theaters team up, audiences win

The always-enticing New Orleans entertainment line-up is richer than usual this season thanks to a collaboration between two anchor theaters. Southern Repertory Theatre and Le Chat Noir teamed up last spring in an effort to capitalize on the strengths of each and draw new audiences. The results are playing out on both stages.

The joint venture may seem odd to audiences who have long associated Southern Rep with “serious” drama while seeing Le Chat as the undisputed home of high-quality cabaret and campy comedy. Le Chat owner Barbara Motley says the roots of the venture reach to dark and frustrating days in post-Katrina New Orleans. “We wanted to channel our frustration in an entertaining and intelligent way,” she says.

The “way” became The Red Light District Variety Show, an in-your-face satirical revue that took aim at local government and a multitude of wrongs. Producing the show at Le Chat Noir was recently returned native Aimée Hayes, who would later become artistic director of Southern Rep.

Hayes and Motley discovered they shared a desire to see more original works performed on local stages. In the years that followed, the two pursued that goal along separate but parallel paths – Southern Rep as a member of the National New Play Network, and Le Chat as home to an annual New Plays Festival. In time, Motley says, “We began to think about connecting the dots.”

Six months of discussion and planning led to the July debut of “Zombie Town,” a hellacious satire produced by Southern Rep at Le Chat. The piece officially launched the collaboration now known as Southern Rep @ Le Chat Noir. Under the arrangement, both venues are proceeding with a regular-season lineup, while Southern Rep produces an additional series of shows in the chic, nightclub-like setting of Le Chat. This month “The Golden Girls” (Oct. 1-3) features the famous Varla Jean Merman and popular high-camp troupe Running With Scissors.

Coming up is “Love Child” (Nov. 6-21), a play within a play starring Bob Edes Jr. and Brian Peterson.

The fruits of the collaboration don’t flow in just one direction. Another result of the two theaters’ cross-pollination may surprise audiences. “We’re bringing Ricky Graham and Running With Scissors to Southern Rep,” Hayes says.

Members of Running With Scissors, who have been regulars on the Le Chat stage for years, will crack the Southern Rep stage with a holiday show.

“Christmas shows are something theaters have to do, but the traditional Christmas show is not Southern Rep,” Hayes says. Her alternative: Put silly on stage in the form of Scissors doing “Snow Girls.”

Later in the season Southern Rep will present a local first: “The Norman Conquests,” a fun-filled trilogy featuring none other than Graham. While local audiences know him as the creator of hit song-and-dance revues and cross-dressing romps on the Le Chat Noir stage, Hayes says Graham’s talent goes beyond the popular perception: “I think Ricky is an incredible actor, along with being a comic genius.”

As Southern Rep broadens its horizons, it continues its core mission. Having just wrapped Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play,” Hayes will direct the world premiere (Oct. 20-Nov. 7) of “Afterlife: a Ghost Story,” by Steve Yockey. And in January comes the Southern Rep New Play Bacchanal.

Meanwhile, at Le Chat Noir, “The Mystery of Irma Vep” (Oct. 8-24) is sure to capture audiences with its snappy dialogue and irresistible silliness starring Graham and Varla Jean Merman, the alter-ego of actor Jeff Roberson. Both will return in December for the popular Christmas classic, “Scrooge in Rouge.”

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