by Chris Kaminstein
I’ve seen almost every play that Cripple Creek has produced. I wasn’t in New Orleans the first two seasons, so I claim ignorance on Waiting for Lefty and An Enemy of the People, but starting with We Won’t Pay I’ve been there as an audience member or (sometimes), a director. It’s hard to pin down the emotions that came to me when I realized Cripple Creek was finishing its season and then winding down, but there. Are. A lot. Of. Emotions.
I first encountered Cripple Creek in 2008-2009 season, met and broke bread with Andy and Emilie around the opening of the Colton School Studios, run by CANO at the time. We were all part of a series of performances that took place as the space opened up for artists. It was a wild and wooly time in New Orleans theater; companies were producing on a shoe string (so, no change), and there was an influx of folks from around the country coming back to New Orleans or coming here for the first time. While there were some amazing established companies here (Southern Rep, Mondo Bizarro, ArtSpot Productions), a lot grew then - The NOLA Project started around this time, Cripple Creek soon after, NEW NOISE, Goat in the Road Productions, and Skin Horse. These were artists and companies looking for place and purpose, and Cripple Creek was one of the first to develop a clearly articulated vision about their approach to art and the world: create theater that reflects on, and incites, social change.
Goat in the Road first worked with Cripple Creek on Andy Vaught’s Major Swelling Salvation Salve, an amazing musical parody that riffed on politics, and featured Bobby Jindal singing an evil ballad about his hatred for New Orleans. Our first production meeting was at Kajun’s during karaoke with myself, Andy, Alden Eagle, and Will Bowling, if I remember correctly. We yelled at each other over the music, trying to plan logistics for this small musical that would premiere five months later. I think Will agreed to write the music at that time, and thus started a deep and abiding bond—an ongoing discussion between Goat in the Road and Cripple Creek that has lasted nearly a decade now.
There is a popular novelty t-shirt for theater people that reads, in big block letters: “I Can’t…I Have Rehearsal.” It would be funny if it weren’t so true. Theater folks spend most of their time in a dark room pretending, or thinking about being in a dark room pretending. In Goat the Road we say that most of doing theater is just making a rehearsal plan, then rehearsing when we planned it. Cripple Creek company members and artistic directors have spent an enormous amount of their time over the past 12 years in rehearsal or in performance. Producing 50 events/shows in that time is…insane. Don’t know how else to put it. Making theater often matches the seven stages of grief. During the final week of rehearsal and into tech week, you feel anger and denial, “Why did we decide to do this show? This makes no sense! Nothing is working! Let’s Cancel it!”; Pain and Guilt, “I can’t believe we put everyone through this. I never should have gone into theater in the first place; could have saved everyone the misery”; Anger and Bargaining, “Come on show, please be good. If this show is good I promise I won’t ever do another one ever again”; Depression and Loneliness, “I’m gonna get a drink or four after rehearsal”; The Upward Turn, “Holy shit, this looks good under the lights”; Reconstruction and Working through, “If we cut this transition and fix the end, we’ll be in good shape!”; and Acceptance and Hope, “All right, it’s opening night. People are in the seats. Whatever happens will happen.” Over and over again Cripple Creek has gone through this process. Producing one show, then getting to the end, and starting with the next one. When I think about it, I think of it as an ongoing discussion with the community; ‘What do you think about this? Or this? What about this?’ Cripple Creek has been holding down that discussion consistently for 12 years now.
Last year Cripple Creek had an amazing season; Taming of the Shrew, Caligula, and Treemonisha. For those who didn’t see it, I’ll tell you that Taming of the Shrew was one of the best pieces of theater ever produced in New Orleans. The show was far and away the most ambitious, edgy Shakespeare that I’ve seen in this city in my decade of being here, and one of the best pieces of Shakespeare I’ve ever seen. (period) The show revealed the truth of why the company has meant so much to the city and so much to the people who have been involved with it all these years. It was accessible (but not pandering), funny (but not ‘theater-funny’, actually funny), it was thematically rich and bold, and it reached a wide variety of audience in a totally unpretentious way. The show travelled to Bridge House, Grace House, and was performed for imprisoned populations in Louisiana. Over and over again I have seen Cripple Creek engage with the issues of our times, reflect on the meaning of our lives, and do so in a way that makes the audience feel it is part of one big, funny, slightly dysfunctional family. I just think of the names of their shows and these images are conjured up, these feelings in time:
The Skin of Our Teeth
Mad Woman of Chaillot
The Lily’s Revenge
Balm and Gilead
Even as I write this I feel that I’m still talking around what this company has meant to me, to Goat in the Road, and what these people who make this company have meant to us. Maybe like this: it is so rare in life that you get to walk hand in hand with fellow artists who push you, who support you, who mentor you, who get drunk with joy and sorrow with you, who are family to you, who spend their days and nights in dark rooms with screw-guns trying to make a thing happen, who get you, and who you get right back. This company. These humans. These glorious humans who have enriched my life, who have changed me…I don’t know what to say to them. Bless you? Bless you, and the sweat of your brow.