More than 100 years before Satchmo or shrimp po-boys, New Orleans was a common stop for traveling theater companies and also home to the oldest theater in France’s 18th-century empire.
Later, in 1836, the finishing touches were put on the St. Charles Theater, the envy of thespians across the country. An article published that year in the Philadelphia Evening Post read, “When entirely finished, it will be one of the most splendid theaters in the world ... a structure of which every liberal-minded man in New Orleans may justly be proud.”
But it wasn’t just the structure that attracted the country’s admiration. “It is ... the legitimate drama, within its walls, by the best actors in the country ...(that) secures our warmest approbation.”
Of course, these days, a lot more competes for our leisure time. An 18th-century playwright didn’t have to go head-to-head with the final season of "Game of Thrones," for example. But that’s the benefit of a Sunday matinee — you don’t have to choose.
In fact, the only choice you have to make is between boatloads of exciting, imaginative and cutting-edge performances taking place across our metro area.
It doesn’t feel like it, but fall’s reportedly here, and that means theater season’s arrived. Here’s some of what you can look forward to.
A citywide affair
Named New Orleans’ Best Local Theater Company in 2017 by Gambit Magazine, The NOLA Project is in its 14th season. The company is known for the consistency of its talented 34-member cast, the provocative nature of its work and its ability to find a stage in nearly every nook of the city. This year’s performance spaces range from NOMA’s Great Hall to The Little Gem Saloon.
Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy, "THE PILLOWMAN," is up next on the schedule. Then, later in the season, the NOLA Project will present a world premiere of a piece called "STOCKHOLM SYNDROME." If that sounds too dark, don’t worry — it’s a musical comedy! And if that sounds too light, don’t worry — it’s about a hostage crisis!
The season wraps up in the Sculpture Garden with "THE HENCHMAN," a sequel to "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," 400 years in the making. And it’s always worth keeping an eye on their website for additional events like table readings of cult-classic movies or drafts of plays performed inside breweries.
“I think audiences appreciate our signature style and provocative productions,” artistic director A.J. Allegra said. “If you don’t leave one of our performances feeling something strong, then we haven’t done our job.”
Live from New York!
Touring versions of Broadway shows are perennial hits in New Orleans, bringing long lines to the Saenger Theatre at 1111 Canal St. This year's productions include "ALADDIN," "SCHOOL OF ROCK," "ON YOUR FEET" and "ELF." Next year the much-anticipated touring production of the blockbuster HAMILTON arrives.
Home sweet home
If The NOLA Project aims to produce plays throughout the city, then Southern Rep Theatre is thrilled to be home. Aimée Hayes, producing artistic director, says, “All our shows will take place at our new permanent space at 2541 Bayou Road, a renovated 103-year-old church with three performance spaces inside.”
In its 32nd season, Southern Rep features two regional premieres and kicks off with Lucas Hnath’s "A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2," in early-October. The season also has three homegrown world premieres, including a celebration of Mahalia Jackson and a festive, raucous holiday musical complete with seasonal cocktails.
Community theater in the Quarter
Le Petit Théâtre Du Vieux Carré has entertained French Quarter audiences since 1916. Thousands of audience members flock to the “Little Theatre” each year to enjoy “dinner and a show” with high-quality theatrical performances and a meal (or at least a cocktail) at adjoining Tableau.
The new season opens in October with a run of "SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF," a one-man, three-character play that explores the life of Louis Armstrong. Another highlight of the five-show schedule is "A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER," the most-nominated show of the 2014 Broadway season, featuring one actor playing all eight of the doomed heirs who meet their ends in …”creative ways.”
Heading out to Jefferson Parish
Orleans isn’t the only parish in the region with a thriving theater scene. The Jefferson Performing Arts Society has three theaters and a full docket of performances, beginning with the whodunit "SHEAR MADNESS." The season also includes "THE SANTALAND DIARIES," written by David Sedaris, a comedian and author.
And it’s just a short trip to Old Kenner to catch a performance at the Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts. The hit musical, "THE MUSIC MAN," plays through the end of September, as does a wacky, crossdressing take on "THE GOLDEN GIRLS," “recommended for mature audiences, only.” New shows constantly cycle through the space, including a run of "MAMMA MIA!" to close out the season.
Theater, theater everywhere
Small theater companies are all over the city — balancing an exploration of the classics with the production of original, innovative works.
The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans focuses exclusively on the works of Williams, one of America’s great playwrights. Co-founding artistic director Nick Shackleford explains, “We follow a similar model as Shakespeare companies, presenting three fully-produced plays per season.” One runs this holiday season with the attention-grabbing title, "THE MUTILATED — A TENNESSEE WILLIAMS CHRISTMAS SPECTACULAR."
Radical Buffoons’ Artistic Director Jon Greene says his company doesn’t like to think of itself as producing plays. “We produce large, physical, comic, highly theatrical works of theater that entertain, challenge and speak directly to our New Orleans home.” The season kicks off with the experimental work, "STORIES WITHOUT WORDS," in October, followed by "BALLOONACY" — meant to both challenge adults and entertain children.
In its 10th season, Goat in the Road Productions is always developing new work. Support the group by checking out its website for more information on an Oct. 5 Bingo fundraiser or audience-favorite "SHAKESBEER: ROMEO & JULIET," a 30-minute version of the world’s most famous love story, paired with a Shakespeare-themed drinking game at the Bywater’s Parleaux Beer Lab.
That’s a lot of theater! And you can always check out what’s going on at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts or in the theater departments of any of the universities.
So enjoy your classic New Orleans cuisine this weekend. But instead of heading home to Netflix, make your way to one of the city's theaters. You won’t regret it.