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The 2019 grand opening of Southern Rep's renovated home inside the former St. Rose de Lima church. (Photo by Little Fang Photos)

The Sun Sets on Southern Rep

After 36 years of artistry in the Gulf South, and a move to a permanent space that didn’t pan out, the theatre’s board president says they have “exhausted all options.”

NEW ORLEANS: Southern Rep Theatre announced its plans to close in a statement released by the board of directors on Wednesday, July 6. After a tumultuous few years, the theatre had struggled to keep up with expenses while meeting the needs of its community and audiences.

“As we lower the final curtain, we acknowledge this great loss to the community,” said board president Karen Swaim Babin in the statement. “We also celebrate and honor Southern Rep’s long history and the many creative artists who have been part of the company.

“Unfortunately,” Babin continued, “financial pressures and other considerations during these extraordinary times have outpaced the available resources. With heavy hearts, we have exhausted all options to serve New Orleans with our best, and we must acknowledge that closing is our most honorable option.”

Since its founding by Rosary O’Neill in 1986, Southern Rep sought to present a selection of new works and classics that spoke to the New Orleans community. Southern Rep will be remembered for its interpretations of Tennessee Williams, its partnerships with Loyola University, and regional productions including Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, Song of a Man Coming Through by Joe Morris Doss and Andrew Doss, the Broadway musical Fun Home, and Ntozake Shange’s translation of Mother Courage and Her Children.

“Countless memorable performances have graced the Southern Rep stage,” said Babin. “So many talented actors, playwrights and theatre professionals have lent their talents to this company. We also applaud our loyal group of subscribers, supporters and audiences. We appreciate everyone who was part of the Southern Rep experience.”

Under the leadership of artistic director Aimée Hayes, Southern Rep transitioned in 2018 from an itinerant model to a permanent home inside the former St. Rose de Lima church in the historically Black neighborhood of Treme. However, their new home did not provide the much-needed morale and revenue boosts the theatre had hoped for.

Southern Rep’s home inside the former St. Rose de Lima church. (Photo by Liz Jurey).

Former Southern Rep producer of community and artistic engagement Lauren E. Turner described the racialized trauma she experienced during her time working for the theatre, feeling tokenized and undervalued by her majority-white colleagues.

In 2020, impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and other financial woes, Southern Rep laid off six staff members, canceled an upcoming production of Reykjavik, and launched a GoFundMe campaign seeking $350,000. Then Hayes left her position as artistic director, and the theatre sought to implement a collaborative producing model along with improved anti-racism policies.

In 2021 the theatre promoted Sacha Grandoit to interim artistic director and hired Sam Sweet as interim executive director. Sweet would reportedly collaborate with members of the Black arts community to craft a statement on Harm, Repair, and Healing as well as an anti-racism action plan for the theatre.

In a job posting for a new managing director the theatre conceded that, “as a historically white organization, we struggle to fit into and serve the Black community around us,” and “we were careless with our relationship building in our new neighborhood, and did not do the slow, necessary work of discovering what our neighbors needed and wanted from a community theatre.”

The posting further acknowledged that the theatre’s “financial capacity was overmatched by the needs of the new space,” and that “we failed to build the infrastructure (marketing, fundraising, governance) necessary for a sustainable theatre.”

Southern Rep moved out of their new space with the expressed purpose of making space for “Black-led performance companies who have never had a home.” To that end, plans have been announced for the former St. Rose de Lima Church to reopen as the André Cailloux Center for Performing Arts & Cultural Justice (ACC), a Black-led, BIPOC community-serving, multi-tenant, performance art and cultural justice venue. Spearheaded by three community members, Lauren E. Turner (founder and producing artistic director of No Dream Deferred-NOLA), Dr. David Robinson-Morris (founder and chief REImaginelutionary of the REIMaginelution, and Dr. Robin G. Vander (associate professor at Xavier University of Louisiana and cofounder of the Performance Studies Laboratory), the new center is envisioned as a hub for performing arts and as a promoter of cultural justice for New Orleans organizations.

The ACC’s mission statement reads: “to render visible and disrupt institutionalized systems of oppression, and to use storytelling and remembering as ways of honoring Black culture, reclaiming identity, and promoting self-determination in association with members of the New Orleans community through engagement with the performing arts and participation in public conversations about the issues of our times.”

For now, with a history of compelling productions and acknowledged mistakes alike, Southern Rep will step aside.

“We are inspired by our community’s continued work to ensure that excellent theatre productions are offered to our deserving region,” concluded board president Babin in the theatre’s closure statement. “We sincerely hope that Southern Rep has earned a special place in the fabric of the theatre community during its 36 years. Our desire is for our legacy to live on in the spirits of the theatre professionals who have been part of Southern Rep, and in the memories of outstanding theatre we have offered.”

*This article has been updated to include information about the future of the former St. Rose de Lima church.

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