When the national Network of Ensemble Theaters held its “MicroFest USA” gathering in New Orleans in January, local actor and writer Andrew Larimer saw it as a good sign. “It shows the city has become a hub for creative activity,” he says. “The sheer amount of work happening in theater here is pretty amazing.”
It was almost eight years ago that the New Orleans native, then 22, founded the theater company called NOLA Project. Larimer and handful of other alumni of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts were following their dream of launching a theater company, and in August 2005 they pulled it off, presenting their first production, “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” at Southern Repertory Theatre.

The play’s run was, of course, abbreviated by Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans later in August. But like so many other people scattered by the storm, Larimer and friends only became more determined to get their project back on track.

troupes march to a different beatToday, NOLA Project is a fixture of the local theater scene and has staged a score of original productions along with classics at venues all over town. A.J. Allegra, one of the company’s original members, has taken over as artistic director, but Larimer remains involved and committed to NOLA Project and says the troupe is stronger than ever.

“I think we’re doing what our goal was,” he says “We’ve gotten to do a lot of amazing work and partner with some of our favorite organizations and institutions in the city. The theater scene is more vibrant that it’s ever been, and even though we don’t have the physical theaters like we used to, that really has not stopped the work from happening.”

Dramatic work anchored to physical theater spaces has, indeed, had a rough go of it in recent years. With only a handful of such theaters operating locally before Katrina, two have closed and two others have been dislocated or suspended operations. But as Larimer says, the work goes on.

Performing in low-overhead spaces such as backrooms or buildings adjacent to neighborhood bars, theater companies have not only started up but have endured to see some of their original productions move from birth through readings and early stagings into more advanced stages of development. It’s a tedious process that takes patience and a boatload of determination, but it’s the path that fresh productions must take in order to become part of theater’s lasting repertoire.

troupes march to a different beat“Catch the Wall” is a good example. NOLA Project will present the “multimedia bounce play” by Gabrielle Reisman this month (March 14-24) at Dillard University. Larimer says Reisman has worked on the play over a long period, including workshop productions and readings broadcast over the Internet. “It’s one of those works intended for longer development,” he says.

The local inventory of works aiming for longevity is growing. There’s the collaboration between Cripple Creek Theatre Co. and Goat in the Road Productions, for instance. The two young companies, which set high artistic and community service standards for themselves, joined forces on a piece entitled “The Future is a Fancyland Place,” which they presented at the Allways Lounge last fall and are continuing to develop.

Skin Horse Theater is another innovative, post-Katrina import to New Orleans that has shown staying power. After making waves with its original “Curiouser: An Historical Inaccuracy” in the 2009 New Orleans Fringe Festival, the troupe successfully mounted productions such as “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” before bringing “Hedwig” back again recently.

Yet another production team dedicated to original, collaborative work is New Noise, which recently presented “Runnin’ Down the Mountain.” The ensemble brought together both locals and new arrivals to the city when it formed in 2007, and it has since built a network of writers, designers and performers to help advance works in progress.

Meanwhile, companies with a longer history in the city have continued their commitment to new works and education. Kathy Randels’ ArtSpot Productions and Mondo Bizarro, founded by Bruce France and Nick Slie, are good examples.

The dedication of such groups is evident not only in their artistic rigor, but also in the energy they must exert to raise the money to get their projects off the ground. Members are nearly always working on grant applications, fundraising events or partnerships with other groups that share their community interests.

Larimer says the increasing appetite for fresh work in the city reflects a growing “alternative energy” and suggests that a stronger commitment to originality is taking hold. “We’ve seen the more classical, traditional scene fall away a little bit, and now growing alongside it is a more alternative scene,” he says.