New Orleans has a rich history of lovely theaters, many of which were laid low by the floodwaters following Hurricane Katrina. That’s why it was such a fun and challenging assignment to chart the post-Katrina renaissance of five of these theaters: the Civic, Saenger, Joy, Carver and, most recently, the Orpheum. This was for Biz New Orleans‘ November issue, which is out on the streets and available online here.
In “Encore Performance,” I try to place both the collective and individual resurgence of the theaters in an economic perspective, checking in with leading authorities in the New Orleans business community to try to figure out just how all of these theaters will continue to sustain themselves. Maybe it’s a matter of remaining viable in an increasingly competitive entertainment market, though just about everyone interviewed didn’t think their respective theater was in direct competition with another. More accurately, it seems, it will be about each theater establishing its own identity (or “brand,” if you will) and making smart bookings (and at the right price point) that speak to their particular audience.
I would say that three of the theaters profiled have a firm grasp on that identity: the grand daddy of them all, the Saenger, obviously is the go-to spot for touring Broadway shows, big-name music acts and other top-flight entertainers (with the occasional touring family-entertainment show); the Orpheum is the beloved home to the LPO and prestige touring acts that have marquee value but not big enough for the Saenger; and the Civic, which has become an indie-rock haven while also welcoming such quirky acts as the legendary John Waters and the nerdie podcast show, “Welcome to Night Vale.”
If you can’t tell, I remain a bit skeptical of the Joy Theater, which has occasional great bookings for music and comedy and cabaret (hello, Alan Cumming!), but needs more consistency; and the Carver, which, at press time, appeared to be undergoing yet another management change. Stay tuned on that.
There are other factors, as well, most notably a New Orleans economy that appears to be entering the next chapter of its post-Katrina recovery — one that won’t necessarily benefit from the kind of recovery, stimulus, tax incentive or other funding mechanisms that brought these theaters back to life. There’s the job market, and wages, and a housing market whose boom period might at some point head to a seemingly inevitable burst. (Doesn’t it always?) As Greater New Orleans, Inc.’s Michael Hecht put it:
“These venues, which not only are expensive to operate but also to maintain, will be the canaries in the coal mine for the health of the New Orleans economy,” Hecht says. “As we continue to add companies and great talent from around the country, we need to keep building a middle class that has more disposable income. If, in the post-Katrina environment, as the recovery money goes away that the economy flattens, these theaters are going to be one of the indications of that happening, because this is where that disposable income goes.”
I’ll have more stuff in upcoming issues of Biz New Orleans. So please stay tuned on that and other future work coming soon. In the meantime, enjoy the piece.
That said, which theater’s future concerns you the most? Which one do you worry might not make the cut? Take the poll below.