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The Little Theater That Could

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Gary Solomon, the man behind Le Petit’s resurgence, talks about the importance of the French Quarter icon

theaterLe Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre is the oldest continually operating community theater in America and a beloved New Orleans institution, but a year ago, due to financial woes, it almost had to shut its doors. Gary Solomon, a 23-year-old New Orleans wunderkind, and his Solomon Group volunteered to shepherd it through this period.

Since then, Le Petit has experienced a big turnaround. This year it’s produced a first-rate season of musicals like White Christmas and the upcoming Grey Gardens, along with numerous plays on its smaller stage. It also presented the musical White Noise, which hopefully is on its way to Broadway. “We still have a lot of growing to do, but we are in a very different place 11 months later,” Solomon says. “We can judge our success by the support we feel from the community.” So far, Le Petit has sold 30,000 tickets for this season’s productions.

Recently, I spoke to Solomon about the renaissance of Le Petit and New Orleans’ performing arts scene.

Le Petit Theatre is so much a part of the culture of the city, with its location and legacy.

We’re lucky because not many community theaters are as beautiful or as perfectly situated as ours. You can never forget that you’re in New Orleans because you can be in the middle of an intimate scene in the show and then a second-line band goes by out the front door. You just kind of make peace with it and go on. [Laughs] That’s what happens when you do theater in the middle of the French Quarter.

Despite its wonderful history, Le Petit had some serious financial problems last year. You resigned from the board so you could take over as interim managing director last March.

The theater was facing a bleak moment in its history. It had enough stacked up against it that something pretty serious had to happen to save it. I had just moved back to New Orleans and joined the board. So I happened to be in the right place at the right time. I took over as interim general manager through the vehicle of my group, Solomon Group.

My company has nine full-time people and everyone pitches in. It takes up a lot of energy, but it’s a really fulfilling investment and we enjoy it.

The community also rallied behind us in a big way. Our volunteer list grew to 350 people. Our mailing list went from 700 to 12,000 in a year. There was never a donation that was substantially large, but the volume of small donations was incredible. And they came with notes. “This is where I saw my first show” or “I brought my daughters” or “I spent my first time on stage there.” It’s been a real pleasure to be able to lead that charge.

Le Petit has been part of a resurgence of musical theater locally, with White Noise, Broadway touring companies returning to New Orleans and your whole season of musicals.

New Orleans has a very innate musicality to it, and there’s not a better theater in the city for musical theater, at least at the size and scale we’re producing. Musicals seem to land well with our audiences; they draw a larger crowd. Also we have this fantastic orchestra pit and we make use of it. We do a lot of plays on our smaller stage, so there’s a balance there.

Do you all still do children’s shows?

By the time I came along, there was no longer a formalized program for children. Instead of replicating our old children’s corner, we want [to find new ways of involving] children in theater. For example, this month we have a production of the musical 13, which features 13 incredibly talented teenagers from our community. These kids are incredible! Their energy is really rejuvenating. In addition, in the summer, we’re hosting the NOCCA musical theater program here. There aren’t two better organizations to partner and produce this program than Le Petit and NOCCA.

In addition to 13 you have Grey Gardens coming up.

That one’s really special, too, because we’re partnering with Southern Rep. Southern Rep is very different from us, but our missions are complementary. They really shine with new works, and we really shine in the musical theater realm. Grey Gardens, a great new American musical, is the perfect piece in which to put our skill sets together.

I was at Le Petit last year for the Tennessee Williams Festival. That’s a wonderful event.

We host a lot of events, and Tennessee is one that we love. We have a long history with them. They essentially take over the building for a week and make it their home. It’s a first-rate celebration of Tennessee and his works.

You graduated from New York University in 2008. What brought you back to New Orleans and how did you get started so quickly?

There is a renaissance in New Orleans right now, and young people are clearly driving it. You hear this from every young person who’s stayed or moved here: It’s a place where you can make a significant impact and feel tangible results. I could have stayed in New York, pushed papers and worked with some great producers. But in New Orleans, I have the potential to help build an indigenous industry for live performance.