begun considering more creative approaches to the current problems. Michael Kaiser, the director of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, recently announced a three-year plan of consulting and fundraising assistance with the LPO. That already has brought commitments from such heavy hitters as the Bloomberg Foundation and TimeWarner. Smaller arts organizations haven't been quite as fortunate, if only because they're simply not on the national radar. According to Rilette, it will take commitments of long-term support and involvement from donors to see the arts through years of smaller audiences and a proportionately drier local fundraising climate.
Currently, the LPO is investigating performance opportunities in the greater Southeast region, including Hammond, Slidell and Mississippi, in part to make up for the loss of the Orpheum Theatre, the Municipal Auditorium and the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts -- all of which sustained flood damage. Last week, the mayor's office estimated that it will take 12 to 18 months to reopen the New Orleans Cultural Center (NOCC), which includes the auditorium and the Mahalia Jackson Theater, where flooding inflicted extensive damage to the electrical system. NOCC General Manager Kathleen Turner says that she hopes the city will continue to evaluate options that might accelerate the recovery.
"This doesn't just affect the rest of this season, but next season as well," Turner notes. That means the New Orleans Ballet Association, the New Orleans Opera and the LPO, which planned a gala return in March, will need to explore other venues, of which there are few with the amenities offered by the NOCC. The LPO has been rehearsing and planning performances in Loyola University's Roussel Performance Hall, which seats barely a quarter of the people Mahalia Jacksoncan accommodate.
Dennis Assaf, who's been at the helm of the Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS) for 28 years, has likewise found himself in some unexpected venues. The Jefferson Performing Arts Center housed in the East Jefferson High School Auditorium, JPAS' home since 1989, sustained heavy roof damage -- as did the society's office space. Fortunately, JPAS' scenic studio and storage facility were undamaged.
JPAS' plan for now is to mount four shows at the Teatro Wego space in the Westwego Community Center, where it had initially planned two; another production, Buddy, is scheduled for the Jefferson Performing Arts Center at East Jeff High. Like Rilette, Assaf is reorganizing his season and thinking smaller in order to make the most of the intimate, cabaret-style space, which he's transformed from the ground up by building a stage and buying lights and sound equipment. The Jefferson Symphony Chorus (now the Chorale) was able to re-form in late September, and performed a well-attended Christmas concert at St. Agnes Church on Jefferson Highway. Like Rilette, Assaf now functions as JPAS' only staff member. He estimates the standard operating budget of $2.5 million -- which comes mostly from donations -- will be down to almost $500,000 this year.
"The Westwego operation is perfectly suited to adjust downward," says Assaf. "We're not going to be able to afford the blockbuster musicals we had been doing at East Jefferson. So we'll do smaller, more intimate shows that don't cost a lot." JPAS' 2005-06 season had featured 17 productions in three spaces -- now it will be doing five, in two.
The biggest blow that Katrina delivered to JPAS, however, was the lost momentum for a new, state-funded performing-arts center in Jefferson. Architectural plans for the building were undergoing a redesign at the time the storm struck. Because the final blueprint wasn't approved, the money wasn't committed -- and so it went back to the state. Now, Assaf is resigned to the project being on a back burner for a long time. "Getting politicians to vote [for] money for the arts has always been a problem," Assaf says. "Now it'll be next to impossible."
Rilette agrees: "The arts tend to be the last thing on everyone's agenda, even as they talk about building the state back up through a cultural agenda. But so many other things always needed to be fixed: education, roads ... and now so much more."
Some assistance has trickled in since the storm. Through membership in the Theater Communications Group, an umbrella organization for American nonprofit theaters, Rilette was able to get theater groups and orchestras throughout the country to hold fundraisers for Southern Rep and the LPO -- and invite them to perform. Rilette directed a production in Coral Gables, Fla., and the LPO performed in Nashville, Tenn. Actors Equity reports that Broadway Cares, a New York-based charitable group, raised $350,000 toward hurricane relief for theater professionals, and that various companies held benefit performances that raised nearly $100,000. (Some of that money was donated directly to the Red Cross and not to arts organizations.)
The Equity money itself was donated to the Actors' Fund, a New York-based organization that has provided support and funds for actors and theater workers in need since the late 19th century. Actor's Fund spokesperson Sara Meehan estimates that the fund has provided cash assistance to more than 350 theater professionals affected by Katrina. The Fund's Al Hirschfeld Free Clinic in New York City has also been named a satellite of the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, providing free health care to relocated entertainment professionals.
Much of the immediate funding provided to the arts in New Orleans after Katrina has consisted of emergency assistance to individuals or token, one-time gifts to organizations. So where are the big, juicy grants that flowed, for instance, into New York City after 9/11?
Shirley Trusty Corey, president of the Arts Council of New Orleans, has tried to raise money for the arts in New Orleans and to organize the donations that are trickling down. The bureaucratic bottleneck between government and an individual artist is one reason why money has been slow in coming. Donations given to the state first go through the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, which is overseen by Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu's office. Funds then go to the Louisiana Cultural Economy Foundation (Southern Rep is a beneficiary), a 501(c)(3) organization that provides grants to individual artists and a variety of nonprofit arts groups.
"A major initiative of my term has been to identify the cultural economy, focus on it, and develop it," says Landrieu. On Aug. 25, just days before Katrina struck, Landrieu's office presented the results of a two-year study aimed at promoting Louisiana's unique cultural wealth. Although the storm has drastically changed the face of the arts in Louisiana, Landrieu remains confident that his Cultural Economy Initiative is more relevant than ever to the state's future.
"When Katrina hit, we were fairly well organized," Landrieu says. "We knew who the artists were and where they were. We had already been soliciting private funds to distribute through the Cultural Economy Foundation and reaching out to national and international stars to come down and raise money. As soon as we can take a breath from the recovery effort, we're going to plan another conference for August or September of this year, and start planning a sustaining effort in the post-storm landscape."
Pam Breaux, assistant secretary for the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, estimates that the office will be able to begin reviewing grant applications by Feb. 1, and can cut checks a month after that, with monthly reviews continuing thereafter. She estimates that the foundation ultimately will handle billions of dollars in grant money. Participating donors already include the Warhol Foundation, the Grammy Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Back in New Orleans, Corey continues her work by lobbying the National Endowment for the Arts, which recently committed $700,000 to the arts in Louisiana. The Arts Council will help administer that grant. Corey also directs individual donations, such as the $717 raised by a high school art teacher in Connecticut for visual arts.
"I'm in the middle of writing to Entergy right now," she adds. "If you know people who need this, tell them to call us. That's what we're here for!"
Breaux echoes Corey's concern about effectively reaching groups that need funding. "We're trying to be sensitive to getting the word out with means beyond press releases, since organizations are obviously in a very stressed mode now -- communicating in different ways, trying to figure out what the needs are," she says. "Historically, Louisiana's arts and cultural organizations have not had long-term relationships to large foundations. What we're trying to do is build relationships, long-term relationships, to invest in Louisiana. We're in it for the long haul."
Meanwhile, Le Chat Noir owner Barbara Motley, along with the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) and a pair of local theater producers, has established a fund through donations from individual donors, the Whitney Bank and proceeds from last fall's HeartSong fundraiser -- which featured New Orleans actors alongside Broadway veterans. New Orleans native Bryan Batt, who is both a New Orleans actor and a Broadway veteran, helped organize the event in New York City. The approximately $30,000 that Motley has helped raise has been parceled out among some 30 local artists.
"It's not a huge fund," Motley says. "It's just a Band-Aid, to help people pay rent and get them back to town, with the CAC as our nonprofit umbrella. We were initially going to do it until the first of January, but we've decided to continue it maybe through February.
"But at some point," Motley adds, "actors will have to make a decision as to whether the near future is vibrant enough to pay their bills."
Above all else, a play needs players, and a career in the performing arts in New Orleans has never been a cakewalk. Most actors, directors and other performing-arts professionals were accustomed to supplementing their income by teaching or getting involved in the nascent Louisiana film industry. But -- and this is a familiar refrain -- after Katrina, things just aren't the same.
Alex Schott, who has directed the Governor's Office of Film and Television Development since the movie tax-credit incentives were passed in 2002, says the next few months will be the test for the film industry's return to the New Orleans area.
"Prior to the storm, the New Orleans area was seeing the greatest amount of production activity in Louisiana," Schott says. "Once the hurricane hit, most productions started looking at the northwestern part of the state -- Shreveport and Natchitoches. In the past few months, though, we've heard from lots of productions that want to get rolling in the city.
"We've got two or three starting in the next month, and that'll be the real test," Schott says. "We'll see if it's feasible."
The major inhibitors to bringing production back, says Schott, are logistical. Film crews need to be able to rent housing and equipment in the city, but rental houses and production offices that had been set up in New Orleans before the storm have relocated, at least temporarily. The success or failure of the projects beginning production in New Orleans this month -- including Deja Vu, a Disney film produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, directed by Tony Scott and starring Denzel Washington -- will, says Schott, be a litmus test for the future of the film industry in the city.
For theater professionals trying to decide whether to stay in New Orleans, that uncertainty is discouraging. Dane Rhodes has been a full-time actor onstage and in film here for many years, appearing in the recent feature films A Love Song for Bobby Long and Glory Road. When asked how things are shaping up for him post-Katrina, he says, "In a nutshell, they're not. It's very, very slow movement. Productions are coming back, but they're not risking major roles on local actors, because they're not sure we're here. Actors are driving up to Shreveport to audition for one-line parts. To be a full-time actor before, I'd always have to have three projects overlapping. Now there aren't three projects to overlap."
Ernest Collins, the executive director of Arts and Entertainment for the City of New Orleans, admits that the state of the film industry is, for now, at an awkward stage. Industry professionals are waiting to see whether the movies will come back, while the film companies are themselves waiting to see if the facilities they depended on will be returning.
"Deja Vu will be an excellent test case for us," Collins says. "We'll see if the city is ready to host a large-scale production. Before the storm, we were walking and getting ready to run; now we're back to baby steps. But we're very positive that within a few months we'll be back where we were."
By late last week, every theater company contacted for this article had productions scheduled to go up soon, with roles that were not yet cast. "Actors are just one problem," says the JPAS' Dennis Assaf. "I'm desperate for stage managers. We've got shows that are going to go ahead, but no, they're not fully cast, or built."
Teaching work is also no longer a dependable fallback, at least for now. Tulane University's Department of Theatre and Dance, for one, has laid off its entire adjunct faculty.
"We're (the full-time faculty) all teaching double loads now, and they say that'll be at least for the next year," says Buzz Podewell, a professor in the Theatre Department. "Tulane should get the credit for having helped so many actors keep body and soul together with those regular paychecks in the past, but they're all gone now."
Many theaters unaffiliated with universities depend on students to pay for their overhead. The Anthony Bean Community Theater & Acting School, a primarily African-American community theater on South Carrollton Avenue, receives most of its funding from acting classes. The theater also received $800 from the Le Chat Noir/CAC fund, and is still waiting to hear about an SBA loan. With the return of its audience still an open question, the group is currently pushing ahead on faith.
"Most of my students are still scattered," says Bean, who, pre-Katrina, had taught about a hundred students between the ages of 8 and 18 annually. "I heard from some (students) over Thanksgiving, and they want to come back, but they're depending on their parents. Many of them came from the Seventh Ward and the Ninth Ward, and they just don't know." Buzz Podewell's Patchwork Players, the children's summer theater program in its 21st season, plans to return, but possibly at a reduced size. The Jefferson Parish Children's Chorus, a branch of JPAS, also remains in limbo.
If the first act was the storm, we're currently in the second -- rebuilding -- and this drama, small comfort that it is, remains predictable. The shows that have managed to go up since the storm have all met with resounding success.
"I think we're the beneficiaries of cabin fever," Barbara Motley says. The production currently at Le Chat Noir, Ricky Graham's one-man show I'm Still Here, Me!, has been held over until Mardi Gras from its initial four-week November/December run in response to demand. Actors Theatre of New Orleans Director Ren J.F. Piazza reports sold-out houses at his group's new 60-seat theater in the WTIX building in Metairie for his A Christmas Carol: The Whole Story. Local troupe Running With Scissors also drew crowds at One Eyed Jacks in the French Quarter for the remounting (and reworking) of Grenadine McGunkle's Double-Wide Christmas Miracle. The Skyfire Theater in Covington has also opened several shows since the storm, including Neil Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers and a compilation of the Carl Walker-directed Native Tongues monologues.
"I think people are just applauding the fact that something's there," Rilette says. Audiences have been genuinely enthusiastic, and theaters are hoping to keep them happy. The Actors Theatre, which had just signed its lease in July, has already retooled its inaugural season to emphasize comedies, with the regional premiere of the off-Broadway hit I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, opening at the end of this month, and The Nerd, opening in March.
Rivertown Rep's director, Charlie Ward, also reports that while he's been able to reopen in a relatively undamaged house, Katrina has become an unexpected consultant on the makeup of his season. "We've had to condense the season," he says. "We scrapped South Pacific, which we were going to open with, because we lost so much of the cast, and opened with our children's show, Cinderella, instead." In March, Ward has replaced the scheduled show, Barefoot in the Park, with The Woman in Black, which calls for a bare stage due to the loss of his technical director, whose house was destroyed by the storm.
Playing to the audience now, in New Orleans, is trickier than it used to be. Southern Rep, for one, used to count its relationship with the audience as an integral part of its mission. "For us, knowing our audience ... I used to be really proud that we had a really culturally diverse audience, for example," says Rilette. "I know what sold to who was here, but I don't know who's left." Even getting in touch with those audiences these days is a problem. "Out of 7,500 households, I had about 2,000 email addresses, so I did send out requests for new mailing addresses," he says. "But I can tell by looking at the ZIP codes that about 25 percent have to be gone."
Assaf is in the same boat. "Normally we'd be sending out about 25,000 brochures now," he says. "But the mail isn't working. We had a strong support base in Lakeview, but we certainly can't mail there."
It might be a tired refrain, but until the checks show up in the mailboxes and the audiences are in the seats, there's only one thing to fall back on -- faith in the peculiar spirit of the city. "A lot of our audience came from the Ninth Ward and the East -- we don't have our hardcore audience back yet," admits Anthony Bean. "And during the hurricane -- I wound up in Lafayette -- the offers were pouring in, across race and class lines, to come to Houston or come to L.A.
"But I'm an Orleanian, and New Orleans needs what I do more than Houston or L.A. You just have to be here to see it. It's like another country inside of America. And without the people, without us, you just don't have New Orleans."