While we’re suffering from theatrum interruptus, I wanted to offer this column to the Artistic Directors of New Orleans’ theater companies to let us know what was going on when things shut down, what they’re doing now, and what plans they have for the future.
First up for PPF (Past Present Future) is The NOLA Project’s A.J. Allegra who has been nominated for eight Ambie Awards, winning for Best Actor in a Musical for The Producers (2010) and as part of Best Ensemble for The NOLA Project’s world premiere production of Gab Reisman’s Taste (2009).
The NOLA Project (TNP) was one week out from hosting our major annual fundraiser, The Spotlight Supper, when COVID-19 struck our city and halted all public gatherings in their tracks. We had to postpone the event to September and ask for the generous patience of our patrons. And while we still very much hope to host the event, which is crucial to our operating budget, in the Fall, the recent announcement by Mayor Cantrell that many large festivals and gatherings should forgo the calendar year altogether is something of a major concern.
A week or two after that, it became apparent that rehearsing for our May production of Treasure Island would be impossible given the stay-at-home orders. So we have decided to push the production to May 2021 as part of our 16th season. What is truly heartbreaking about this is that we were set to premiere this new adaptation (by TNP ensemble members James Bartelle, Alex Martinez Wallace and myself, inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s characters) at the brand new amphitheater in NOMA’s expanded Sculpture Garden. The wooden stage sits directly on top of the lagoon, thus our choice for a sea-inspired story, and audiences would be seated for the first time on a raked ground specially designed for superb sight-lines in this new venue.
Currently, TNP has shifted our focus to free online content for our patrons and we have enjoyed a lot of success in doing so, though without, obviously, any much-needed revenue. We began with a March Madness-style bracket contest in which all 64 major NOLA Project productions were pitted against one another within four quadrants as defined by our company’s 15-year history. We have just made it through Round One and voting has been growing greatly in popularity. It is a fun way to blend our love of theater with the conspicuous absence of any American sporting events. If you’d like to participate, check out our Facebook page (facebook.com/thenolaproject) each day.
Next, we began a live video series called SNL with TNP. Every Saturday night at 10:30 pm on Instagram (@thenolaproject), one of our company members goes live to entertain our fans with whatever they have. I performed a fireside chat. Leslie Claverie shaved her head. Natalie Boyd (normally a non-drinker) drank a whole bottle of wine while answering all kinds of questions submitted throughout the week. This past Saturday, Ken Thompson dressed up in a drag makeup tutorial.
We also have begun a series called Q & AJ in which I sit down over Zoom with interesting theater types to talk about their work. So far we have had two-time Tony Award winner Michael Cerveris and TNP’s own Claire Gresham as guests. We are also moving our monthly Rough Draughts new play-reading series online. Be on the lookout the last Monday of each month on our Facebook page for that; Q & AJ can also be found there.
We have some other surprises in store but I don’t want to reveal them just yet.
The future for us, and many other theater organizations, is a bit of a question mark, or perhaps an ellipsis.
We plan to be back for our audiences as soon as possible, but understand that public health is a priority.
We want to get back to normal, but understand that a new normal will more likely be the case.
We have a fabulous four-show season planned as well as an additional surprise that I cannot reveal yet. Currently, however, we are unsure when we can reveal it and when it can begin.
One thing that gives me great confidence is the weekly meetings that I have been having with Artistic Directors and staffs of the various other New Orleans theater organizations each Wednesday. Aimee Hayes of Southern Rep and I recognized early on the similarities of this situation to Katrina and knew that we had to band together and help one another in order to thrive for when this ultimately passes. We convened a major online meeting that has resulted in a true sense of togetherness as well as a joint effort to help one another and advocate for the eventual return of theater in New Orleans.
Similar to Katrina, this state of affairs necessitates creative thinking and experimental production models if we are to come back in full force. Tragedy often demands invention, and my hope is that the future of New Orleans theater, including NOLA Project, includes more risk in terms of content, performance location, performance scheduling, and audience engagement.
Creativity tends to thrive most when hope is at its dimmest. That said, no one is better at making lemonade from lemons than theater people. I look forward to when our curtains will rise again.
A.J. Allegra is the Artistic Director of The NOLA Project theater company. Allegra has over thirty credits with the company as a director, writer, and actor. Under his leadership, TNP has twice been awarded the National Theater Company Award by the American Theater Wing, has commissioned & produced 16 world premiere plays, and has formed many important cultural partnerships with area organizations. He holds a BFA in Theater from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and an MS in Nonprofit Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania. He currently is a theater faculty member at Lusher Charter School.