Showtones’ lead writer MAX BERRY takes us to where it all began for so many young artists… their hometown theater … in an on-going series: Small World, Big Stages
In Kenner, Louisianna, about 14 miles from New Orleans, sits the Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts.
What began in the 1980s as Rivertown Repertory Theater, has now blossomed into the Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, in no small part to duo, Gary Rucker and Kelly Fouchi. Since 2012, Rucker and Fouchi have worked painstakingly to ensure that Kenner, Louisiana has a theater that entertains and provokes. The pair had worked together at Rivertown Rep for years before parting from the theater and producing shows elsewhere. In 2012, however, Rivertown Rep’s contract expired and the theater was at risk of closing. Rucker and Fouchi took the opportunity to “come back home”, and picked up the contract. It was renamed “Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts”, and opened with the musical Legally Blonde.
Of course, picking up the reigns came with its challenges. Rucker and Fouchi had to pretty much start from scratch when it came to promoting the first season, as they had lost the mailing list from the previous theater and many of its old patrons thought that it was closing. Determined, they went old school, running around the neighborhood and putting flyers on cars promoting the inaugural season. In the years that followed, more and more people were coming to Rivertown to see shows. “Before we took over, people had come here and not really had a good experience and they didn’t really want to come back. So that was our big push. ‘It’s all different. It’s better. Just trust us one time.’” Rucker said. “If you see one show here, you’ll be back.”
Shows at Rivertown feature everything from professional equity actors to members of the community who by day have outside jobs. Rivertown actor, John Detty, spent six years in New York City before coming to Rivertown to get a less chaotic theatrical experience. Starting with Beauty and the Beast, Detty has since been heavily involved in Rivertown, most recently heading their first ever 48-hour film festival. “Everybody here is always asking me about my film work because I’ve been in movies, I’ve been on networks and all that. So, anytime they hear that, they’re always like ‘How do I do that?’ How do I get into that?’ so I thought it would be a cool experiment to help them kind of interact with that.” Detty hopes to get more film projects and events into Rivertown in the future. He also uses his skills as a photographer to take headshots for any actors who do not have some already. When asked what he wants people to know about the theater, he said “I see so many people coming up to me, and they’re like ‘I wish I could perform.’ And I’m like, ‘You can!’”
Rivertown has also been a place for college students or freshly graduated actors to begin building their resume and work in a professional but fostering and friendly environment. This is the case for both Addison Hinson and Rachel Morris. Hinson finished college at Northwestern State University and was looking for theater jobs in New Orleans before stumbling upon Rivertown. Hinson has worked as a board op, an electrician, building sets, and as an actor. His first show at the theater was The Music Man and since then he has been in Into the Woods, Me and My Girl, Mamma Mia, and currently 9 to 5.
“When you think of New Orleans you think of jazz music, beautiful art, but you don’t really think ‘Theatre’, and I think because New Orleans is such a cultural hot spot, that could be pushed to that level and raised. And I think that’s what’s kept me here …I do eventually see myself leaving the city but I know New Orleans will always be a home.” He says.
Morris, who is currently in school finishing up the marketing portion of her degree (having finished the theatre portion a few years prior), has worked with Rivertown as an actor but will be assistant directing their upcoming production of 9 to 5. Morris hopes to graduate and use her marketing degree to begin starting her own theater company like Rivertown.
“They [Gary and Kelly] are giving the people of New Orleans a place to go and work toward a common goal if you’re a part of the creative team or see something awesome if you’re an audience member.” Morris says.
Many times, a theater can act as a pillar of a community. Giving as much impact as a town hall or church. Rivertown is no exception. The Kenner community plays a vital role in the theatrical experience. This is not only in reference to the countless community members that take time away from their busy lives to audition for the shows, but the audience as well. “We always get really good feedback from the community saying how much they enjoy our shows.” Hinsen says.
Rivertown is also branching out into other forms of art including, stand-up comedy, cabaret, drag performance, and film to really ensure that there is something for everyone and keep an enthusiastic community around them. In many ways Rivertown has become not only a theater, but a hub for the arts, presenting all of these various art forms under one roof and giving the community a place create and be inspired in any way they desire.
Being one of around three theaters in the greater New Orleans area, Rivertown is often looked at as the underdog. But one thing Rucker says about the theater is that while many theaters focus on one particular thing such as being the Shakespeare theater or the cabaret theater, Rivertown takes aspects of all of those and performs it under one roof. The theater produces more musicals than any other in New Orleans and is currently in rehearsals for 9 to 5. Funny enough, despite being in Kenner, Rivertown’s main audience is from everywhere outside of Kenner, forming, as Rucker described it, a kind of “doughnut”.
This past May, Rivertown Theater participated in GiveNOLA Day which is an initiative of the Greater New Orleans Foundation and allows for the community to show support for local organizations by donating online to over 700 non-profits. For this event, Rivertown Theaters not only participated in receiving donations but performed a concert as well, extending the arm even further and continuing to be a beacon of light in their community. This was the first year Rivertown participated and they hope to continue next year.
As with most community theater, Rivertown also has a thriving children’s theater. Kids come in and audition just like any adult actor and put on a show with just as much passion and enthusiasm as anything on the mainstage. It is not uncommon at Rivertown to see someone who began in the children’s theater join the adult shows down the line. For many young people the theater is a place for them to grow up, learn, explore, and have a blast making art with a bunch of other people who are as excited as they are. Ricky Graham has been working at Rivertown since the beginning and is currently running the children’s theater. “The great thing about the kids who do shows at Rivertown is that they really want to do it…The kids who come to audition for the show at the children’s theater are very dedicated and driven. They really want to be in the show…They’re coming to the theater because it has a good reputation and they really want to be part of it.”
With a theater so engrained in the community and with such a strong family around it, when you ask what someone’s favorite moment was, you’ll get a variety of answers. For Addison, it was the moment after a show when someone would come up to him and not only congratulate him on the current production, but compliment his performance on shows prior. For Ricky, it was getting the opportunity to direct “One Man, Two Guvnors” and what a blast it was to work on such a hilarious production. For John, he still remembers when his best friend wheeled him in, as Gaston, in his enormous chair with oversized deer antlers and the uproarious laughter that followed. For Rachel, it was performing in Into the Woods shortly after her mother passed and all the support and emotional healing that the production provided.
It’s clear Rivertown is doing great work in the New Orleans area, inspiring people of all ages to continue creating and follow their passion. Currently, Rivertown Theater is preparing for their production of 9 to 5 that opens on September 13th, so if you find yourself in Kenner, Louisiana and in the need of some great local theater, look no further than Rivertown!
Rucker says “Your experience starts when you park your car.” So, put it in park, come inside, sit back, and enjoy the show.
For more information go to: www.rivertowntheaters.com