Backstage, Tracey Collins emerges from the dressing room, draped in black, and lets the head of the theater know — for future reference — that, “We need at least one full-length mirror.”
Director Carl Walker paces nervously in the alley. Out in the lobby, using hushed voices while the dress rehearsal goes on, staffers take ticket orders; they’re 10 to 15 seats shy of a full house.
It’s a typical day-before-opening tableau, except this is not a typical opening or a typical theater. It’s the day before the first production in almost two years at what is generally considered the country’s oldest community playhouse, an institution that for a while dangled over the precipice of financial ruin.
Since 2009, there have been layoffs, a missed season of performances, a contentious lawsuit and, finally, the sale of about half of Le Petit Theatre’s historic building off Jackson Square in the French Quarter to the venerable Dickie Brennan restaurant group.
Now, sharing space with a chic-looking new eatery and bar, Le Petit is set to open a “lagniappe” production of “Love, Loss, and What I Wore,” a play by Nora and Delia Ephron. In September, Le Petit will kick off its regular season.
Sitting near the bar next door while the cast rehearsed on Thursday, the theater’s executive director, Cassie Steck Worley, sounded glad to be finally talking about something other than cutbacks and legal disputes.
“Two summers ago, when I was in New York, I saw ‘Love, Loss and What I Wore’ at the Westside Theatre, and I remember thinking, what a great show to do on Le Petit’s stage,” Worley said. “I just thought it was a great piece. I love Nora Ephron.”
Not just back putting plays on, Le Petit is also making a push into theater education.
Worley, a veteran drama teacher from Metairie Park Country Day School, said, “Part of my mission is to begin classes and start a real educational program.”
Beginning in the fall, students from the Good Shepherd School on Baronne Street will start coming to Le Petit for drama classes as a part of their curriculum, and Worley said she has been in touch with the charter school group that runs Joseph S. Clark High School in Treme about a similar arrangement.
It would have been hard to imagine any of this a few years ago.
As the recession hit in 2009, Le Petit’s governing board fired its artistic director to save money.
The next year, Worley, then the board’s president, announced that Le Petit would not be completing its 2010-2011 season, struggling to keep up with payments on a $700,000 mortgage. A handful of staffers lost their jobs.
The only solution board members could see was to sell off a portion of Le Petit’s building, which dates from 1922, while trying to preserve its 365-seat main stage. The decision immediately drew controversy.
The Le Petit Theatre Guild, an independent support group, filed a lawsuit to try to block the sale to Dickie Brennan, but a judge ultimately allowed it to move ahead. The board finalized the sale during the summer of 2011, using the $3 million in proceeds to pay off debt, renovate the remaining theater space and repay ticket holders for the missed season.
With the building’s transformation complete, visitors entering the front door can turn to the right and enter the main stage lobby, or left and head for a new Brennan restaurant called Tableau. Straight ahead is a courtyard that will be shared by both restaurant and theater patrons.
There’s now a dining room and full-service bar where the old lobby used to be and a kitchen where the children’s theater was.
On the one hand, as Worley is eager to point out, the new arrangement has clear benefits.
“The bar is a big deal,” Worley said, noting that professional restaurateurs will be dishing out sophisticated cocktails for theatergoers instead of having Le Petit’s staffers trying to run a bar on their own.
Anyone who wants dinner and a show will have no more convenient option, although that may never have been much of a question in the Quarter.
Of course, living in more cramped quarters has also come with drawbacks, or at least a new imperative to use space efficiently. Up in the business office on the second floor, all the desks have wheels so that the space can be rearranged into an additional dressing room.
The area that constitutes the orchestra pit will now essentially serve three functions. It can still hold an orchestra if need be. But right now, it is covered by temporary sections of stage for “Love, Loss, and What I Wore.” Underneath, in a space that is still cluttered with old lighting and sound equipment, is where students will take their drama classes.
Still, whatever the complications, Le Petit is at least dormant no longer.
At the main stage on Thursday, cast members ran through lines while Walker, the play’s director, gave gentle instructions, first from the balcony, then pacing the aisles.
In white sneakers and linen shirt, a pair of round spectacles perched on a bald pate, Walker told the women on stage to speed things up.
“Don’t rush, but take out the air as much as you can,” Walker said.
“Love, Loss, and What I Wore” is not an ordinary stage play, but a kind of five-way dialogue made up of complaints and reminiscences about the trials of womanhood, an hour and a half of closet talk and raunch, all delivered in rapid-fire, staccato bursts from actresses sitting on stools behind music stands.
They read off scripts rather than memorizing the lines, and the cast changes each week.
Wardrobe deficiencies and body image problems figure prominently: “My arms, what happened to my arms?” “If my elbows faced forward, I would kill myself.” “My butt is falling.” “Is my butt falling?” “Oh my God, my butt fell!”