Well, theatergoers, you can thank the alligators -- thousands and thousands of alligators. You can thank them for the Skyfire Theatre in downtown Covington, that is. No, the huge reptiles didn't build the place. Not physically. They funded it.
Zachary Casey, proprietor of the Skyfire, is an alligator mogul. At his day job, he oversees a swamp empire of huge alligator farms. In fact -- according to Rita Stockstill, the artistic director of the Skyfire -- Casey's alligator farms are among the largest holdings of the sort on the globe.
So, by extension, you can also thank the alligators for the exciting evenings of tried-and-true New Orleans theater that is gracing both of the Skyfire's two stages.
Four years ago, Casey (thanks to his alligators) bought the Skyfire building -- an attractive, deco-ish mini-movie palace that dates from the early 1940s. He wanted to offer live entertainment as well as films. So, he brought in Stockstill, who was teaching high school in Slidell by day and performing in community theater by night. She became the artistic director of the Skyfire and, over the next four years, put on an eclectic series of plays -- ranging from West Side Story to Picasso at the Lapin Agile.
Now, Stockstill has launched an ambitious program of bringing southshore productions to the Northshore. The casts are star-studded. Native Tongues, the Carl Walker-directed program of locally written monologues, features Carol Sutton, Gavin Mahlie, John "Spud" McConnell and Suzanne Stouse, among others. Jerry Lee Leighton directs himself and Lara Grice (tripling as the three female leads) in Neil Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers. In Gardner McKay's Sea Marks, Dane Rhodes directs himself as the Irish Fisherman/poet and Mary Lee Gibbons as his lady love.
All of these shows are revivals. There have been four editions of Native Tongues, most recently last summer at Le Chat Noir (and then briefly in Lafayette, during the hurricane evacuation). Several years ago, Leighton performed Last of the Red Hot Lovers at Carlone's Dinner Theater (where he used three actresses -- Jennifer Pagan, Stacy Taliancich and Anne Casey -- to play his intended inamortas). Meanwhile, Rhodes has mounted Sea Marks twice in New Orleans -- most recently, at the True Brew, in 2002, where Gibbons played opposite him.
Does it seem strange that all these shows are resurrections from the not-so-distant past?
"Not at all strange," replies Stockstill. "On the practical side, it's difficult to put new things together right now, due to the general chaos and the scattering of talent. But, on the spiritual side, I think this is a time when people need the familiar. We need the reassurance of what we already know. It's a time for oldies but goodies."
Additionally -- from the point of view of the south shore theater folk -- there is an advantage in time and money, when it's a question of reprising a show, rather than starting from scratch. Less rehearsal is needed and many of the props and set pieces are still laying around in somebody's attic. Also, an "oldie, but goodie" is just another way of saying "a sure thing".
Talking about "oldies, but goodies", Stockstill plans to extend her North Shore/Southshore Theater Fest next month with . . . And the Ball and All. This perennial crowd-pleaser was, paradoxically, an "oldie but goodie" from the moment it first poked its hilarious little head out of the brittle shell of Ricky Graham's imagination in 1995. The bright send-up of Y'at Carnival will once again feature Amanda Hebert, Becky Allen and Graham himself.
Next up at the Skyfire will be a participatory comedy with the (literally) breathtaking title Joey and Mary's Irish-Italian Comedy Wedding. The matrimonial mayhem stars Dane Rhodes and Sandy Bravender. That dynamic duo got permission from the New York owners of the show to add some local references to the text.
All in all, Stockstill's impromptu Northshore/south shore collaboration must be rated as one of the silver linings to the hurricane disaster. Many New Orleans auditoriums are closed for repairs, but the sturdy little Skyfire is safe and sound and dry and electrified. Necessity (and Skyfire idealism) has truly proved to be the mother of invention.
Then too, after the transcontinental trekking we've been forced to do, the 20-odd miles across the Causeway no longer seem like such a trek.
So, as we eagerly anticipate these Skyfire shows, let's offer a few (somewhat surprising) acknowledgments. We owe a debt of thanks to the unknown contractor who built that durable theater building in Covington. We owe a debt of thanks to Casey and Stockstill, who invited these New Orleans theater folks to bring their shows across the lake. And, oh yes, for goodness sake, let's not forget the debt of thanks we owe the alligators.
- Skyfire Theatre artistic director Rita Stockstill thanks her lucky stars for alligators.