After the flood of 2016, New Venture Theatre was reeling from the loss of its entire scene shop. Not only did it lose props and scenery, but it also lost all of its costumes as well. But with the support of the Baton Rouge community and the willpower of those involved with New Venture Theatre, it is back to bring high energy, quality entertainment to the city.
“After building that up after 10 years, it was like a stab in the heart,” says Gregory Williams, New Venture Theatre’s artistic director. “I’ve been extremely proud of our community because our audience has donated to make sure we get back on our feet as much as possible. That was the biggest obstacle because how do you move forward with a theatre company if you don’t have anything?” But the theatre’s six staff members and board of directors are dedicated to keeping New Venture Theatre alive and running no matter what.
Since its first season in 2007, New Venture Theatre has strived to bring meaningful pieces to the community. Williams knows how important it is to look at what is going on in the world and then push audiences to have a productive conversation and make positive change. “When people are really depressed like Baton Rouge has been, we try to do things that uplift spirits,” explains Williams. “At the same time, I try to find one piece that will start conversations on issues and construct conversations. I want audiences to witness and question, not to change their point of view but to witness someone else’s perspective.”
Hands Up, one of New Venture Theatre’s shows last year, is a prime example of this. It explains seven various perspectives on police brutality. “We produced the show and then the Alton Sterling shooting happened the same week of the show,” says Williams. “Everybody was kind of in an uproar, and opinions were very polarized. We just kept reiterating that it was seven different perspectives. Our goal as artists is to reflect the time and not always press a personal agenda.”
New Venture Theatre has a loyalty to diversity and the celebration of “all rhythms and cultures.” Williams wants others to be able to see their story on stage and be encouraged and empowered because he always struggled to find his own story on the stage. “We try to celebrate as much inclusion as possible,” he says. “One of the things I realized when I moved back here was that we had a really good arts community, but there weren’t a lot of opportunities for people of color. We wanted to be a resource to expand the cultural landscape and celebrate African American works and minority groups.” This strategy has clearly worked for New Venture Theatre as it was the first theatre company to obtain rights to The Color Purple after its Broadway run. Williams is proud, as he should be, that New Venture Theatre was noticed enough for agents to trust them with the incredibly popular piece.
The Theatre has experienced incredible growth, which has allowed it to give even more to the community. “We opened with 35 people in the audience for our first show,” Williams remembers. “Now, we sell out and really bring a new audience to enjoy the arts.” New Venture Theatre rents all its performance spaces because those involved want to activate the artistic spaces that already exist instead of constantly building new ones. However, Williams hopes to see a black box theater built for New Venture Theatre to use in the future.
Williams’s hopes for the next five years focus on quality and longevity. “We don’t want to over program, but instead focus on quality of work,” explains Williams. He would rather perform four amazing shows than eight shows that could have been better. He would also like to see more sponsorships from the community so the Theatre can create an education center and really teach the performing arts. “We have had a lot of people asking us to work with youth and teens, that age group that can’t work yet but need an opportunity to engage their talents,” Williams shares. “We are trying to develop some artistic programs for them to meet that need.” For example, the Theatre has a Creative Drama class for ages 6-10 focused on story enactment and improvisational games, as well as an Acting: Beginner class for ages 9-14 that encourages students to explore character and motivation.
Williams encourages anyone who has not been to a New Venture Theatre show to check it out. “It’s a different type of show, and I think people will really enjoy it,” he says. “Our philosophy is, if the community wants us here, they will keep us here. The community provides for us.” ■