Amelia Parenteau interviews Bunny Lushington of the Fortress of Lushington, bringing us the second article in a series on theatre and dance venues in New Orleans.
Amelia Parenteau: Take me back to the beginning. How did you decide to open The Fortress of Lushington? How did it come to be?
Bunny Lushington: You make it sound like I actually had a plan! My then-partner Pink and I bought this building about 10 years ago, We were sitting out, watching a surfing movie on the wall one night, having a drink, had the door open, and this dude from Seattle walked by, like this time of year, he walked by and was like, “Hey, I’m a theater producer and I’m coming down for Fringe, and we’re looking for a BYOV (Bring Your Own Venue), and this would be a great spot for our shows.” And we were like, “Yeah, alright.”
I have a little bit of a background in theater, I worked for the Huntington Theatre in Boston when I was going to school, and it had been a long time since I’ve been on the production side of things, so, “Yeah, come on in.” I managed to scrape together a few chairs, a carpet, they came with a backdrop, and they put on their shows. The Elm Theatre, Joe Furnari and Garret Prejean, happened to catch that show, and was like, “Oh, this is a great space. We have a show with The Elm that we’d like to do next Fringe.” So I sat dark until the next Fringe, and then had The Elm Theatre come in and a couple other smaller pieces. And after that, then I started fielding queries. “Can we do this, can we do that, can we do the next thing?” And that went on, kind of hit or miss for a couple years.
And the last two or three years now, it’s kind of been programmed. Part of that is, I did Executrix at the end of the season, which was supposed to be done at The Valiant, but because they closed as they were in rehearsal, I get a call, “Can you help me out here?”, “Yeah, yeah, be happy to do that.”
It’s a small venue, I don’t charge too much. You don’t have to sell a lot of seats to make some money here, and so people like to come in and do their work. But it was really an accident. I did not set out with the intention, like, “Alright, we’re going to build out a space, and we’re going to do theater stuff.” And it kind of shows, when you look at the first time we did a show, we had nothing. The second show, we built a stage. And then after that, we built bars so we could actually hang lights from something. After that, we got some chairs. Then we built some risers. Then we accumulated lights, we accumulated software, we’ve accumulated cable, a backstage.
So really, it hasn’t been a huge financial outlay, it just, it’s little by little, hey, this show needs this. So let’s look at what it’s going to take to do that. And it’s been an interesting way of moving forward. Stories Without Words, last fall was like, “This is fun, this is great, it’s going to be the exact right space, but we need a dance floor to put on the stage.” So now I’ve got a dance floor, and this year Elsie Johnson's coming in with her company to do a dance piece.
I think I’m kind of fortunate that I’m able to do this because I own the building. I’m not trying to make bank on this. I like it to pay for itself as much as possible, so when we make some money we can reinvest in a dance floor. But it’s not like ah, I need to do that plus pay the electric bill, and the water bill, and the rent. And in this neighborhood, the increasingly outrageous rents for spaces like this. So, I can play. And play we do!
Amelia: And how is the programming working at this point? Is it 100% people approaching you, or are you reaching out to certain people?
Bunny: This year coming up, 2019-2020, people have really reached out to me, and that’s the way it’s worked most of the time in the past. It’s certainly how I got started. There were a couple of folks that I really wanted to work with. I worked hard with Jon Greene to get The Buffoons in here for a series, and made that attractive financially for them to do. I went after Goat in the Road’s Forge Fest, they were here. That was interesting, appropriate for the space, they made such great use of the space, and did interesting things with it.
It’s such a strange space to work in that I don’t feel that going after people particularly [works]. I think the folks that have seen shows here, or that know people that have seen shows here say, “You know, I have this idea, and I think this is the space for that idea,” and I think that’s the way it works with these found spaces. Here, you’ve got to overcome the notion of “Why am I sitting in somebody’s garage?” And at certain times it works really, really well. The Dumbwaiter worked fantastically in this space because it takes place in a basement. The whole thing is a claustrophobic show anyhow, and so to do it in a claustrophobic space, perfect. King Lear, not so much. Too many people.
When you look at the first time we did a show, we had nothing. The second show, we built a stage. And then after that, we built bars so we could actually hang lights from something. After that, we got some chairs. Then we built some risers...
Amelia: How much of your life does The Fortress take up?
Bunny: Well, on the one hand, all of it, because I live here. I joke to people that Pandora [Gastelum, owner of the Mudlark] and I have one thing in common, and that is we live in our theaters. And so it’s hard to divorce yourself from where you’re spending all of your time. That said, it kind of runs itself, to a large extent. Once shows get going, I’ve learned enough about how to run a house and a show and a company so that it kind of can sustain itself until something really awful happens. I’ve met people that I trust to leave in charge of things.
On the other hand, I know how to hang and program the lights, I know how to set up the sound, the sets, I know how to do all these things. And so, some companies walk in, and they also know how to do all these things. No worries. Sometimes it’s a little less organized than all of that. I figure when I’ve got a show going on, I schedule 4-5 hours a day to work on that specially. It’s not something that I hand the keys off and say, “Good luck.”
Amelia: What are your future aspirations for The Fortress? How do you see it growing and evolving?
Bunny: That’s such an interesting question, because I didn’t walk into it with a goal of any sort. I mean, my goal was – a little bit of hubris, I think – my goal was to establish a place where people would come here and do work and have the best experience they could have doing work. And I hear from people who have worked here that that is in fact true. People come here, they like to work here. And that for me, feels like success. So moving forward, it’s a matter of sustaining that, and not burning myself out.
Right now, putting on better and better shows is the goal, stuff that pushes boundaries in ways that I think are exciting. Allowing people with ideas to stage them and see what happens. I like working with new playwrights, because I don’t think you have any idea how good your show is, as a playwright, until you’ve seen the show on stage. A reading doesn’t quite do that for you, you really need to see. So every season I’ve been working to find folks who are doing new and original stuff. I like to bring back the old folks and have them come in and push their envelopes a bit further, too.
Amelia: What words would you use to describe the New Orleans theater community to somebody who’s not familiar with it?
Bunny: Warm and tight. It’s a really, really nice community. And certainly there are personalities, here and there, but for the most part, I bring up Alex Smith (Technical Director at Southern Rep, Prescription Joy) in this context a lot. Alex knows his shit, a shit ton about pretty much everything. And people who know lots about everything have one of two choices: they can hoard that information, or they can give that information away. And it tickles me to death that Alex and Diane Baas (Teacher at University of New Orleans) and others are more than willing to give their information away. And that’s something that I don’t see in a lot of communities in general, I call up Alex, and I’m like, “I have a problem.” And he comes running over and he’s like, “Oh, here, let me help, let me fix that.” And Diane Baas is an excellent example of that. She’d tell you she’s just too busy to do a lot of the work, and so for people to come in and want to learn how to do things, she’s more than happy to share.
Nobody shows up on time, there’s like an organizational mis-function, but that’s New Orleans for you, right? I get very impressed when people say, “I’ll be there at 4 o’clock,” and then actually show up at 4 o’clock. But you get used to that, too. It’s how it goes, you can’t change things like that. I’ll never get used to starting shows 20 minutes late. It just drives me berserk!
And trying to get people to understand if they’d like to be professionals, acting like a professional is a good way to get a good distance there. And you’ll see a lot of professionalism in this community. some of the new blood coming in brings it in, coming from places where it would just never be tolerated that you’re late for a call. I think that’s raising the tide, this is a business, we’re going to get paid, we need to act like it’s a job.
Amelia: How have you seen either physical space or ethereal communal space change in the time that you’ve been here?
Bunny: Well, I think we lost a heck of a lot when we lost Richard [Mayer]’s spaces, both the Old Marquer Theatre, that was such a hub, his programming was very good. He had stuff going all the time, and he’s very good at having a theater. And losing that I think hurt. Moving out to Arabi [to open the Valiant] was an interesting challenge. Who goes to Arabi, exactly? It seemed far away.
That and the Mid-City Theater, losing those I think really hurt.
It’s nice to see performances happening in the back of the AllWays Theatre, whatever that space is called now, I forget [The Twilight Lounge]. But that used to be a little bit more programmed, too, and always a great space to go, it’s on a busy corridor, again, easy to get to, and not usually $80 or $60 tickets, or even $40, you know, “Here’s $15, I’d like to go see it.”
And we have lovely theaters, Le Petit is fantastic, the new Southern Rep is a great space, they’re trying very hard, but still $40 (or more) to see a show, times two tickets, plus getting a beer beforehand or something, you’re looking at a $100 for date night, rather than $15 and $3 High Life, you can get out of that for under $40. And there’s a difference.
And the people who I think we should be targeting are not necessarily people with lots of money. I think we should be targeting kids, people who are moving here with new ideas, and other artists, and people who’d like to be in the scene but maybe don’t want to commit $100. It’s a day’s worth of wages, or it could easily be, and that’s a lot! There’s an expectation that you’re going to go out and be really entertained and see something that you love. Whereas $10-$15-$20, it’s kind of a different story.
It’s been rough. Although, that said, you look at the support – the support I’ve had has been amazing, both from the community and from random strangers who’ve come in to see shows. And I see the same sort of thing with Pandora, for instance. When she had her fire and then again when she had some code violations, people really came together because they value the space, Pandora’s space, she’s created a whole community around that that may or may not have anything to do with what’s on stage that night. And in fairness, a lot of the programming that’s going on at Southern Rep seems to be attempting to do that, as well, their wellness program and their late-night concerts and the different stages and all that, which is great, I’d love to see that be successful. But we need more of these things. Chicago, for instance, is all about storefront theater. Why don’t we do this?
People come here, they like to work here. And that for me, feels like success.
Amelia: Is there anything else you want to share with the NOBO Commons readers?
Bunny: Well, get out there and see shows! That’s the most important thing. That notion, just being on the other side of this for so long, and going and seeing, oh god in Boston, I’d go see two shows a week, or something like that, and I think here it’s still a big event, going out to theater, and I’d like to see it become more like, “Oh yeah, I’ve got this thing to do, it’s going to take 2 hours of my time, and we’re going to have a drink and it’s going to be fun, and then we’re going to go out and have dinner afterwards.” And I’d like to see it get to that level of casualness, where sure, there are big events that you go to and get all dressed up for, but sometimes it’s rough and it’s dirty, and here’s some art and you’re not going to like it.
Come and hate that show, come and tell us why you hated it. But come and feel the feelings. And allow yourself to experience something firsthand. We’re very good at watching Netflix. And whatever the Game of Thrones director wanted to show you on the screen, we’re good at watching it. Come see it yourself, and come make those choices, and make the decisions. It’s a collaborative art, theater’s collaborative, so come be a part of our community. That, I think is big. And I’ve seen it! That’s the great part.
The Fortress of Lushington
2215 Burgundy St
For more on the venue series check out our interview with Nostalgia Purgatory.
Next up is the Mudlark Public Theatre!