arts, books and music

Southern Rep Theatre lowers the curtain after 36 years

(Southern Rep Theatre)

Southern Rep Theatre, a leading arts organization in the Gulf South, is closing after 36 years of artistic achievement.

The challenges of managing a local theater company over recent years proved too difficult to overcome, according to statement from Southern Rep.

“Unfortunately, financial pressures and other considerations during these extraordinary times have outpaced the available resources,” said Karen Swaim Babin, president of the Board of Directors since late 2020. “With heavy hearts, we have exhausted all options to serve New Orleans with our best, and we must acknowledge that closing is our most honorable option.”

The award-winning regional theater took up permanent residence in the former St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church on Bayou Road in 2019. The 13,400-square-foot church, built in 1915, had been renovated into a full entertainment venue.

Southern Rep presented its major regional and national premieres on a main stage that seated seating about 125 patrons. In addition, the former church contains a lounge and bar plus a smaller, more casual 65-seat Lagniappe Stage that offers music, comedy, children’s story hours, yoga, cabaret performances and other entertainment.

The St. Rose of Lima renovation is part of a three-building development of the vacant historic church property by the Rose Community Development Corporation and Alembic Community Development. Under a nonprofit partnership, the organizations purchased the vacant, deconsecrated church property in 2016.

Three local theater companies have announced they will be using the Southern Rep space, according to Alan Smason’s NOLA Theater Talk. No Dream Deferred, Junebug Productions and Voices in the Dark Repertory will be staging productions in the theater.

Even before the 2020 pandemic shutdown forced Southern Rep to scrap its already-developed 2020-21 season and scramble for virtual content, the venerable theater company had signaled it was financially strapped.

In December 2019, Artistic Director Aimée Hayes sent an email to the Southern Rep subscribers asking for donations to a GoFundMe account.

“Our expenses doubled last year while ticket sales continue to cover only about 30% of necessary costs” Hayes wrote.

Hayes also noted that Southern Rep primarily employed equity actors. “This season, Southern Rep will employ more than 200 artists; introduce theatre skills to hundreds of children; provide low-cost, community-based mental health support to creatives in our community; produce two world and three regional premieres; and host artists and audiences nearly every night,” she said in the email.

Of course, the planned “joyful, elegant season” never occurred. Hayes left in November 2020 after 13 years with Southern Rep.

With funds through pandemic relief programs such as Paycheck Protection Program, Southern Rep adapted to the pandemic by creating new programs, such as a Pop-Up Play Series.

It also adapted classic programming for a streaming platform. Its popular hyper-local and topical Christmas musical comedy, “Mandatory Merriment,” for example, became “Mandatory Merriment: This Time it’s Virtual!” But these efforts could not generate sufficient funds.

“We lower the final curtain with sadness and acknowledge this great loss to the community, but also with a sense of pride in Southern Rep’s long history,” Babin said. “We celebrate and honor Southern Rep’s long history.”

The company was always known for critically acclaimed, innovative productions. Playwright and scholar Rosary O’Neill founded Southern Rep in 1986. Its works focused on life in the South, tackling difficult topics such as racism and slavery.

From 2002 through 2007, under Artistic Director Ryan Rilette, the company began focusing on new plays by American playwrights, featuring regional premieres of national work.

After 19 years in residence at Canal Place, it lost its lease in 2012. The company then led a nomadic life, performing in the short-lived Mid-City Theater on Toulouse Street, Loyola University’s Marquette Hall, Michalopoulos Studio, Ursuline Academy auditorium theater, Ashé Power House theater and the Contemporary Arts Center.

“Countless memorable performances have graced the Southern Rep stage,” Babin said. “So many talented actors, playwrights and theater professionals have lent their talents to this company. We also applaud our loyal group of subscribers, supporters and audiences.

“We are inspired by our community’s continued work to offer excellent theatre to our deserving region” Babin continued. “We sincerely hope that Southern Rep has earned a special place in the fabric of the theatre community during its 36 years. Our desire is for our legacy to live on in the spirits of the theater professionals who have been part of Southern Rep, and in the memories of outstanding theater we have offered.”

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