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.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Where did those decades go?

Members of the Fortier class of 1971 at the recent reunion
It seems that it was only but a few years ago when I was forced to read "Beowulf" and had my first crack at cold reading a play, nailing the role of Tom in "The Glass Menagerie." But, no, it was much more than a few years. Indeed, it is well over 40 years ago that I endured the end of the period of time known as the Sixties. That point was driven home this weekend as I joined in the celebration of my graduating high school class. The class of '71 had a lot of things to endure. We were part of the generation that welcomed or fought court-ordered desegregation. Our class was literally half black and the other half mostly white, Hispanic and Asian. This balance did not extend to classes before or after. Our class was the tipping point. In later years the majority of students were black. The dwindling number of white and Hispanic students, whose parents chose to enroll them elsewhere, led to disparities of 90% and higher for black students. When the balance between races was more balanced as in the Class of '71, it forced students to confront those issues of racism that existed in outside society and glean more perspective from other quarters. Our class also dealt with a large amount of sexism. Women were not considered able to take on certain jobs such as policemen and firefighters. Very few politicians were women and a woman had yet to be nominated to the Supreme Court or be a candidate for either President or Vice-President. Need I mention the school-sanctioned Future Homemakers of America club? We were also embroiled in an unpopular war (or any wars really popular?) that was sending our own peers to fight an unknown enemy - and possibly die - in faraway rice patties. We had experienced assassinations in rapid succession of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and presidential candidate and Senator Robert Kennedy and were still reeling from those losses. Is there any wonder with so much to consider that many of our generation took to experimenting with drugs? While there were some pharmaceuticals that were popular in some circles, the most abused drugs at that time were tobacco, alcohol and marijuana. That marijuana had taken on such widespread acceptance along with a host of psychedelic and mind-altering drugs such as L.S.D., peyote or hashish during this period could be credited to a number of factors. Suffice it to say that conditions were ripe for members of the Class of '71 to question the American lifestyle and the manner of what was considered the norm (a nuclear family) and the trappings of success (money, fancy cars, etc.). We had tuned in and turned on and listened to the music of revolutionaries like the Beatles, the Doors and the Rolling Stones who advised us to love and party while we still had the time. We also heard from urban voices who cried for change like the Temptations in their anthem "Ball of Confusion" and Sly and the Family Stone with "Everybody Is a Star." What brought all of this back home recently is that I shared this past weekend with my former classmates at our (gulp!) 40th reunion. The faces have changed, the hair has grayed or disappeared in many cases and the waistlines have spread. But we are still very much the same. We are glad to know one another and while we don't see everyone that often, it is good that we get together and reminisce about where we were and how things were when we were still impressionable and for the most part without families of our own. Some members of the class have as many as six grandchildren and one admitted to having several great-granchildren. Some have been married as long as 45 years, but none of that really matters. What matters are the connections we made in a very turbulent time in our country's history. It was a time when we grew up and a time which made us very different than those that have followed including our own progeny. I am immensely proud to have been a class officer and to have been part of leading this class. I hope to be here for many more of these celebrations and have volunteered to lead the efforts in ten years when we will be celebrating our golden reunion. Our school, Alcee Fortier Sr. High School, is no more. It was restructured after Hurricane Katrina into Robert Mills Lusher Sr. High School, a charter school. But even so, we as a class are still very much together. All praise our alma mater. She lives within our hearts.