The 100-year-old Startup

After some rough years, Le Petit Théâtre readies to pull the curtain on a new start.

You could make the case that no other performance space in New Orleans works from such a strong cultural foundation and yet faces more challenges than Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré. The space that once held the title of the nation’s oldest continually operating theater (thanks, Katrina) with serious brand recognition in a city now filled with revitalized old theaters is heading into its second century with as much uncertainty as excitement.

That’s why, on the eve of the theater’s 2016-17 season — marking 100 years of only slightly blank history — Le Petit still views itself as a startup.

New management has been brought in — including artistic, operations, development and bookkeeping. Excel spreadsheets were created from scratch. Programming was revamped and reconceived. But when the lights dim and the curtain rises for the season opener — the Tony Award-winning musical, “Pippin,” on Sept. 16 — there will be a pretty big weight on the little theater of the French Quarter.

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No one feels that weight more than Artistic Director Maxwell Williams and Managing Director Katie Hallman, two Northerners who came to New Orleans from different paths to achieve the same goal. Whether in person or on the phone, you can see or hear the pressure in their voice. They realize Le Petit can’t just put on a show. The people have to come. And, a year and a half after taking over, they’re still working to figure out the magic sauce to make Le Petit thrive in an uncertain market and a changing French Quarter.

“It’s our job to provide a variety of programming,” says Williams, who came to Le Petit in spring 2015 from Connecticut’s Hartford Stage, where he spent three years as associate artistic director. “As long as it’s curated well, and as long as we hold it to a high standard, I think we can widen our appeal.”

But that programming will have to speak to a consistent and cohesive brand that reassures its prospective ticket buyers that there’s such a thing as a Le Petit identity in a historic theater space that will continue to bring in donor, grant and other forms of support. (Le Petit gets about 60 percent of its revenue through ticket sales, and 40 percent from outside support.) At places such as Rivertown Theaters or Tulane’s Summer Lyric, you’re guaranteed a well-polished Broadway musical. With Southern Rep, you’ll see the newly developed theater works, often with a local angle. At The NOLA Project, you’ll see hip, edgy, often site-specific works featuring some of the city’s top young talent. And with Anthony Bean Community Theater you’ll see some of the best in African-American productions.

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Le Petit knows it has to hit a kind of sweet spot in terms of programming — with variety, sure, but with a focus, while also opening itself up to outside productions to better maximize the earning potential on nights when the space is otherwise dark. That could mean a music act, like the scheduled cabaret show featuring Liz Callaway in August or the recent confirmation of Cecile Monteyne’s seasonal “You Don’t Know the Half of It” comedy improv shows.

TOP-Managing Director Katie Hallman and Artistic Director Maxwell Williams are two Northern transplants looking to revive Le Petit.

The 2016-17 Le Petit schedule itself is a mixed bag, with shows that one might think could be staged elsewhere in the city — like the musical “Pippin,” say, or Terrence McNally’s recent work, “It’s Only a Play,” which closes the season next June. Then there’s “Jelly’s Last Jam,” the musical about New Orleans’ own Jelly Roll Morton, which curiously doesn’t get much stage time in the Crescent City. But it does speak to Williams’ desire to add more diversity to Le Petit’s programming, which was hinted at in the July co-production of “The High Priestess of Dark Alley.”

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Both Williams and Hallman agree that, as with any company setting great expectations, the customer has to feel like they’re being treated to an experience they won’t get anywhere else — so sometimes, the devil is in the details.

“Whether they come once or five times, I hope they found some comfort in knowing, ‘This is the kind of setting I’ll see … even the playbill is important,” says Hallman, who moved to New Orleans in 2014 after serving as director of concert operations for Manhattan Concert Productions in New York City. (She moved here with her playwright husband, Cavan, before taking the Le Petit job.) “You can learn to expect it and you can rely upon it, and that’s a comforting feeling.”

There was a lot of work, and a lot of trust building, before this 100th year could become a reality. First, the management had to restructure the books and figure out a whole new infrastructure of theater operations. Barbara Motley, the former Le Chat Noir owner, brought in her financial expertise while serving on the board as treasurer. Old friendships had to be renewed, new friendships made, and grant funding explored.

It’s been a rough few years, especially after Katrina, for Le Petit, which fell into nearly $1 million in debt and was forced to sell half its property to the Dickie Brennan & Co. for a reported $3 million in 2012. (Brennan subsequently opened the restaurant Tableau, across the courtyard from the main stage.) Artistic director Cassie Steck Worley, who’d also served as board president, was forced out in 2014 — not long after an embarrassing scheduling snafu forced them to drop “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and scramble to fill in the gap. (They did, with a successful showing of the locally produced “Under the Boardwalk,” originally staged at Rivertown Theaters.)

The sale of that chunk of the theater, while helping to pay off debt and provide needed renovations, still left some longtime supporters sore. Then there is the matter of a board of directors that had wrestled with its own mission of how to be effective without meddling and when to hire and then trust a new management team.

Barbara Motley has seen it from both sides. With a deep background in the business of the performing arts, she’d spent a year filling in as the head of the Contemporary Arts Center in the early 1990s so it wouldn’t have to close as it sought a new path. She later opened the popular and revered — but not necessarily lucrative — Le Chat Noir in the late 1990s. After years of delighting audiences but staring at a rough bottom line, Motley finally closed the beloved space in 2011. (One of its spiritual progeny, the Mid City Theatre, has since come and gone.)

Motley suggests caution as the board moves forward with the new team to ensure everyone knows their role.

“The board had to let go of the idea that they had to operate the theater, and step into the role of governance,” notes Motley. “The key is, can you let go? Last year was a year of letting go. It was the steady drumbeat of the board meeting: ‘best practices, best practices, best practices.’ That wasn’t an easy year for Max and Katie. They had to get their heads around the finances and set up the structure to move forward. And they were dealing with a board that was used to asking micro and macro questions. I think it was about Max learning about the city and about what a season should look like, and where the new works might be located.”

“It’s our job to provide a variety of programming. As long as it’s curated well, and as long as we hold it to a high standard, I think we can widen our appeal.” – Maxwell Williams, Artistic Director

Motley also sees a bright future for Le Petit, if, that is, the new team can strike the right balance of a theater committed to serving the community both with its own presentations, and others.

“There’s potential at Le Petit, not only to sell tickets, but also to use the down time in our season,” she says. “It’s an interesting, fun challenge. What I did at Le Chat was what to do on those nights. You’re a good theater citizen and providing a good space. Part of our mission in being good leaders and collaborators will be to figure out how to let others use our stage.”

Le Petit may have had its rough patches, but it still benefits from a pretty loyal following, especially in its donor base, as Crystal Gross learned when she came on board as development director after about eight years at WWOZ.

“Le Petit has a core group of supporters, The Drawing Room Players, which currently number at about 65,” she says. “These donors support the theater financially by going above and beyond season tickets. They are philanthropic-minded individuals who love the arts and have a very warm place in their hearts for Le Petit.”

Longtime supporters are key to a historical theater like Le Petit, and it took their donations to help fund recent improvements such as a new sound system and seating.

“They want to see Le Petit thrive,” Gross adds, “and are enthusiastic about the centennial season.”

Municipal and state support for the theater almost seems non-existent — typical of a national climate of non-support of the arts — but Le Petit is trying to find grant funding where it can and where it previously hasn’t looked.

Nationally, management points to a recent $10,000 gift from the Shubert Foundation, a strong supporter of live theater, and their hope to get more help through the Louisiana Economic Development Live Performance Tax Credit Program (on life support during the current budget crisis). Hallman notes that Le Petit received a “stability grant” last year from the State Arts Council.

This kind of incremental growth, even for such a venerable place, is tough when you’re acting like a startup, and that’s reflected in Le Petit’s budget, which has crept up from around $850,000 in 2013-14 and is projected to be a little over $1 million for 2016-17. Part of that increase is due to the fact that the staff structure was expanded and new employees have been added.

As someone who has a strong history with Le Petit but now produces his own shows, Rivertown Theaters’ Gary Rucker also has a unique vantage point on this kind of growth. His fond memories of some of the great musicals produced at Le Petit are tempered by watching a struggling theater trying to regain its footing after having pulled off something similar himself.

The programming has to both fit the theater’s focused vision, he notes, while also drawing in maximum crowds in an uncertain market. After all, “Pippin” could be a Rivertown Theaters production just as “It’s Only a Play” could be at Southern Rep. But Rucker knows what rebranding and re-launching are all about; after all, he and partner Kelly Fouchi used their Theatre 13 company to take over the defunct Rivertown Rep — and clean out all its baggage — in 2012.

TOP – After falling into nearly $1 million of debt, Le Petit was forced to sell half its property. The land was purchased by Dickie Brennan & Co. for a reported $3 million in 2012 and has since been transformed into the restaurant Tableau, across the courtyard from the main stage.  BOTTOM – Le Petit’s annual budget has crept up from $850,000 in 2013-14 to a projected figure of just over $1 million for 2016-17, in part due to an expanded staff.

Now, he says, Rivertown Theaters’ shows play to packed houses and revenues have increased each year.

“When Kelly and I took over Rivertown Theaters, it was in pretty dire straits, and we had to do a lot to pull it out of the ashes,” Rucker says. “And every year we’ve learned a lot about how to make it a good business. I don’t think Le Petit has had a team in there long enough to figure out that learning curve. I think the team that’s in there now is at the beginning of the process of where we were four years ago.”

As artistic director, Williams faces his own set of challenges. There’s the idea that live theater is dying, a notion that continues in the shadow of a national trend, and yet people still seem to find a way to attend local theater.

But then there’s the changing landscape of the French Quarter, a place once dominated by locals but which increasingly fights off the reputation as a Disneyland for tourists with a shrinking sense of local (or higher) culture. The theater sits on prime real estate — even if it did shrink by half — with its view of Jackson Square and a welcome spot for foot traffic. If Williams can figure out a way to get the kind of magnetic pull of music venues like House of Blues or (more to the New Orleans culture) Preservation Hall, there might be a steadier flow of ticket buyers.

He also needs to figure out why a show belongs in the space, and who he’ll bring in to produce the show. Should the shows be dominated by local actors and directors? Should he bring in outside talent and risk alienating a tightly knit theater community? When he partners or collaborates with other groups, like The NOLA Project, how deep should that collaboration be? How much money can they make by renting out the space? With every rental or co-production, someone else gets to dip a hand in the cookie jar.

But the first step has to be to fill the house, and slowly but surely, Le Petit is getting busier. Williams notes that just two years ago, the space was used 76 nights out of the year. Last year, it was 85. For 2016-17, they’re shooting for 150.

Still, Williams can be forgiven when he says, quite frankly, “I only just moved here in March of last year, so it’s been, I don’t know, 15, 16 (years). Sometimes it feels like a decade, sometimes it feels like just yesterday.”

But with that pressure also comes a ton of enthusiasm. These are outsiders, sure, but experienced outsiders. And they may have been put through the wringer, but they’re young and have the energy. As many challenges as Le Petit faces, the new team still seems ready for the curtain call.

“Our specific vision is not yet set in stone,” Hallman concedes, “but our steps toward finding solid footing in a vision that acknowledges the theater’s deep history while moving into the future are in motion. Much of last year was dedicated to getting our business house on order, getting our professional staff rebuilt, and testing the waters artistically.

“With not-for-profit theaters, deciding who you want to be is a process,” she concludes. “We believe in the power of live theater in New Orleans, and for New Orleans, and we are thrilled to be an active and historic part of this community’s live performance landscape.” 


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