ASTC Forum in the Big Easy – 2015
Like much of New Orleans, many theatres were devastated by hurricane Katrina. Is has taken 10 years of planning, fundraising and renovation work to bring many theatres back to life. During the 2-1/2 day Forum, ASTC members had the opportunity to visit six different venues. In addition to the theatre tours, the Forum provides an opportunity for members to share information about current issues within the industry.
ASTC member Michael DiBlasi led a tour of the renovated Saenger theatre. The Saenger originally opened in 1927 as an atmospheric theatre. After hurricane Katrina it sat empty and water damaged for a few years until renovation efforts began in 2009. Mr. DiBlasi told of having to don HAZMAT suits in order to enter the theatre after the flood. The high water mark, a few feet above the stage floor, can still be seen on the sidewalls of the stage. The 2,600-seat Saenger reopened in 2013 after a complete renovation of the facility. The historic character and charm of the original interior architecture has been preserved. Both renovated and new lighting fixtures maintain the historical look of the auditorium. The theatrical systems were renovated and upgraded to provide for the needs of current productions.
Across Canal Street from the Saenger is the Joy Theatre. Originally built as a movie house in 1946, the Joy closed in 2011. Since then, it has been successfully renovated into a venue for live music, theatrical performance, comedy and special events. The main floor is flat to provide flexibility for the live music events often booked into the venue. The balcony seating has been maintained. There are bars at the rear of the main floor, in the balcony, in addition to the bar in the lobby. The stage is equipped with lighting, sound and video to support the rock and roll acts that are very popular at the Joy Theatre.
“To jazz, or not to jazz, there is no question!” is a quote from Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong and best describes the Music at the Mint concert venue located in the Old U.S. Mint facility. ASTC members had the pleasure of hearing jazz cellist Helen Gillet in an afternoon concert. The Music at the Mint is dedicated to recording and webcasting all types of Louisiana performers. A video of Helen Gillet can be found HERE. The New Orleans Mint Performing Arts Center located on the 3rd floor of the Louisiana State Museum’s Old US Mint facility incorporates full capabilities for the production, recording and web broadcasting of live music and theatrical performances, lectures, symposia, oral histories, video interviews, and curatorial panels. From both a technical and cultural standpoint, the intimate performance space at the Mint compliments the Louisiana State Museum’s mission to collect, preserve and interpret buildings, documents, and artifacts that reveal Louisiana’s history and culture; and to present those items using both traditional and innovative technology.
Champions Square is a large outdoor venue with a stage in front of the Super Dome where concerts are presented along with pre-game festivities. ASTC member Chris Purpura provided insight into the original concept for the space and how it evolved. ASTC members also toured the adjacent club venues that feed into the atmosphere at Champions Square.
The Orpheum Theatre was just days away from its grand re-opening after being closed for 10 years. ASTC Forum attendees were able to spend a few minutes admiring this renovation as the staff was working hard to complete the finishing touches. It has undergone a complete renovation to restore it to its original 1921 grandeur while at the same time an adjustable orchestra floor has been installed to allow the audience floor to be either raked with traditional theatre seating or become a flat floor level with the stage for special events that may need tables and chairs or an open floor area.
The final venue visited was Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré right off Jackson Square in the French Quarter. This intimate theatre built in 1922 is home to a resident theatre company. Artistic Director Maxwell Williams and Managing Director Katie Holmes explained the organization’s mission and answered our questions concerning the facility. The theatre underwent a multi-million-dollar renovation in 2012-2013 as part of an agreement to sell a portion of the building. During the renovation, Le Petit was outfitted with new dressing rooms, offices, education and rehearsal space, as well as updates to its historic auditorium. A portion of the building was renovated to provide space for Tableau, a restaurant serving New Orleans Creole cuisine that directly connects to the Le Petit Théâtre’s lobby. ASTC’s Forum dinner was held at Tableau.
The Forum provides time for members to report on issues of interest to the membership. These reports included the revival of the ASTC Newsletter, now called ASTC:Notes, in a new web format and a report by Bill Conner, FASTC concerning potential changes to building codes that may affect theatres. Bill Conner has represented ASTC in the area of Codes and Standards since 1987.
The end of the Forum session included some brief presentations of renovation projects that members have completed recently.
- Peter Scheu, ASTC presented the Cab Calloway School for the Arts in Wilmington, Delaware. A renovation of a high school auditorium into a renewed performing arts facility.
- Robert Young, ASTC showed the complex renovation of the Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota. This involved a complete redesign of the seating area and an acoustically transparent proscenium arch.
- Heather McAvoy, ASTC showed the conversion of historic Roble gym on the Stanford campus into a black box theatre and a second space for dance performance and rehearsal.
- Rose Steele, ASTC explained how the area underneath the seating of the old football stadium at Kansas State University has been converted into an intimate small theatre for the Purple Masque Theatre.
- Kent Conrad, ASTC showed before and after photos for the renovation of Bakersfield College’s indoor theatre and outdoor amphitheatre. A second project was the transformation of a small tired 1960’s era auditorium into the revitalized Susan A. Nelson Performing Arts Center at the Webb Schools in Claremont, CA.
Twenty-one ASTC members attended the New Orleans Forum.
By Kent Conrad, ASTC