Creative Spirit Invigorates Troupes

The past few years have been stressful for some established local theaters as financial and other pressures took a toll. But true to their plucky nature, theater folks have kept the drama coming.

Fresh performance companies continue to sprout, and the city has even seen a few new theater spaces open their doors. The Mid-City area, for instance, got its first theater last fall when producer Fred Nuccio opened an 80-seat venue in a former furniture warehouse near Bayou St. John.

Nuccio’s Mid-City Theatre in January hosted “Tiny Alice,” one in a series of Edward Albee plays presented by Silk Dress Productions. The third presentation at the theater, the play was both a prelude and a sharp contrast to “Divine Sister,” a spoof of Hollywood films about nuns featuring the popular Varla Jean Merman, alter-ego of actor Jeff Roberson.

“Divine Sister” relocated to the theater after Southern Repertory Theatre, where the production was originally scheduled, lost its lease. Interestingly, Mid-City Theatre also benefited from the demise of another stage. Helping Nuccio open the theater was behind-the-scenes veteran Su Gonczy, long the manager of floor operations at cabaret stage Le Chat Noir, which closed its doors last year.

Another new stage made its debut in an area known for art galleries and condominiums when Elm Theatre opened its doors on Julia Street in 2010. Artistic Director Garrett Prejean, a Baton Rouge native who had been pursuing a theater career in Chicago, found that New Orleans offered opportunity.

“Actors Equity put me in touch with people here,” he says. “There are great actors and a great community, and a lot of new theater companies are coming here.”

Prejean founded Elm Theatre – named for the street where he grew up in Baton Rouge – with the aim of doing ensemble-based productions. “We are an actors’ theater – not a rewriting or directors’ theater – so a huge part for us is ensemble work and storytelling,” he says. “It’s the kind of theater I enjoy watching as well.”

Elm Theater’s four-member company will present the Lanford Wilson play “The Gingham Dog” (June 1-July 7), a straightforward treatment of the breakup of an interracial marriage. Up next (Aug. 3-Sept. 8) is “Stop Kiss,” Diana Son’s emotionally charged play about misfortunes that befall a young couple in New York City.

Prejean says one of the challenges of doing his kind of drama is finding productions suited to Elm Theatre’s intimate black-box stage. “It challenges us to really use the space and create an experience for both the audience and the actors,” he says.

Two veterans much-accustomed to adapting to diverse stages are Gary Rucker and Kelly Fouchi. The founders of Theatre 13 performance company have taken their splashy musicals all over town, from Southern Rep to Westwego Performing Arts Theatre, from Rivertown Repertory Theater to the Solomon Theater at St. Martin’s Episcopal School in Metairie.

The latter stage is where the pair will present “Thoroughly Modern Millie Jr.” (April 12-15),  The production follows their presentation of “Spring Awakening” at Southern Rep, marking that stage’s final play – until the theater finds a new home.

In the world of “straight drama,” Cripple Creek Theatre Company has demonstrated both strength and staying power during the past several years. The group has settled into residence at the busy AllWays Lounge and Theatre on St. Claude Avenue, where co-founder Andrew Vaught has continued to serve up productions with a social conscience. Upcoming is Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” (May 18-June 3), a humorous jab at the foolishness of war, concocted by a group of women in ancient Greece.

Cripple Creek will follow that with “The Shaker Chair” (July 13-22) by Obie Award-winner Adam Bock. In the play, a widow finds inspiration in a simple chair, prompting a self-exploration over matters of injustice.

The AllWays Lounge and Theatre has become one of the busiest stages in a Bywater area that is also home to the Backyard Ballroom, the Shadowbox Theatre, the Mudlark Public Theatre and Hi-Ho Lounge, all of which have hosted wide-ranging performances in recent years.

A host of companies regularly circulate to these and other local stages, but one of the most enduring troupes is ArtSpot Productions, founded 15 years ago by Kathy Randels to produce her solo performance work. Having offered last fall’s production of  “Rumours of War,” a theater and dance piece about a slave revolt in antebellum Louisiana, Randels next promises to answer the question, “What Makes a Great Lover?” See or call 504-826-7783 for details.

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