Southern Rep goes wild with New Play Bacchanal

After a tumultuous year that saw its exit from the Contemporary Arts Center and its season charge into a series of alternate venues, Southern Rep Theatre is doing what any self-respecting New Orleans arts organization would.

It is throwing a mad party to celebrate new work.

Southern Rep’s New Play Bacchanal springs to life at the Marigny Opera House on St. Ferdinand Street on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 10 and Jan. 11. Produced in conjunction with The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Fest, the two-day affair offers readings, workshops and discussions focusing on new dramatic writing with a special emphasis on work for, by and about women of color.

And it all ends in Dionysian style with a toga party to celebrate the participants.

That party is exactly in line with what Southern Rep artistic director Aimee Hayes wants to accomplish.

“The Bacchanal was created to counter the ‘festival-ism’ I sensed at other new play gatherings. Always very serious in tone or full of networking opportunities,” Hayes said.

“Don’t get me wrong. These types of meetings are absolutely essential to the field. However, my sensibilities as a New Orleanian first demand that joie de vivre be central to any event.”

Attendees will be treated to a diverse selection. To start with, there is an hour-long comedy called “The Grande Dames of New Orleans” by celebrated author Greg Herren, featuring the talents of local celebrities such as writer Nell Nolan and burlesque entrepreneur Trixie Minx.

In keeping with its mission to foster budding playwrights, the festival will present a 10-minute play slam titled “Splitting the Neutral Ground” that features the work of novice dramatists.

But it is the work by women that receives the largest share of the focus.

Begun in the second year of the festival, the Ruby Prize, named after civil rights pioneer Ruby Bridges, is awarded to the best new play by a woman of color. There will be featured readings of three plays: finalists Hansol Jung’s “No More Sad Things” and Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “Really Really Really Really Really,” along with winner “brownsville song (b side for tray)” by Kimber Lee at 4 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. Saturday and 1:15 p.m. Saturday, respectively.

For good measure, the theater’s playwright-in-residence is a woman, and her latest will be presented, as well. Gabrielle Reisman’s “The Panama Limited” will take the stage at 7 p.m. Saturday.

Finally, the ghost of New Orleans’ greatest dramatist will haunt the venue, as well.

Because of a unique partnership with the TennesseeWilliams Fest, Bacchanal will be presenting scenes from Williams’ classic “Night of the Iguana,” as well as his rarely seen “The Mutilated.”

Hayes believes the Tennessee Williams Fest is a natural ally and partner for what the event is trying to achieve. The two organizations’ association has grown during the past three years with productions such as “Three By Tennessee” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and Hayes believes this a logical continuance of that partnership.

“The partnership allows us to share resources, reach exciting new audiences and keep on sharing the love about (New Orleans’) most beloved playwright,” Hayes said. “The past meets the future, and we get to celebrate our playwrights with serious readings and panels. And then to douse them in beer at the toga party.”

Loyola professor Laura Hope, director of “No More Sad Things,” sees the entire event as a positive for theater in New Orleans.

“Anything that is about the encouragement and development of new work is worth celebrating,” she said. Hope insists events like these “are not just about plays but about relationships with writers.”

The theatrical nonprofit has labored to build an infrastructure for new work since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Along with Bacchanal, Southern Rep has created the popular “6x6” series and the more ambitious “3x3” for local writers to find their voice in less pressured settings than offered by full productions. All the while, its administrative offices have been host to master classes, writing tutorials and impromptu readings.

But it is this weekend’s festival that Hayes hopes becomes the spoke in the wheel for Southern Rep’s drive to make the city a national locale for new work. And she hopes to do it in a way that is uniquely New Orleans.