New Orleans Isn’t Known for Theater, But It’s Putting on Its Best Show

Story by Hannah Darcey, junior at Mount Carmel Academy.

It was the night of the Endymion parade. But five miles away from the bright colors, throws, and beads of Mardi Gras, David W. Hoover, theater director at the University of New Orleans, was building up his own beads—of sweat. He tried to reassure his cast of the always-ambitious “Ghosts” (Henrik Ibsen) by giving them a pep talk before the curtain opened.

“We’re doing this for us, so just know that going in,” Hoover said to the actors backstage.

It was the closing night of his students’ show and it was unfortunately scheduled on the same night as one of the biggest parades of Carnival season. Hoover and the cast expected to see more empty seats than occupied ones in the Robert E. Nims Theater. But after the curtain was drawn, to the surprise of everyone involved in the production, the house was packed that Saturday night. 

“We had the best crowd. We sold out,” Hoover said.

In some ways, that packed closing night on Endymion was unusual for New Orleans. The city provides a constant stream of cultural events, festivals and art forms, but that busy entertainment schedule creates a challenge for the theater industry. And because there is no possible way to avoid scheduling on top of the many entertainment opportunities New Orleans has to offer, all local theaters have to work around that schedule.

Mardi Gras can pose one of the greatest challenges for New Orleans theater directors—and not just because of all the distractions available. Hoover said that during the season, he’s experienced issues with his cast members arriving late to rehearsal because they got stuck behind a parade, or floats being transported from one side of town to the other. If the actors are unable to attend a rehearsal, directors may have to re-plan what was originally intended to rehearse that day. 

Aside from events, directors also must take weather into account. New Orleans is known for severe flooding and storms, especially during the hurricane season. So, depending on the severity, school campuses will close, which can cause the director to lose already scheduled rehearsal time. 

That being said, New Orleanians are not the type of theatergoers who buy their tickets beforehand. Letting a buzz develop is very important because most productions benefit from word-of-mouth advertisement. 

“You have to let that word-of-mouth build,” Jaron Caldwell, Director of Marketing and Public Relations for Southern Rep Theatre, said. “And so because of that, people are very last minute at buying tickets which can be a little stressful because three weeks out from a show we might not have a very full house on the books, but we can trust the process and, in one to two weeks in advance, it usually fills up.” 

For the most part, New Orleanians tend to seek out outdoor art forms and various events in the French Quarter, but don’t go in as heavily for theater performances. Southern Rep Theatre is attempting to change this by speaking to a more Crescent City audience. The company added a bar in their location for audience members to enjoy alcoholic beverages before the show. Southern Rep did not have a permanent home until recently, which is now located on Bayou Road. 

Another challenge for promoting attendance for New Orleans theater is the dwindling number of theater critics. In the past, there were dozens of theater critics reviewing shows around the city. But today, there are not many critics at all, with the exception of Ted Mahne and Brad Rhines. This all goes hand-in-hand with the disappearance of print media. Since there is less promotion in print, people won’t really know what makes or breaks a show. In cities like New York, critics have a major influence on how well a show is perceived. But more and more of those critics are shifting to social media, which can be a bigger influence where more people share their reviews of a show. 

The number of people that would rather not go to a Saints game, or Carnival is more than enough to fill an audience. A bigger scale theater such as the Saenger holds 2,600 seats, so at UNO they need less than that to be able to fill the house. Even still, many Saints fans do attend Sunday productions, and Hoover recalls hearing stories about audience members listening to the game in their ear buds. “I don’t think we have problems at the University with men putting their earphones in to listen to the game,” Hoover said. “But I’ve heard stories at Rivertown.” 

If UNO has a score on the game by intermission, they will announce it so that Saints fans in the audience are still up to date on the ongoing game.

Audience members love to see shows that are diverse in entertainment. New Orleans is a city that naturally has diversity and theaters want to highlight that talent and bring it alive on the stage. Other cities often have to force building out their diversity and work towards achieving it, but here it is a strength and theaters work on showcasing it, according to Caldwell.

For theater educators in New Orleans, there are even more obstacles to scheduling. They have to work around not only cultural events in the city, but also the academic schedule. They can’t present productions in the summer because the students are not on campus, so educators are forced to wait until the fall to have a production when their schools are up and running. Another hurdle in collegiate theater is that some directors, like Hoover at UNO, are unable to schedule a musical during Jazz Fest because many of the music students play at the festival. This would make them unavailable for the production. 

The theater scene in New Orleans has proven to be difficult to schedule around for most theater directors in the city. But while most people gravitate toward New Orleans’ events and festivals, there is an exception of New Orleanians who would rather go see a stage production than get hit in the side of the head with beads on Saint Charles Avenue. This balance—say, of offering entertainment opposite of a parade—is exactly why Hoover believed the closing night of Ghosts was such a hit. Directors have to take the extra step to take these challenges into account, but in the end the show proves to be worthwhile.