"We aren't doing something right unless it seems a little bit scary."
I recently imparted those words at our staff retreat in regards to a discussion of future-season planning. And in looking back on the year that was 2017, I'd like to think that we practice what we preach. For The NOLA Project, 2017 was a year of great risk and tremendous reward.
We began the calendar year in the midst of a change of plans. Having assessed our need for more secure financial footing, we substituted a planned production of THE GRAPES OF WRATH for our co-production of A FEW GOOD MEN with Delgado Community College, directed by company member Jason Kirkpatrick. While some could potentially interpret that as avoiding risk, we viewed it as assessing our financial position following a difficult fall made notable by the state's historic flooding, thinking creatively, and being open and honest with our patrons about the need for a change. Too many artistic institutions are crippled by pride when facing impossible financial realities. We at The NOLA Project did what we believe we do best: We nimbly adjusted, turned the tables on a difficult situation, and came away with a successful production featuring the talents of so many of our gifted ensemble members. Not to mention, we set ourselves back on secure financial footing, ensuring many more successful productions to come.
In March, we set out to tackle our first Theatre for All Ages production with OSKAR AND THE COUNTLESS COSTUME CHANGES. The production played each Saturday afternoon during the month of March at NOMA, attracting larger crowds each weekend as word of mouth grew. For myself and past Education and Engagement Director Alex Ates, this was a true passion project designed to fill what we felt was a crucial void in our current-day New Orleans theatre scene. We desired to present fun, thoughtful plays that are as engaging for children as they are for adults and that provide a positive message for families to leave discussing. OSKAR did just that – and we are excited to produce a new OSKAR show this spring as well!
April and May were perhaps the two most creatively-exciting months in the 2017 NOLA Project calendar, as we "staged" the gargantuan world premiere of THE SPIDER QUEEN by company members James Bartelle and Alex Martinez Wallace. Working closely with director Jon Greene over the previous year, James and Alex crafted our first entirely-new story for the Besthoff Sculpture Garden at NOMA. Featuring 15+ characters, nearly all non-human, Jon and the ensemble set about working with hand-crafted masks from Tony Fuemmeler and giant puppets from artist Kenneth Thompson to create the in-the-round world of Gardendale. The results, as evidenced by the delightedly howling kids and families each night, were well worth the immense risk and effort. I might also add that these months included four Big-Easy-Award wins for our work in 2016 as well as the successful first mounting of our newest fundraising tradition, THE SPOTLIGHT SUPPER!
We kicked off our summer this past June with our first-ever major co-production with our friends at Le Petit Theatre. IT'S ONLY A PLAY, which I had the supreme pleasure of directing, felt something akin to coaching an All-Star game. With a cast that included Ricky Graham, Leslie Castay, Sean Patterson and company members Keith Claverie, James Bartelle, Cecile Monteyne, and Alex Ates, my work mostly consisted of sitting behind the director's table and keeling over with laughter night after night at rehearsals. The production drew rave reviews and went down in NOLA Project history as our best-attended show ever!
In July, we once again welcomed a class of 20 brilliant young theatre-makers for our 6th annual High School Intensive. This year, we updated our challenging curriculum to include devised theatre and script creation and brought it all together to work on the insanely-interactive play TOO MUCH LIGHT MAKES THE BABY GO BLIND. Once again, our student-actors excelled in tackling challenging work no other theatre program in the state of Louisiana is even attempting with kids age 13-18. Bold theatre for brave young minds.
August saw the start of our current 13th Season and The NOLA Project's return to musical theatre for the first time in nine years with URINETOWN, co-produced with The University of New Orleans and gleefully directed by myself. The musical was a triumph of what we do best at NOLA Project: Ensemble performance. Every single character in this uniquely-bizarre, and strangely-timely, musical is critically distinctive, unlike many traditional leads/chorus-type musicals. Our production took full advantage of this, sending our audiences out in waves of laughter, and earning us our best reviews of the entire year!
Additionally in August, we achieved two other major accolades: For the second year running, The NOLA Project was named Best Local Theatre Company by Gambit readers in the annual Best of New Orleans edition. And also for the second time, The NOLA Project earned the distinguished National Theatre Company Award from the American Theatre Wing, producer of the Tony Awards. I was graciously flown up to New York for a ceremony and info-sharing session hosted by The Wing in October where I met representatives from 11 other winning theatre organizations. Receiving this honor two times in three years truly cemented the fact that the national spotlight is now shining clearly and brightly on New Orleans as a major player in the American-theatre landscape. I am glad that The NOLA Project could play such a large part in that achievement.
In September, under the leadership of Director of New Play Development Mark Routhier, we kicked off our free monthly play-reading series, ROUGH DRAUGHTS. Held the last Monday of each month in a local New Orleans brewery, these completely-free readings allow our patrons to join in on the development process of new plays, as we read aloud scripts that are under consideration for future NOLA Project production. The readings are slowly but steadily growing a dedicated base of new-play fans that we hope will continue to provide us with meaningful feedback as we craft our artistic future.
Finally, we complete our whirlwind year with a series of film readings and one major GREEN ROOM GALA at the St. Alphonsus Art & Cultural Center. On a surprisingly-chilly December night three weeks ago, over 100 patrons and supporters gathered in the magnificent Irish Channel church to celebrate a year of bold theatre, artistic risk, and the greatest supporters any theatre company in New Orleans could ask for. I am personally thankful for so much, including our beautiful new office space now at The Shop, located on the 4th floor of the CAC building downtown. And I am even more grateful to share it with my new administrative partner, Managing Director Rachel Swan. She is the calm and collected yin to my frenetic and excitable yang. In short, she is the executive we have been looking for.
We have so much to be proud of, and even more to be thankful for as we put 2017 in the history books. But we also are faced with many challenges – artistic, financial, and political – in our future. But should we approach them with the same daring drive, gleeful risk, and intelligent planning as we have in 2017, I can't imagine there is anything we cannot conquer together. I hope for your continued support, attention, and advocacy.
I want to thank you for spending part of your last year with us at The NOLA Project. I wish you and your loved ones a bright and warm holiday, and I raise a glass with you to the fun times to come in 2018. Here's to the scary risks!