Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The drama that is theatre

For several months now the battle has raged. There have been accusations and recriminations on both sides as the struggle for control of Le Petit Théåtre du Vieux Carré has persisted. The facts have been disputed by both the Board of Governors and the Le Petit Guild members, but the love of the country's oldest community theater (founded in 1916) is not in doubt. The passions on both sides are fierce and run deep. For those not familiar with the controversy, I shall in a cursory fashion sum up what has transpired thus far. The theater building bordering on Jackson Square has been and still is in great need of repairs. Although several valiant figures have emerged through the last decade to lead Le Petit, the board had found itself in ongoing financial trouble. Damages from Hurricane Katrina and recent improvements to the main stage were costly and a balloon note on the mortgage for the historic property also loomed large. There were indications that the bank would call their loan. With sadness last year, the entire season was cancelled in December of 2010 when it became apparent to the Board of Governors they could no longer afford to put on productions without losing more money. Board members looked at several options from different quarters and eventually decided to invite local restauranteur Dickie Brennan to develop a significant portion of the facility into a restaurant. The agreed upon price would be $3 million. The facility would, for the most part, remain a theater, sharing common space with the restaurant such as the central patio on the property. This led to a number of people in the theatre community crying foul. Some did not want to lose the smaller of the two performing spaces - what had been formerly known as Teddy's Corner or Muriel's Cabaret Theatre - to a restaurant at all. Others stated that to use the space for a restaurant, which it had been previously, would be more judicious and proper. Some liked the Brennan family's track record with restaurants. Others questioned the need for yet another Brennan restaurant in the French Quarter. Meanwhile, the Le Petit Guild, an advisory group made up of friends of the theater for the past half century, took the opposite tack. They argued the board was not looking at other alternatives. Recently, they claimed the valuation of the building was far beneath what had been suggested in pending documents for the lease and that to proceed might not only be criminal, but could put the tax exempt status of Le Petit into question. A vote by the Board of Governors on the subject was called to change the bylaws allowing the sale of a portion of the property to Brennan to take place. The Guild members challenged the vote by taking the matter to Civil District Court. The Board of Governors countered by challenging the order from one court by having another opinion offered by another judge. He decreed the Guild members were to cease and desist their tactics and were not allowed to engage board members in any way. The battle over the last several months was pitched and combatants bound by their love of theatre literally waged war against the other. Last night the board assembled all voting members - season ticket subscribers - and the outcome was a 74-58 win for the Board of Governors. The sale of a portion of the building can now proceed, the mortgage can be retired, new repairs can be made and the healing process over what is now a major rift in the theatre community can begin. As a lover of theatre and a reviewer of most productions seen on the local front, I have taken no side and I do not wish to broker animosity from my friends on either side. Nevertheless, my opinion today is that we urgently need to make strides to bring these two factions together. The hurt on both sides runs about as deep as it can go and I am saddened that such a vibrant and robust community could be split to its core over one issue - albeit a major one. After Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that decimated the city, the first artistic group that returned in force was the theatre community. Even while residents were living in trailers and eating at taco stands, there were actors, singers, dancers and technicians coming together to put on shows to bring some happiness back to a town full of anger and rage. These brave souls took the sting off a horrible chapter in this city's life. Recently, we have lost an invaluable performing venue at Le Chat Noir and several major performers and directors have felt compelled to leave New Orleans and may never return. Now is the time for us all to come together and ease each other's minds. The vote has been taken, a decision has been made and change - the essential part of life - must go on. Acceptance is tough to take when one is on the losing end and the board members should be gracious as plans are made for the future of Le Petit. It would be a real life tragedy if this drama persists any longer.


healthedman said...

Oy Vey!

healthedman said...

Elsewhere in the civilized world: There was a recent article in the NY Times about the rebuilding of the Kessler Theater, downtown Dallas. After thirty years of vacancy and an array of problems, far worse than anything Le Petit has yet to encounter, it was "saved" by a returning Texan. His vision for his theater is similar to mine (and the New Orleans community, at large, for the most part): he added daytime dance and gymnastics classes for adults and children in the community, live music, classic movies, guest reading (plays and poetry), and of course, a regular fare of professional-level community theater. One man (not a governing board of know-it-alls), did it without a restaurant! We DO NOT need another restaurant. Are souls/spirits/emotions need to be nurtured, not our stomachs.