Classy Acts

The life and death of repertory theater

"I remember that the day of the first performance – the play was Charley’s Aunt – my home room teacher asked how many had attended live theater before,” recalls Dr. Florence Jumonville, chair of the Louisiana and Special Collections Department at University of New Orleans’ Earl K. Long Library. “I think I was the only one who raised my hand. It was a new experience for most people.”

Jumonville was a junior at Fortier High School in 1967 and, like thousands of other New Orleans students, she was the fortunate beneficiary of a three-year federal program that brought professional theater to the city. Repertory Theatre, New Orleans, flashed like a comet across the local stage. It lasted a scant five years, the last two without government funding. It is remembered fondly.

Frank Gagnard, the theater critic of the Times-Picayune, charted the rise and fall of the “Rep,” as it was sometimes called. The first hint of the theatrical venture came in a Gagnard column in August of 1965 (just before Hurricane Betsy). Mark Schoenberg, a graduate student in the theater department at Tulane University, announced plans to start a professional repertory company in the city with fellow student Albert Salzer and Wilma Francis, an actress and New Orleans native. (Schoenberg is still involved in theater in Toronto; Salzer is in film and television production in California and occasionally Louisiana.)

One year later, in August of 1966, Gagnard announced that the new company would be called Repertory Theatre, New Orleans. Schoenberg wasn’t mentioned. Stuart Vaughn, a producer, director and actor who had already established theater companies in New York and Seattle, signed a lease with the Civic Theater on Baronne Street for 36 weeks.

A company of about 20 professional actors would perform in five plays in the first season: Charley’s Aunt, Romeo and Juliet, St. Joan, Our Town and The Rivals. It was a tried-and-true program: a British comedy, a Shakespeare romance, a George Bernard Shaw work, a sentimental American favorite and an 18th-century comedy of manners. All the works were suitable for young audiences.

Federal funding is what brought about the New Orleans theater. In a program through the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Department of Education, three cities were selected to have federally sponsored professional theater programs that would involve local schools and students. (Los Angeles and Providence, R.I., were the other two cities.) The Louisiana Council for Music and the Performing Arts was involved in securing the program for New Orleans, and the Orleans Parish School Board administered the educational component.

According to a 1970 series in the Times-Picayune by writer Don Lee Keith, there had been some complaints about the original concept, mainly that “federal and education funding meant that only plays suitable for students could be shown.” Stuart Vaughn, according to Keith, was chosen as head before New Orleans was picked as a location, and while Vaughn had previously started theater companies, “the last of which, Seattle, had fired him.”

Repertory Theatre, New Orleans not only had a resident company, it also called on seasoned actors to appear in starring roles. The first play, Charley’s Aunt, starred actress Katharine Houghton (niece of Katharine Hepburn) shortly before her movie Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner opened. Actress June Havoc (burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee’s sister, whose family life became the musical Gypsy) appeared as Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals. Havoc was speaking to a New Orleans high school drama class when she was featured in a Life magazine article focusing on innovative educational programs.

Shirley Trusty Corey was hired by the Orleans Parish School Board to be the Educational Director, “the official link between the professional theater and the educational systems.”

Corey explains, “The project had a tremendous positive impact. It involved 48,000 high school students from 53 high schools and the public, private and parochial schools of Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. Students saw four plays a year while reading them in English classes.”

The educational component also included training for actors. Ann Cox Strub served as an apprentice and then as a member of the company. “It was wonderful, and the quality of the actors was out of sight!” she says.

“Every last actor that was in that repertory theater was trained. They knew what they were doing,” Strub notes. Some of the young actors later gained fame. “Gerald McRaney and I were both trying to get our Actors’ Equity [the professional union] card. He had just gotten out of school and came down here to work in a legitimate theater. I kept up with him for years – he was the most approachable, nice celebrity.”

For Strub, one of the benefits of working with the company was meeting Shirley Trusty Corey: “Afterwards I went to work for her in the first Head Start program (federally funded pre-school), and that was a kind of good spin-off for me.” According to Corey, “the Arts in Education program and the establishment of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts were all positively impacted by this groundbreaking theater.”

In the second season, Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People had one night bought out by an unsuccessful candidate for Mayor, David Gertler, and one performance attended by first lady Lady Bird Johnson. Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Molière’s Tartuffe and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, plus Emlyn Williams in a one-man show on poet Dylan Thomas, rounded out the year.

The third season included Shaw’s Arms and the Man, Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and The Chairs, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Noel Coward’s Private Lives.

Then the federal funding stopped. It was up to the community to find a way to support the company. The late Muriel Bultman Francis, local cultural mover and shaker, took up the challenge. The first big step was hiring June Havoc to take over the project. David Cuthbert, a Times-Picayune writer at that time, pointed out that “June was a very quixotic character. She was certainly glamorous.” And she was imaginative and energetic.

When the Civic Theater board couldn’t agree on a contract, Havoc created a theater out of a now-demolished synagogue on Carondelet Street, “a beautiful ruin of a place,” according to Cuthbert. Havoc brought in new ideas including a thrust stage with audiences on three sides and a small space for experimental groups, including the Dashiki Theater Project. The plays were more daring: Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, a production of Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women with Julie Harris and Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth.

On stage there was success. But, behind the scenes and in the box office, it was a sadder story. Without federal funding there wasn’t enough money to keep the company going. Even fundraisers at the newly opened Beverly Dinner Playhouse didn’t help.

Finally, Frank Gagnard announced in his column that the end had come. “The contract with the acting company was cancelled because of lack of funds,” and the Equity troupe disbanded on the date of managing director James Bernard’s (who followed June Havoc) departure, April 23, 1972.

It was a sad day for New Orleans theater; ironically, April 23 is more often noted theatrically as William Shakespeare’s birthday.

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