New Orleans independent theater companies take drama to the people

The PLAY’S the THING

With its openness to new art, visually appealing locations and affordable living, New Orleans has become fertile ground for independent theater. This fall a dozen stage production groups are preparing to launch shows in locations that range from barrooms to black box theaters.

“It’s a great vibe and a great feeling,” said Fred Nuccio, who opened the 50-seat Mid-City Theater in 2011 in a renovated old warehouse on Toulouse Street a block from Bayou St. John. “Most of these companies starting up are young, and that’s what’s really nice about it. It keeps a young feeling about things, but it’s not alienating our older audiences either. ... It keeps an edginess to it that I like.”

Nuccio also noted that New Orleans is a receptive place for stretching the boundaries of traditional stage.

“Theater people in New Orleans are taking a lot more risks, putting new stuff out there and seeing how it works,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with the standards, but it’s nice to see new works.”

Mid-City Theatre keeps seats filled with cabaret, standup comedy and a “live soap opera” called “Debauchery.” An evening of six short plays by six playwrights, dubbed “6x6,” is planned Oct. 9. A.J. Allegra of The NOLA Project has staged shows at the Sydney and Walda Bestoff Sculpture Garden and the nearby New Orleans Museum of Art, incorporating the dramatic locations into the set. The NOLA Project is in its ninth season; the Sept. 4 opener, “A Truckload of Ink” by local playwright Jim Fitzmorris, will be staged at the University of New Orleans and is based on recent real-life drama in the New Orleans newspaper scene.

Allegra, a New York theater alumnus, said the high cost of living in the Big Apple has priced artists out.

“It’s not a great market anymore except for the super wealthy,” he said. “I think New Orleans is what New York might have been in the sixties when people were experimenting and there was traditional stuff alongside avant garde work.”

And, “New Orleans is a great incubator for writing and acting talent,” he said. “It’s an inspiring place with a rich history and a unique culture that lends itself very well to storytelling.”

Jonathan Mares has staged five local premieres since the founding of Jonathan Mares Productions in 2010, including the recent “Killer Joe” at the AllWays Theater on St. Claude Avenue.

“I feel that audiences here are very receptive to original works and shows they haven’t been familiar with,” Mares said. “We have some really adventurous theater-goers and they don’t care what they’re seeing as long as it’s interesting. It can be comedic, dramatic, thriller, whatever. As long as it’s a good product, people will come out and support it.”

Mares dreams of having a fixed venue his company can call its own. Other companies prefer not being tied to a specific theater, opting instead to stage shows in whatever venues suit their needs. Skin Horse Theater, founded in 2007 by five students from New York’s Bard College, has staged shows in locations ranging from a warehouse to a bar to a Bywater house.

“All of our productions are so different from one another that they don’t all need the same space,” said Anna Henschel, a Skin Horse principal. “Each piece deserves something different, and I’m really happy to have the opportunity to move around.”

Despite the growth of the local theater scene, finances can be a headache.

Owner/director Dennis Monn of the AllWays Lounge and Theater decries the lack, in many cases, of compensation for actors and supporting staff and the shortage of revenue that theaters like his need to keep operating.

“People like me who are in this business want to create sustainable income, make a living and create a living wage for actors, directors and other theater professionals,” Monn said. “There’s nowhere to go until that happens.”

Monn also sees the plethora of new theatrical venues and production companies as an example of “gentrification. There’s a saturation of theater companies without homes. There are a lot of people doing theater and that’s terrific, but that doesn’t mean a lot of people are willing to take capital and invest in a space to make a theater.

“The more taxes the performing arts raise for the city, the more the theater community can become an asset to the city. Then a lot of things can happen and things can grow. But, as long as there’s this mentality of everyone putting on shows everywhere, I don’t see how that’s going to be sustainable.”

One prospect that appears to have near-universal support would be the creation of a black box theater district: a concentration of small theaters in a section of town that could become a destination for both locals and tourists.

“I think a theater district is relevant and crucial to the success of the theatrical art form here,” Allegra said. “We have to acknowledge that we’re not doing theater for tourists necessarily, but we are an industry and New Orleans thrives on tourism. I think having a theater district would make the power of many stronger than the power of one.”