Live theater is one of the things I’ve missed most in the past year. Nothing compares to the feeling of walking into a grand theater and sinking into a luxurious red velvet chair to watch a Broadway show. Given that New Orleans is a cultural hub, it’s no surprise that the city is home to a thriving theater scene.
The past 14 months, however, have been nothing short of a struggle for theater companies in and around the city. Figuring out how to maintain an audience during a pandemic is an unprecedented challenge; a handful of New Orleans’ beloved acting companies have been able to to pivot over the past year, but sadly, many of them have not.
One that has managed to adapt is Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, a community theater company in Kenner run by Gary Rucker and his business partner, Kelly Fouchi. Rucker began working at Rivertown when he was in high school. He and Fouchi took over in 2012 and have been operating ever since. “[Rivertown] is very much a community theater, and we do titles that people know. We do musicals and comedies mostly. We also have a children’s theater,” Rucker said. Under normal circumstances, Rivertown does six to seven main stage shows per season.
In the early months of the pandemic, Rivertown raised money via YouTube and other streamed performances. But the team realized pretty quickly that people were uninterested in watching theater on TV — they wanted to experience it in person.
Rucker explained that because Rivertown is located in Kenner, the theater answers to that city and therefore does not follow New Orleans city guidelines. Rivertown has a very close relationship with Mayor Ben Zahn, and the Rivertown team worked closely with Zahn’s office to navigate this unchartered territory.
“[The Mayor] was very, very helpful in helping us achieve all the benchmarks we had to accomplish so that we could continue to operate as best we could under all the guidelines,” Rucker said.
Rivertown was able to get back to in-person performances relatively quickly.
“We organized a day with the fire marshal. We had seven fire marshals at our theater, and we did a long walk-through just to make sure that all of our policies were in place and that we were going above and beyond what was required to have events,” Rucker explained. “Although we had to cancel all of our upcoming season plans and we were in the middle of a run of a show that we had to cancel, we were lucky that we were only dark for a couple of months.”
That said, this season does look different than the previous ones in many ways. Rucker explained that they’ve never had to worry about one show leading into the next; the crew would strike the set and build the next in no time. But now, they have no choice but to reuse backdrops and props.
“We have to find ways to do more recycling. For example, we did Descendants recently. We decided to hang on to that, and it’ll be one of our camp shows. So we’re trying to find a way to do things once and use it several times just because of expenses, labor costs, and material costs. We’re just trying to minimize all that.” Additionally, Rivertown can only fill one-third of the house so that audience members are adequately spaced out.
The most innovative thing Rivertown has done to recap its audience is shift the main stage productions toward family entertainment. Before the pandemic, Rivertown’s audience consisted mainly of older people. But because the elderly have been wary to return to theaters, Rivertown had no choice but to become more family-friendly. In turn, Rivertown has profited by selling tickets to multi-person families.
Another challenge has been reaching out to usual patrons.
“We’re finding that a lot of folks don’t check their email. They don’t go online,” Rucker said, “so reaching out to the older folks to let them know that we’re back in business is a challenge because we don’t know how to get in touch with them other than sending a letter in the mail or calling every single one.”
In addition to following city guidelines, Rivertown has put many safety precautions in place. Actors are socially distanced onstage, and everyone must wear a level of protection during rehearsals, be it a mask or shield. Coincidentally, everyone working on Rivertown’s most recent production qualified to get vaccinated as a teacher or educator.
Auditions for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat will be held later this month, and one of the requirements is that actors must be vaccinated if they are eligible.
“It’s just it’s too much of a risk, especially if it’s a risk we don’t have to take right now. So why take it?” Rucker said. He hopes that things will be totally back to normal by September, which is the start of the show season.