Cover artwork of the Season in review 2020/21: A group of friends open a time capsule labelled 2020.
Gulf Coast Season in Review 2020/21
Gulf Coast Banner for Season in Review 2020/21
Artwork by Bekka Lindstrom, Drawings by Ian Sklarsky

The summer of 2020, during a relentless hurricane season, New Orleanians observed the fifteenth anniversary of the levee collapses in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Katrina flooded 80% of the city, an area seven times the size of Manhattan. At the same time, responding to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on live theatre, critic Alan Smason mobilized the community by founding NOLA Theatre Folk. “I was comforted by others who likewise felt there needed to be some traction for theatre.” Through Facebook and a subscription to StreamYard, Alan created a virtual venue for the local theatre community. 

For many Gulf Coast regional playwrights, the loss of in-person play development and production has shifted our activities immeasurably. On a personal level, I am attempting to focus on my own writing. I miss the social and dimensional aspects of live theatre and interaction. However, I’m inspired by the commitment of Alan Smason to shore up theatre with his online community. 

NOLA Theatre Folk has now grown to nearly 400 members. At first, Smason hosted streamed interviews with actors, directors, designers, and playwrights. But as the pandemic wore on, he began to stream readings of plays by New Orleans writers featuring local actors. Several of NOLA Theatre Folk productions featured Dramatists Guild of America member playwrights. Smason produced John Biguenet’s Rising Water Trilogy – three plays about the flood and its aftermath – a month apart and concluded in late August on the anniversary weekend of Katrina’s landfall. Also featured in advance of the anniversary was Rob Florence’s Katrina’s Path, a moving series of monologues by six individuals who fled the hurricane and ultimately returned to the city.

Other DG members who have contributed to NOLA Theatre Folks include Lisa D’Amour with the Obie award-winning Nita & Zita; Rosary O’Neill, who presented two one-act plays, Marilyn/God and Clark and Carole; and Amy Reuben, who directed her play Interstate 81.

Several of the actors from the original productions of Biguenet’s Rising Water, Shotgun and Mold, performed in the remounted trilogy. The plays center on New Orleanians trapped in their attics by the rising water, trying to rebuild their lives in the year that follows, and finally deciding whether to abandon their destroyed homes and start over in some other city. These veterans were joined by a number of the region’s finest actors and Gregory Johnson, the former artistic director of Montana Rep, who directed all three performances. One local critic had described the trilogy as “the finest artistic achievement expressing the personal impact the flood had – and continues to have – on our lives today.”

For playwright John Biguenet, the streamed productions were a chance to measure whether the plays continued to work fifteen years after the disaster that inspired them. “Although there have been forty readings and full productions around the country and abroad since Southern Rep Theatre premiered Rising Water in 2007, just eighteen months after the events depicted, I was struck at the continued relevance of the trilogy, concerned as it is with the human suffering caused by government incompetence and indifference, ignored environmental threats, and institutionalized racism.”

This year, as huge fires devastated the West while an endless series of hurricanes battered the US, Biguenet’s final, ominous sentence of his introduction to the 2015 reader’s edition of The Rising Water Trilogy has been borne out: “New Orleans is simply where the future arrived first.”


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Anita Vatshell

is a playwright and hospice nurse living in New Orleans and Missoula. Her plays have been read at Montana Rep’s summer Colony and produced with Zoula Playwrights seasonal series. She is a member of Southern Rep’s new play development series, 6 by 6, a contributor to the 2014 music project, Boudin, and Bacchanal 2016.