Stalking Drama

Aimée Hayes likes to take the scenic route.

Hayes joined Southern Rep Theatre as managing director in 2007. She took over as artistic director in March. But the New Orleans native wandered long and far before reaching this point.

The pattern may have set in early; in her childhood, Hayes’ family moved frequently. In her teens, she set off for boarding school in Pennsylvania. After a stint at Smith College, she returned to New Orleans, earning her B.A. from Loyola University and studying theater at Tulane University.

Before long, Hayes was moving again. In the ensuing years, she would work in theater across the country and Europe, and take on an array of more mundane occupations as necessity dictated. She continued her studies, this time at the University of Mississippi, and spent time at Actors’ Theatre of Louisville. Returning to New Orleans again, she did work for the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane, where she earned her MFA degree.

The beginning of this decade found Hayes in New York, working as a producer and manager with Vital Theatre Company — just in time to witness the emotional after-light of 9/11.

For Hayes, the journey hasn’t been about ambition or a thirst for the next adventure. “I look at plays as being the next adventure,” she says. “If ambition was my overriding aim, my life would have been a lot different — and maybe a lot easier.”

Not that Hayes, at 41, has become hunched under the weight of her art. On the contrary: One is struck by her kinetic demeanor and smiling eyes. She’s hitting her stride. And she’s home.

When she packed up for the move from New York to New Orleans in 2005, it was after telling herself, “I can’t do this anymore.”

And when the great disaster struck New Orleans only months later, she recoiled at the idea of packing up and leaving yet again. “I knew how to do it in about ten minutes,” she says.

But she returned from an evacuation-induced sojourn in Maryland and produced the long-running “Red Light District Variety Show” at Le Chat Noir. In the frustrating months after Katrina, it provided a much-needed outlet. “Staying here without ‘Red Light District’ would have been impossible,” she says.

Soon she began working with Southern Rep. This year, she directed one comedy, “The Clean House,” and starred in another, “For Better.” Though she started acting when she was a child, she says the director’s chair “is much more my style.”

Southern Rep board chairman Bernard Jaffe says he expects Hayes to continue the Rep’s mission of pursuing new works — with gusto. He believes she can take Southern Rep to the next step, in terms of both national recognition and local outreach. As for what audiences might expect from plays under the Hayes regime: “It may be just a tiny bit edgier,” he says.

Southern Rep’s focus on regional and world premieres thrills Hayes. Producing new plays is the ballgame for her, and she chases them down with the zeal of a talent scout looking for the next superstar.

“The most important thing we can do is get our hands on new plays,” she says. “You feel you’re helping to shape a voice and give vision to that voice. Playwrights need encouragement.”

Hayes will start the next season directing the regional premiere of the play-inside-a-play comedy “Speech and Debate.” In the spring of 2009, she will direct the world premiere of another comedy, “Sick,” about a germ-o-phobic family. Next season will also include the world premiere of “Shotgun,” the second installment of John Biguenet’s post-Katrina trilogy that began with the local sensation, “Rising Water.”

Jaffe says Southern Rep under Hayes will challenge the audience, including its social conscience. But don’t expect that to manifest as preachy theater on current affairs. Hayes, who sat in the front row for  two defining tragedies of our time, wants to go deeper. “Overtly political work often rehashes the front page of the New York Times,” she says. “I’m more interested in political turmoil and upheaval in terms of their effect on relationships.”

As Hayes speaks of her fondness for her audience, the people of New Orleans, and for the exciting dialogue Southern Rep can create with that audience, you get the idea that maybe she has at last reached her destination. •

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