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Facing The Stage

An Opening Salvo From NoDef's New Drama Critic, Jim Fitzmorris



I begin this column as NOLA Defender’s theatre critic amidst a serious theatrical crisis. Not my own, mind you, but one that affects the theatrical community at large. The fringes are full; the center is empty.

There is no empire to rebel against; no powers-that-be to stick it to. Constantine has none of his mother’s old forms to rail against. The air is full of the smell of sulfur, but no one is offended. There is no one to offend.

... God does not need to stand up for bastards in this town. We have enough of them. What we need is some first-rate commercial product… that pays.

The Saenger is a monument to the can-talk-about-but-can’t-do attitude of the Nagin years; Le Petit is a victim of mismanagement; Le Chat teeters on retirement; Rivertown performs a self-parody of its already parodic self; and JPAS stands more for quality cultural events than an actual theatrical enterprise. Even Southern Rep, with its quirky programming and Off-Off-Broadway feel, has more of an outsider mentality than its status would imply. It might be a power, but it tries real hard not to behave like one. About the only power that be anymore is Tulane with its Patchwork, Shakespeare, and Lyric trifecta. But no one wants to assault that buttress, because, after all, one does not know from where the next real artistic check might come.

 

No, my friends, the action, that delicious possibility that something might be happening somewhere, is on the fringe. Literally. It is not just The Fringe Festival; it is the outlying neighborhoods of the city.  Theatrical action exists in The Marigny, Bywater, and walks in the roads in between. Artspot, Junebug, Running with Scissors, Ashe, Mondo Bizzaro, Cripple Creek, Inside/Out, AGND, Goat in the Road, Four Humours, and countless other entities make up a ferocious alternative theatre movement that is so vibrant that it threatened to hijack an entire American Theatre magazine article until a loudmouth former Tulane professor pulled it back from the brink. The state of New Orleans’ theatre is like Central Europe of the nineteenth century: a series of loosely associated duchies and fiefdoms intent on existing only in their magic realities.

 

This is not a good thing, because with the exception of three very distinctive producers, Ricky Graham, Theatre 13, and All Kinds of Theatre, there is little in the way of slick, polished, professionalism in the city. And none of those three producers, as of this writing, has a permanent home. There is something to be said for a 35 to 45 dollar ticket that promises fully realized sets, complicated light plots, exquisite costumes and an overall feeling that what you are seeing is comparable to what the folks are sitting down to enjoy on any given Saturday in Seattle, Minneapolis and Chicago. Productions that feel like the set looked great the Monday before it opened and whose opening night jitters are about an anxiety of ideas rather than worries about the lead’s lines are rare in this town. Without these kinds of events on a regular basis, all the fringe has to rail against are the political class and the financially successful creative class. Those people barely know the fringe exists except when they show up with Paul Chan to make the locals howl at the moon or send in a sea of blue to sink their arks.

 

God does not need to stand up for bastards in this town. We have enough of them. What we need is some first-rate commercial product… that pays. That kind of theatre needs actual producers: people who raise money. Those producers have to raise money by the thousands from investors. Those investors must choose to sit in shows rather than being in the two-week show before Lent. Those investors must spread the word, through actual marketing, to make theatre an event like Jazz Fest or Carnival. And once theatrical events have that kind of juice… that juice gets back to the fringe who, taking a break from their self-satisfied navel gazing, get pissed off and throw a couple of bombs into the mix. But right now, all the fringe is doing is performing contract demolition work on condemned buildings.

 

So forgive this newly minted critic if he errs on the side of polish. I am rooting for Irina’s kind of theatre in "The Seagull." We do not have enough good, old-fashioned, audience pleasing offerings outside of some nicely-realized musicals. We have exciting trends with nothing to influence. Wider audiences, outside of that magnificent Fringe Fest, are not coming to see the work on a regular basis. The only way they will get there is if they take the route through the mainstream. Audiences are built that way. It begins with the promise of first-class entertainment. Once entertained, it becomes easier to challenge. Remember, Actors’ Theatre of Louisville Humana Festival takes place only after two Halloween shows and two Christmas plays. Get them in with Van Helsing, Ralphie, and Scrooge, and they will come back to see SITI Company and "The Edge of Our Bodies."

Jimmy Fitzmorris' wit &

Jimmy Fitzmorris' wit & technical writing skill are fine but isn't the first task of the critic to help audiences and artists find each other when there is a mutual benefit in doing so. Quality in art aren't abstractions that exist independent from the social, economic, political and historical circumstances of the community that the relevant audience, artists and art critics encounter each other.
People who wish to celebrate or mourn past glory are within easy reach of the places where such fare is often served. Such days will never return. I see little value in glossy entertainment that merely facilitates the efforts of people with enough money escape "the hum drum of daily life." Most people in NOLA and the world recognize the bad conditions that threaten our survival. Artists and critics who are concerned about these things will be supported.

John, Thank you for your

John, Thank you for your fascinating reply. It is good to have you in the conversation. I hope you read all of my reviews with the same keen eye. If you do, you will see I am deeply invested in the creation of a genuinely engaged, critical community. All the Best, Jim

I took a drink every time the

I took a drink every time the word "fringe" was used and am now drunk. The goal of many Fringe artists is to become commercially successful by creating new and original work that may some day be seen on larger stages in larger cities. The face of theater is changing because the face of audiences are changing and if the large polished houses you speak of would have had the foresight to recognize this they may still be operating.

Thank you, for echoing my

Thank you, for echoing my words. Just as Andre Antoine moved from the close confines of his Theatre Libré to become the director of The Odeon, these thrilling and challenging artists on that, lift your glass, fringe may one day spearhead great institutions. The Group Theatre, Wooster Group, Siti Company, Elevator Repair Service and Lookingglass Theatre are all part of the grand tradition of actors on the margins who took the palace by storm. I am glad to see we are in agreement that the failure of local institutionalized theatre to engage in sound management and productions that speak to the community has ultimately doomed their existence. I am sure you will agree, however, that the fear is by the time these terrific theatre makers come of age, places like Le Petit might be party rental houses and condominiums.

We need more cheerleaders like yourself to spirit all our new young friends, in both age and soul, on to better things.

Jim

We're on it.

We're on it.

Thank you, Jim, for your

Thank you, Jim, for your piece. Producers who are not interested in setting foot on stage are the key. Their full time job is to find the money and put all the players together. Where are the Roy's? The Trish's?

Way to go, Jim! You're at the

Way to go, Jim! You're at the top of your form.

EXACTLY!!!! What a breath of

EXACTLY!!!! What a breath of fresh air! Look forward to your future posts!

Very interesting article Jim.

Very interesting article Jim. i have been saying much the same in the last few months since Le Petit's season cancelation. i wonder where you consider The NOLA Project in the scope of things. For fear of being accused of navel gazing, we often ask the question ourselves. i do not consider our company fringe, nor do I think we have the financial capacity to be a Southern Rep. One day, my goal is that. but at present I feel like we exist somewhere in the middle. i mention this because our last show, 'Almost an Evening' drew the most tremendous audiences that we have had in a few years. Moreover, the noticeable feature in all our audiences was the lack of recognizable faces. We had no idea where these people were coming from. Glad as hell to have them, but from WHERE we kept asking. our company's goal, in addition to our perpetual mission of developing a younger theatre support base, is to find out where this crowd comes from, what they like, and how much they're willing to dole out to see more of it.

i feel like im rambling. Main this is, I agree with you. The solution is...well, very difficult. Look forward to reading more.

Congratulations on your new

Congratulations on your new column. Very interesting read, and thought-provoking.

Amen, Brother!

Amen, Brother!

Too true and succinctly

Too true and succinctly stated, Jim.

-David

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