1) What the fuck is going on?
We closed a show last night, and I’ve just finished an amazing week at the Network of Ensemble Theatre’s (NET) national gathering here in New Orleans. I’m still processing great workshops from groups like the Irondale Ensemble and the N.Y. Neo-Futurists, great performances from olive Dance Theatre and Jeff Glassman & Lisa Fay, and the results of trying to keep up with those heavy drinkers with Rogue Artists Ensemble! NET has organized and connected ensemble theatres around the country to share work and processes as well as serve as a collective voice for the ensemble movement at the table with big organizations like Theatre Communications Group (TCG) and some major funders.
2) What was happening with you and the NOLA Project in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit in late August, 2005?
We were in New Orleans doing our first play, a production of Martin McDonough’s The Cripple of Inishmaan. Katrina “rained out” the last weekend of the show, and we evacuated. We ended up finishing the run in New York thanks to the generosity of the folks at Here Arts Center.
I’m from here, but most of the company hadn’t been before. Being in New Orleans a day before Katrina hit really tied them to the city and strengthened everyone’s resolve to return to New Orleans and create art.
3) How severally was New Orleans’ theatre culture affected by the hurricane?
I need to state here that there was absolutely no aspect of life in New Orleans that was not severely affected by the storm. The theatre world was certainly no exception. We lost venues, actors, designers, etc. Several of the remaining theatres had damage that had to be repaired. All projects scheduled for the next couple of years had to be taken back to the drawing board, rescheduled, and often recast.
It was clear that local donors were going to have their own plates full, so budgets were going to be tight. Nevertheless, the most profound change was the increased sense of purpose, community, and hunger for our story to be told. Since the storm there has been a radical increase in the amount of original work coming out of New Orleans and flocks of new artists moving here to participate in the reinvigorated scene.
4) Did the theatre community start to rebuild immediately, or was there a period during which no theatre was being made in New Orleans?
There were several weeks before people were allowed back into the city, so during that time there wasn’t any theatre here, but things started happening pretty quickly after folks were allowed to return. The first show I know of back in town was Ricky Graham’s one-man musical I’m Still Here, Me, which a quick Google search tells me opened November 18, 2005.
5) How well have arts funding bodies responded to the city’s need to rebuild its arts infrastructure?
Local arts funders like the Contemporary Arts Center and the Jazz Fest Foundation have done a great job stepping up to the plate. On a national level, there have been some important collaborations funded, like a multi-disciplinary collaboration called Home, New Orleans? funded by Transforma and the Ford Foundation, Southern Rep and John Biguenet’s Rising Water, and Artspot and Mondo Bizarro’s Flight.
Unfortunately, a disproportionate amount of funding has gone to artists who don’t live in New Orleans.
6) How much are theatre makers in the region dealing with the disaster as a topic in their work?
There has been a huge amount of work about the storm. The most successful works have been responsive to the emotional stages the city has gone through in its recovery and hit the right tone at the right time. I would love to see a more thorough analysis of the phases of Katrina-related work, but there was definitely a first phase of Katrina plays dealing with the storm itself: people on roofs, stories of the chaos, etc.
Then at some point, I think with a collection of short works called The Beignet Plays at Le Chat Noir, we moved into a period of post-Katrina plays which may or may not mention the storm, but definitely reflect a post-Katrina world.
7) What are some of the current challenges of making theatre in New Orleans, whether related to the hurricane or otherwise?
I think the surge in the creation of new theatre ensembles, new work, and new theatres has outpaced our ability to find audiences for them. We need to figure out a better way of presenting this scene to a population that has been through a lot.
Also, while many creative types have come to the city, we are in serious need of some arts administrator types. Any takers?
8) Given the richness of recent experience in the region, why does the NOLA Project’s latest production look to Shakespeare for inspiration and content?
What, Has This Thing Appeared Again Tonight? uses Shakespearean and other texts to try to contextualize people’s responses to the storm. By way of basic plot, the play is about our theatre company returning to New Orleans after the storm in search of inspiration, but this search for The Thing ends up sucking us into a book that has chronicled the previous manifestations of The Thing, and unless we can figure our way out of it, we will be trapped in the search forever.
So it’s definitely based heavily on the recent experience down here, but uses Hamlet, Thyestes, Tennyson’s poem “The Kraken”, and several other texts to try to understand what happens in that empty space created by a crisis.
9) What are some of the questions that are on your mind these days?
Can we find a better business model than one that ties us to wealthy donors and foundations? How can we make theatre a topic of conversation in our communities, such that “Hey, did you see that play . . . ” will be just as common as “Hey, did you see that movie . . . ”? How can theatre use technology in a way that enhances the liveness of the experience? What’s the most cost-efficient way to build a floating stage?
I’d love to get some answers.
10) How do you feel about the state of American theatre generally?
I’m finally hopeful again after a period of cynicism. The NET Gathering did a lot to restore my faith that we won’t be stuck for much longer with the myth that you look to Broadway to see what’s happening theatrically in America.
One tool that I’m super excited about is a new website NET is developing that will include a forum for videos posted by ensembles around the country. That will be going live in September, replacing the current site, and you should all check that out.
I think this network that allows us to be tightly responsive to our local communities while keeping in touch with the development of the field around the country is exactly the right step.