You can’t make this stuff up.
This past Aug. 8, 23 days before the NOLA Project’s premiere production of Gabrielle Reisman’s Hurricane Katrina-inspired play Flood City was scheduled to begin performances in New Orleans, heavy rain began to fall just north and west of the city. The storm didn’t let up for eight days. By Aug. 15, more than seven trillion gallons of water had fallen in Louisiana and Mississippi. The toll to date: 13 fatalities, an estimated $110 million in agricultural losses, 40,000 homes damaged.
Dubbed the “Great Flood of 2016” and labeled by commentators as a “once-in-a-thousand-years event,” the storm was no Katrina. Despite the massive scope of its damage, New Orleans itself was minimally affected, and the loss of life was minuscule by comparison to the Great Flood of 2005. But for Reisman and her production team, the untimely storm jolted the play they were rehearsing into a cathartic new reality.
“Talk about déjà vu,” exclaims the 33-year-old playwright, who had moved to New Orleans from Chicago in August 2005, three weeks before Katrina hit. “The situation was so similar: watching people deal with their destroyed houses, the streets full of garbage, people complaining, ‘The world’s not listening to us! Nobody’s here to help us!’”
“I felt a lot of helpless guilt,” confesses NOLA Project’s enterprising artistic director A.J. Allegra, another transplant from the Midwest, who was a college student working in New Orleans on the first-ever NOLA Project productions when Katrina sidelined the fledgling company’s initial efforts. “In New Orleans so often the narrative goes that the city is under siege by weather disasters, but in this case the situation had flip-flopped. We normally have to seek refuge in cities like Baton Rouge or Hammond, or other parts of the state to the north or west—and now they’re the ones underwater!”
In fact, the set for Flood City (Sept. 1-17) was being constructed in the town of Hammond, some 60 miles northwest of the city, when the rains hit. Set designer Steve Schepker, a theatre professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, was trapped by the encroaching water—while his own house wasn’t flooded, it was surrounded by standing water, leaving him unable to travel. “That Friday and Saturday, I hunkered down with relatives and ate and drank, just glad my house was fine,” Schepker says. The NOLA Project’s managing director Carol Knott, who also lives in Hammond, and three members of Schepker’s building crew were not so lucky—their nearby homes were all invaded by water.
To their dismay, so was the downtown Hammond warehouse where Schepker and his team were building the Flood City set. When the waters receded enough so that Schepker could regain access to the workspace, but with none of his assistants available to help, the designer put finishing touches on the sprawling, mostly wooden construction himself. Then he set about the task of hauling it to New Orleans to install it in the show’s venue, a black-box theatre at NOCCA (New Orleans Center for Creative Arts), the well-appointed high school for the performing arts located in the city’s Marigny district adjacent to the French Quarter.
Easier said than done. “We couldn’t even provide Steve with a skeleton crew because of the storm,” Allegra says ruefully. “People would say things like, ‘No way—we don’t have a pirogue on the back of our car!’ Hammond suddenly seemed half a world away, as opposed to an hour-and-a-half trip.”
What’s more, moving the expansive set required a 24-foot rental truck, but all such large vehicles had been commandeered by the Red Cross for use in disaster relief efforts across the region. Schepker ended up disassembling the structure and making two separate trips in 16-foot trucks, the only ones available.
Allegra allows that there were silver linings to the storm clouds. “In the process of transporting the set, a lot of redesigning happened, some of it for the better. Because the set pieces had to be broken apart for transport, the design became more abstract. Both Steve and Gabby liked the changes a lot.”
A week later, with the set safely ensconced at NOCCA, Schepker could be discovered steering a wheelbarrow through NOCCA’s riverside warehouse complex, hauling two giant containers of playground mulch. “This stuff is made of chopped-up recycled tires,” he tells me with a satisfied grin. “It’s not dirt, but it will look like dirt when we spread it around the set. Celebrate us, we’re being green!”
It was the approach of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in 2015 that prompted playwright Reisman to act on her longstanding impulse to memorialize the storm and its aftermath onstage. Despite being a newcomer back in 2005, when she arrived to complete an undergraduate degree at the University of New Orleans, Reisman had spent a lot of time in the city (“I had family here since before I was born—my two brothers live here, my dad once worked at Arnoult’s, my aunt had a pizza place here”), and her knowledge of local sensibilities made her determined to infuse her Katrina play with the wit and humor she knew was characteristic of the place. The play might even be, she was inclined to think, a full-blown comedy.
“I wanted to show what it was like living in a post-flood city, and how we who went through it kind of compartmentalized our memories about it—but nothing I was writing was very exciting,” she allows, even after she worked on the piece during a residency at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire (“That version had songs in it, it was way less funny—I was totally stuck!”). Figuring that indirection might be a better writing tactic than adherence to the facts of the matter, she put in a frustrated call to her father, now back in their home state of Illinois, fishing for ideas about disasters in American history that might bear dramatic comparisons to Katrina. He mentioned the famous Johnstown Flood of 1889, and Weisman began trolling the Internet for accounts of that well-documented calamity. What she discovered was revelatory.
“I said to myself, Oh my God! There were so many perfect parallels!” Reisman marvels. These included not only the suddenness and ferocity of the tragedy but the fact that it was caused by inadequate flood-control measures—in this case the catastrophic failure of a 72-foot-high dam on the Little Connemaugh River 14 miles upstream of Johnstown, a Pennsylvania valley town—and the remarkable grit and determination exhibited by survivors. “That was also the first time the Red Cross and the National Guard and the media all came out in force, responding to a flood of such proportions. The fact is that what happened in Johnstown in 1889 created a blueprint for disasters to come.”
Information about Johnstown, she found, was plentiful. The flood has been the subject or setting for numerous histories, novels, poems, and other works, including Rebecca Gilman’s epic dramatization of the story, A True History of the Johnstown Flood, directed to mixed notices by Robert Falls in 2010 at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Much further back, in 1909, a theatrical exhibition portraying the flood, billed as “our time’s greatest electromechanical spectacle,” toured widely and was seen at the Stockholm Exhibition in Sweden by 100,000 visitors. No fewer than three American films carry the title The Johnstown Flood: a silent epic from 1926, an animated 1946 film in which Mickey Mouse uses time-reversal power to undo the disaster, and a short documentary that won an Academy Award in 1990.
With her focus deflected to an emblematic but richly comparable flood, and her appetite especially whetted by the flavorful language journalists used in their contemporary accounts of the 117-year-old disaster, Reisman had rekindled her playwriting imagination. Everything suddenly seemed right. She knew what she had to do next: Visit Johnstown.
Reisman arrived there for a brief stay in February 2015, and the first thing to grab her attention was a kind of geographic class division: In the narrow valley—Johnstown lies in the deepest river gorge in the U.S. east of the Rockies—compact working-class houses lay tight against one another, in contrast to the expansive and well-appointed middle-class homes ensconced on the high cliff overlooking the town. “There is a funicular that can carry you to the top of the mountain—it’s one of the largest in the country, you can drive a bus onto it,” Reisman recalls. Down below, walking paths marked by turnstiles led to the old Cambria Iron Company mill, a still beautiful Industrial Revolution-era building, just upstream from the city. The historic mill and its fate would become an integral element of her play.
“Bethlehem, Pa., is four hours east of Jonestown,” Reisman explains, “and it was Bethlehem Steel that kept the mill alive and functioning into modern times. The mill had been repaired and put back into operation after the flood, and Bethlehem Steel moved in and bought it in the 1930s. They renamed it Bethlehem Steel Johnstown, and operated it from that time until it was closed down in 1992. You can see by those turnstiles that everybody must have walked to work all those years. It was a way of life that stayed the same for so long.”
Driving around the town, Reisman was deeply moved. She wondered, “Why am I crying?” It wasn’t just that Johnstown was now a shell of its former self—the population had indeed dipped from more than 100,000 in the city’s heyday to less than 20,000, and most of downtown was abandoned. What stirred Reisman was “the steadfastness of the people who remained—their determination to say, ‘We’re not leaving! We’re not giving up! Now, on to the next thing!’ That’s the place’s kinship to New Orleans.”
In fact, there have been repeated floods in Johnstown—it was after a deluge in 1936 that levees were built and the town took on the short-lived nickname “No-Flood City,” which eventually morphed over time into its more accurate opposite, which Reisman adopted as her title (and for its part,Johnstown has embraced the name, hosting a Flood City Music Festival every August). The most recent major flood, in 1977, was more or less the nail in Johnstown’s coffin, convincing Bethlehem Steel not to update the mill structure but instead slowly reduce its usage. The mill’s final closure in 1992 becomes a time-hopping riff in Reisman’s play, as a group of beer-fueled steel workers raucously lament the end of an era at a local juke bar turned tourist-hungry casino.
Coincidentally, both Allegra and Reisman grew up in Illinois, which, though prone to the occasional tornado, is not the hotbed of natural disasters that Louisiana can be.
“It’s easy for somebody to say, in hindsight, ‘Why did you found a city right here at the watery mouth of the Mississippi 300 years ago?,’” Allegra says jokingly as he, the playwright, and Flood City director Mark Routhier join me for a conversation in the sunny NOCCA courtyard a few hours before the show’s first run-through. “But it takes more than just stubbornness or bull-headedness to go through multiple floods and continue to rebuild.
“Looking at the history of Katrina plays onstage,” Allegra goes on to postulate, “the most successful ones are those that handle it with a sense of humor. When I was still new to New Orleans, I went to see [actor-director] Ricky Graham’s show I’m Still Here, Me!, which I believe was the first Katrina play ever, the first show that opened after the storm. As a newcomer, I didn’t even get the local patois of the title, and I was laughing at stuff I didn’t fully understand—but it showed me how effective it can be to deal with tragedy through humor.” Allegra went on to mount NOLA Project founder Andrew Larimer’s satirical Get This Lake Off My House in 2006, confident that for Louisianians comedy is the best medicine in the face of inconsolable loss.
And it’s the laughs in Flood City—Reisman is willing to call the finished play “a clown show of nonstop shtick”—that may surprise audiences expecting ponderousness or lamentation. The humor gained polish during the show’s developmental process, which included a retreat near San Antonio, Tex., with theatrical innovator Erik Ehn, and a workshop presentation of the script at Playwrights Horizons of New York City’s Superlab, a cooperative venture with the ensemble Clubbed Thumb, where director Will Davis and dramaturg Adam Greenfield had input on the play. (Reisman also has connections to the site-specific troupe Brooklyn Yard and to theatres in Austin, where she did graduate work at the University of Texas; her résumé includes recent productions for Austin’s Zach Theatre of Alice in Wonderland and a residency at the youth-oriented New Victory Theater on 42nd Street with the immersive ensemble Underbelly, of which she’s a founding member.) The question that persisted through the show’s development was: Will Flood City’s jokes hit home?
Routhier thinks so, though the too-close-for-comfort recent flooding in the state has given him some second thoughts. “What scares me most is that this is a comedy that looks at the tenacity and good humor that helps people get through a natural disaster—but how much patience will audiences have for that tone after they’ve just been hit by a fresh calamity?”
He’s reassured, though, by Reisman’s savvy as a writer. “Gabby has a lovely way of injecting social critique into her work,” avows the director, who has worked regularly with NOLA Project and recently spent a year in Washington, D.C., running a directing intensive at the Kennedy Center sponsored by the National New Play Network. “There’s pushback about how the government doesn’t take care of things, how the people who are to blame don’t get blamed. All that fun stuff in the dialogue has resonance in the real world.”
Indeed, that night at the first run-through, the play’s real-world immediacy is striking: Trump-era concerns such as blatant prejudice against immigrants and the loss of jobs to trade deals and cheap foreign labor ripple through the dialogue. Flood City may be set in 1889 and 1992, but it has solid strands of 2016 in its DNA.
That tone of indignation is reinforced by the script’s willingness to lay blame for the Johnstown tragedy where it belongs: at the feet of the rich and famous. It was neglect by the likes of Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie—they led a club that modified the already faulty South Fork Dam to create a private resort lake for themselves and their wealthy associates—that was a direct cause of the flood, but none of the well-to-do were ever held accountable. After a long legal fight, the court judged the dam break to be an act of God and granted the survivors no legal compensation.
That’s just part of the backstory that unfolds as Reisman’s script progresses from monologues and one-on-one conversations between benumbed survivors to group encounters with Red Cross nurses (Clara Barton famously showed up in Johnstown with 50 volunteers, and stayed for more than five weeks), opportunistic journalists with cameras, and ambitious real-estate entrepreneurs.
The rehearsal atmosphere in NOCCA’s three-quarter-round space is informal and communicative. Actors’ suggestions and questions are fielded with equanimity by Routhier, Riesman, and the show’s tech team, which includes such top-notch resident talents as sound designer Brendan Connnelly and lighting designer Evan Spigelman.
The seven cast members, most of whom play multiple roles (“Almost all my plays have double-casting and overlap between spaces and characters,” Reisman notes), swarm confidently across Schepker’s bifurcated set. A note of hilarity breaks out when Routhier announces that a major casino scene will incorporate anachronistic dance moves to the rhythms of a ’70s instrumental loop.
That finger-snapping sequence, as well as a cascade of sound cues, Hope Bennett’s homespun double-period costumes, and Spigelman’s high-impact lighting effects (which include an unsettling photographic flash effect that punctuates scene changes) are all in place two nights later when Flood City goes up in front of its first audience. The crowd is mostly high school students with a special interest in the arts, half from NOCCA and half from Lusher, an uptown charter school dedicated to arts and academics. The laughs that Routhier was anxious about come heartily and frequently, and the students are on their feet cheering after the play’s ambiguous final scene.
The response vindicates Reisman’s approach. “I’m convinced you need humor,” she tells me during the whirl of post-curtain congratulations, “to get audiences to open up to ideas about social injustice and environmental stewardship. It’s boring to watch victims just be victims. That’s not cathartic—or even true to life, really.”
Allegra is pleased, too. “What I really want is for this play to have a life beyond New Orleans,” he enthuses. “There’s an issue with a lot of plays that premiere in New Orleans—they’re so localized in their concerns that they don’t have the ability to move on to other regions of the country. But the concerns in this play are anything but parochial. This play has important things to say to people everywhere.”
Jim O’Quinn, the founding editor of this magazine, now lives in New Orleans.
A version of this story appears in the November 2016 issue of American Theatre.