Despite Hurricane Ida’s extensive damage to the Columbia Theatre’s main stage, leaders have found a way for many shows to go on.
Creative thinking from staff has led to the facility’s conference center being transformed into Studio Theatre, said Artistic Director James Winter. Although the conference center is much smaller than the main auditorium, this change will allow much of the season to continue, with modifications.
With the pandemic altering last year’s season, Winter believes the staff is getting used to pivoting plans.
Ida caused significant ceiling-to-floor weather damage in the old east wall that spans from the lobby to the back of the building. From the wall, plaster powder and chunks of plaster now cover parts of the auditorium floor and seats. While the wall will have to be taken out and redone, Winter hopes the seating can be saved with some cleaning.
Around a foot of standing water was in the orchestra pit, and the floor of the auditorium stage buckled from standing water, he said. The stage will need to be torn out and replaced. The third floor balcony and bar were soaked and damaged. There was standing water in the lobby, but none of the floor should have to be replaced, he said.
The west side of the building, which includes the conference center, was spared, as well as the dressing rooms and most of the administration offices, he added.
“As a result, it radically changed our season,” Winter said. ”My first inclination was how much of our season could we salvage by moving it into that space. Of course, it’s radically different, so we’ve saved a lot, but we’ve also lost some big shows.”
Winter said he had been dabbling with the idea of using the conference center more of a studio theater. The idea was tried over the summer with a RoBenHood production called “Reverse Negative,” and it was well received, he said.
Thanks to the very creative technical director and his team, “House on Haunted Hill” has been re-imagined for the new space, he said. The play will open at the end of the month in a black box theatre style set-up.
All the movie screenings were saved, and “Puffs” will still happen in the spring.
To assist with the Columbia Theatre’s rebranding of its conference center as Studio Theatre, this year’s Southeastern Giving Day donations were used towards improving theatrical lighting and sound equipment.
Some of the biggest production losses were the “Nutcracker Ballet,” live action performance of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “The Last Waltz.” Smaller productions may have more shows to accommodate for less patrons per showing in the smaller theater, he said. The smaller theater has around 1/10th of the seating the main auditorium had.
The Hammond Ballet Nutcracker has to find a new home, at least temporarily, Winter said.
He described that annual production as the pillar of every season and said it is something that Columbia Theatre affiliates and the community look forward to each year.
“The Last Waltz,” originally set for Nov. 5, was to be a partnership with local musicals to celebrate local talent.
It is being postponed indefinitely because organizers want to do it in a big space and a lot of people involved in the production were impacted by Hurricane Ida, he said.
The Columbia Theatre and Southeastern Theatre co-production of the live Richard O’ Brien’s “The Rocky Horror Show,” scheduled for the spring, is cancelled. Southeastern Theatre will instead co-produce “The Puffs,” which is scheduled for March.
Winter said they could not see a way to do the live “Rocky Horror Show” performance with D Vickers Hall on campus destroyed and the Columbia Theatre hobbling along.
D Vickers did not experience any flooding, but it did have water damage which caused mold to develop, said university spokesperson Tonya Lowentritt.
According to Lowentritt, “The building had already been scheduled for a total renovation, but it didn’t make sense to do the storm repairs now just to have to turn around and tear them out later. Therefore, we merged both the remediation and the renovation projects into one project.”
The project, which is an approved State Capital Outlay project, has a timeframe of anywhere from one to two years.
Restoration of damages to the Columbia Theatre building and auditorium are being handled by Southeastern Louisiana University, which owns the property and insures it.
Last month, Winter was given a best case scenario timeline of eight months, but it could end up being 18 to 24 months.
Management is hoping the auditorium will be open by the next season but is aware that it could realistically be fall of 2023.
Planning of the next season’s shows begins around December.
Winter said, as crazy as it sounds, he sees the current situation as an opportunity.
A lot of his three- and five-year plans have been expedited as a result of the storm damage and, before that, the pandemic.
“We are getting a lot more involved with the community and getting more and more local talent performing with the venue, partnering with businesses, schools and the university. We’re not going to stop,” he said.
Winter said he has always thought the conference center space was underutilized.
“We are going to work with what we have and try to still deliver a full, quality season to our patrons,” he said.