Play helps mark 25 years of the acclaimed theater company
This is the 25th anniversary season for Southern Rep, the popular and acclaimed theater company. Besides productions of the 2009 Tony winner “God of Carnage” and Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” set right here in New Orleans, Southern Rep presents “Red” in November, a play about real-life art icon Mark Rothko and his fictional relationship with his assistant. “Red” is set in the late 1950s as Rothko paints murals commissioned by New York’s Four Seasons restaurant. Recently, I spoke with Aimee Hayes, Southern Rep’s artistic director and the director of “Red,” about the show, the season and the company.
What made you select “Red” for this season?
“Red” is an opportunity to explore the questions of form and to look at the artist who made that form. The play is an incredible discussion about what it means to be an artist. I thought it would be a challenge for me and the actors.
How do you get a sense of the art itself during the show?
The script’s set directions state that the murals are being painted in a gym in the Bowery . . . . [For “Red”] Southern Rep will be gutted out, leaving just the bones of the place. Essentially the whole theater is the studio. The audience will truly engage with the play because it will be happening intensely all around them.
Though the show’s about art, its themes are universal.
I love the idea of an artist [like Rothko] demanding that much rigor from himself. A lot of people are like that. You don’t have to be an artist to demand the best from yourself. It is an important value that can always be reinforced in the world.
How did you cast “Red”?
This season we’re casting actors that we really had a connection with through our history. We already had “A Streetcar Named Desire” cast, the four main players from our earlier workshop [including Hayes as Blanche Dubois]. From the moment I read “God of Carnage” I saw Spud [McConnell] and his wife, Maureen, [Brennan] in the roles there. So, we cast them, Lara Grice and Gary Rucker. Part of my tenure here I’ve worked with Bob Edes Jr. and Sean Glazebrook. To have them together, in such an incredibly vivid, demanding play [like “Red”] just sounded like a great time. They suit the roles and will really own them.
What else should people know about “Red”?
It’s not a boring drudge about art. It’s a fascinating and hilarious combat between this artist, himself and the young assistant that he works with. And, with the things that take place technically on the stage, with the painting, making paint, it really is like a re-creation of that time period.
Also, Mark Rothko taught at Newcomb for 6 months, so he’s sort of a New Orleanian. [laughter] I would claim him just a little bit. He had a great time here apparently.
Southern Rep had to cut this season’s budget because of the economic downturn. How has that impacted you?
When we make cuts to the budget this early in the fiscal year, everything gets trimmed down across the board. We also have to make sure that we sell tickets, that we’re getting support from our subscribers. . . . It’s important they know we’re struggling just like every other nonprofit.
The recession’s really hitting New Orleans now, which makes it more important than ever to entertain people. That’s why we’re so excited about Ricky Graham being here, and Running With Scissors, and Theater 13, and The New Orleans Bingo Show. With Le Petit Theatre and Le Chat Noir both shuttered this year, we said, “Everybody come over. We’ll be your venue.” . . . We’ve had a great response from our audiences, which are so happy to be able to come here and see their favorite performers.
How has Southern Rep changed since you took over as Artistic Director in 2008?
The theater was founded to promote Southern writing. We’ve [kept] the focus to Southern writers in terms of development. . . . We have PlayLab, where playwrights can listen to their work in a safe setting; 6×6, a monthly play slam; masters classes throughout the year; and the [New Play] Bacchanal. . . . That’s an important part of our mission. The other thing we do is entertain and engage our audiences. That’s why we [now include] the best of Broadway and Off Broadway, and new plays from playwrights who have exciting voices and are right for our audiences.
Also, after Katrina the fabric of our city needed to be interwoven better with the arts culture. [To achieve this] we’ve worked with arts organizations and community partners. . . . We’re also working to create a theater alliance. We have so many new theaters here, and it’s important that they stay here and that we grow together. We do work that appeals to different audiences, and that’s great. It’s even more exciting when our fans cross over. That’s the ultimate hope, to get the audience excited, where they can try one thing one weekend, then explore something else the next.
All of this comes from a deep love for this city. We’ve come so far since the rebuilding and we’ve got to keep striving to make it better. Much like Mark Rothko, we need to demand excellence from ourselves at every turn. The cultural arts need to do their part, and partnership is the way to go.
For more information about “Red,” including ticket information, visit Southern Rep’s website, http://southernrep.com/, or phone the box office, (504) 522-6545.
– BETH HERSTEIN