Maxwell Williams first visited New Orleans 15 years ago, at the age of 21. Like so many first-time visitors, he was smitten with the city.
“I came down here with a friend whose step-grandfather was the former president of Dillard University, and her stepfather is New Orleans native Ben Dent, whose brother is a poet, Tom Dent,” Williams recalls. “So that family introduced me to New Orleans in a way that, if I was a tourist just coming on my own, I would not have had near the depth of experience. They kind of pulled the curtain aside a little bit, and showed me not only some of the cultural heritage of the city that was exceedingly rich, but also some of the realities of living here. Like many people who come to New Orleans for the first time, it makes an indelible impression. I came away thinking boy I’d really love to live in this city.”
But, says Williams, he never thought his career trajectory as an actor and, later, a director, would steer him south.
“I decided to throw my hat in the ring when the job came up down here,” says Williams, who was the associate artistic director at Hartford Stage in Connecticut at the time. “Everything just kind of lined up, so here I am.”
The job as artistic director at Le Petit fulfills what he best loves to do in the theater world, Williams says.
“I realized that the part of it that I really, really, really loved is being in the rehearsal room talking about the play, guiding impulses and hopefully inspiring great work out of other people. Now, as a director, most of my focus is in the rehearsal hall.”
When he left Hartford for New Orleans, Williams says that the best piece of advice he got came from his former boss. “His parting words were, give yourself three years to understand what your job actually is.”
So Williams is taking his new job at Le Petit one day at a time. One hectic day at a time.
“The theater is active and operating, so there is a lot to do. Every day is something new. But primarily my job is to set the overall aesthetic vision for the theater, to execute productions in a way that they are very very high value entertainments and instill a standard of professionalism at the theater.”
Is it too early to state that artistic vision?
“It may not be too early,” Williams replies. “One of the things about Le Petit that is of course so profound is that it has all this history. That theater’s been there since 1916. We’re looking forward to the 100th anniversary.
“I had never actually set foot in the theater until I came down in December for my job interview. As soon as you walk in the space you feel what has lived in there, how alive it actually is. Listen, I’m not a New Agey person, but a theater is always live. it’s made of things like wood and there are thousands and thousands of actors who have worked in that space, so there evolves a kind of patina or about the place. An aura. What I’ve been trying to do in my way is sit and listen. I like to go in on Sundays when it’s quiet and just listen to the theater and try to discover what it wants in there.”
Williams is well aware that Le Petit is poised between its past and its future.
“You can never lose sight of the past,” he says. “And I know that one of the things people love not only about the theater, but about the city, is that deep sense of history. At the same time, you can’t get bogged down in that. You cannot be married to standards and practices that prove not to work. In something like a theater, you have to be ready to evolve. You’re not saying goodbye to old friends but hello to new friends.
“We want people in New Orleans to know that Le Petit is their theater and the city’s theater. I think what goes on on our own stage needs to be reflective of where this city is now. Museums are great, but a theater is not a museum.”
It’s a good time for theater in general in New Orleans, Williams believes.
“Something’s on the table here, something’s in the air, where there might actually be a renaissance in theater in New Orleans that is sort of akin to what happened in [Washington] D.C. in the ’80s. There are a number of smaller groups doing exciting works, sort of itinerant works. One big challenge is that most of these groups don’t have homes. That’s OK — not having a home gives you the ability to be dynamic.
“What you don’t have except for Le Petit is that midsize theater with work that’s created by new Orleans for new Orleans. I think that’s where our niche at Le Petit needs to be.”
Le Petit has had its ups and downs since Hurricane Katrina. After almost closing two years ago, it has since rebounded with a multimillion dollar renovation, a new restaurant next door and, now, a new staff and crew. The 368-theater is also getting a new sound system. And this week, Williams announced a new season — five plays drawn from mid-century American theater.
“The first one will be Our Town by Thornton Wilder, who actually I just recently found out had an apartment on Royal Street for a short time. It’s a great American play; it also provides the ability to get into a conversation with the community here, the city here, not only in terms of the casting, not only learning these actors in town, but as a meeting point for a real conversation about what Le Petit is to the city, what the city wants from Le Petit.”
December will see a new adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye — “just a beautiful, important family story,” says Williams. Split across the Carnival holiday will be a new adaptation of Sleeping Beauty, done in British panto.
“It’s entertainment for all ages,” Williams says. “You know, we all watched Looney Tunes as kids, and then as adults there’s sort of this hidden meaning, and that goes on with these pantos. Lots of double entendre and ribaldry.”
In commemoration of the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival’s 30th anniversary, Le Petit will be doing The Glass Menagerie. The season will end in May with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
“That’s just the funniest American musical comedy and just gives us a chance to kick up our heels and have fun. I’m pretty excited.”
In addition to the new season, Williams hopes to broaden Le Petit’s ties to the community in other ways: Concerts, educational programs, children’s theater, perhaps partnership with a dance company or two. With the 100th anniversary looming next year, he’d like to find a way to tell people’s stories about Le Petit. That local connection to the theater, he says, is a thread that runs through all of his plans.
“We’re definitely looking to develop some very robust educational initiatives in the coming years. We are always looking to bring young people to the theater. We haven’t quite decided yet how that’s going to roll out, but it’s very important to us. Not only to introduce young people to the theater and inspire them, but of course you’re also shaping the audiences of tomorrow.”
“We’re open to a lot of stuff. But it’s also important that we maintain the identity of the theater. That first and foremost, it is producing theater. Our real ambition is to become not only the place where New Orleanians go, but for the whole Gulf South. Where people say, ‘Have you been down there? You should see what they’re doing down there.'”
Speaking of history and Le Petit’s place in it, is it true that the theater has a ghost?
“I think there are 13 ghosts,” Williams says with a laugh. “I haven’t personally met any of them. Thought I will admit to when I’m alone sometimes talking to them. To let them know I’m there to do good stuff. That I’m here to help, you know.”
For more on Le Petit Theatre events, subscriptions and to purchase tickets, go to www.lepetittheatre.com.