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New Orleans, La. - After closing for a few seasons, the show will go on at one of the oldest community theaters in America. A huge off-Broadway hit debuts Friday night at the little theater in the heart of the French Quarter after a major renovation.
Steps from Jackson Square, at Chartres and St. Peter Streets, there's a rush of activity behind the walls of the corner building. Crews test the stage lights at Le Petit Theatre, and the all-female cast rehearses for opening night.
"It's like a very glamorous trunk show where people tell stories.... women tell stories.... about their lives in terms of the clothes that they wore," said Carl Walker, director of "Love, Loss and What I Wore." It's a little Le Petit lagniappe before the regular season launches in September.
"It's a staged reading so it's not full set, full costumes, but it allows us to test the lights and the sound and the space and just sort of feel how the traffic's gonna flow," explained Le Petit Board member Kathleen Van Horn.
She says it's a soft opening, and when it debuts Friday, it'll mark a significant chapter in the theater's nearly 100-year history because for more than two years the stage has been dark.
"You had the feeling that somebody has to step in and take care of this baby.... because this baby's sick," said New Orleans actress Janet Shea.
She remembers her last performance before the theater shut down due to lack of money and costly maintenance concerns. She explained parts of the second floor ridden with termites were off-limits. "We could feel the floor give under our feet," she said.
Fast-forward several seasons later, and Le Petit has a noticeable facelift, from infrastructure maintenance and up-to-date building code requirements to enhanced lighting and all new curtains. Van Horn said the Dickie Brennan Restaurant Group and its newest eatery, Tableau, stepped in with a plan.
"They bought 60 percent of the building, which allowed us to retire our debt.... to pay back our past season subscribers that you know we had to cancel that last season and to start.... to start an endowment to do the renovation," explained Van Horn.
Moving forward, she said they'll operate more efficiently with a completely revised board, financial policies and budgets.
She said their physical connection and new partnership with Tableau opens them up to new opportunities. "They will have before dinner.... before-theater dinners, after-theater dinners.... they're gonna be handling all of our concessions and drinks at intermission, which is a great weight off our shoulders," said Van Horn.
Actors and actresses will notice a completely renovated backstage area from dressing room and office space to a community classroom in the orchestra pit. Like the theater, a brick wall near the dressing rooms was preserved. Van Horn believes it may be one of the oldest brick walls in the city, dating back to the late 1700's.
"It really is exciting... it's such a joy ... and then when [Walker] told me I was cast... look... I almost jumped up and down in my kitchen," said Shea.
She got her start at Le Petit 58 years ago. Like her, New Orleans actress Lara Grice got her first acting gig at the little theater, but years later in 1985.
"We did a Christmas Carol... think I was caroler number one," recalled Grice.
Both women say they're honored to be cast for Friday night's production along with three others, including Tony-award winning actress Mary Louise Wilson.
"I'm sharing the stage with a Tony award-winning actress you know. I'll have to rub her for good luck," said Grice.
"This script, I'm telling you... every woman is going to relate to it. Men maybe not so much. They'll like it. They'll get to understand women better," said Shea.
To spice things up a bit, Grice's role requires a Latin accent.
Like Grice and Shea, Van Horn said the goal is to make Le Petit a mainstay where future generations can get their start. "We want to be an incubator of talent. We want to give designers and anybody that wants a chance to get involved in the theater a chance to do that," said Van Horn.
It's a little theater with a lot of history they hope is on the brink of a big comeback.
"Love, Loss and What I Wore" runs this weekend and next with a rotating cast. Tickets are available online at www.lepetittheater.com and range from $30 to $50. Regular season shows include "Lombardi," about the life of legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, and the musical, "Hair."
Le Petit has teamed up with the New Orleans chapter of Dress for Success to collect gently worn suits and women's professional attire to assist women as they enter or return to the working world. Le Petit asks that the public drop off donations each night before the performances at the theater at 616 St. Peter St. Each person who makes a donation will be entered to win prizes, including a $1,000 gift certificate to Saks Fifth Avenue.
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