Recently, I met with Carl Walker, the director of Pageant, a campy musical
comedy that lampoons beauty pageants with men playing women currently
packing them in at the CAC. An impish pixie of a man, Carl has enjoyed a long and rewarding career in local theatre that spans three decades. Through his consistent, high-quality productions of all kinds of theatre--campy and off-beat, musical or straight, silly or substantial, he has ennobled the entire community, and made our gay community proud, while entertaining us lavishly. The following is an emended transcript of our conversation.
GP: The first thing I want you to talk about is All Kinds Of Theatre.
CW: How do you mean?
GP: How did you start it, where did the idea come from, the particular name, and what is the intent behind it and what has it done so far?
CW: Years ago friends of mine created a group called BLT that had no meaning whatsoever. We liked the sandwich and we did a few plays-this was in the 70s. We did a play called Bad Habits in the basement of a church. And then I went away to school and when I came back--
GP: To school where?
GP: Are you a native New Orleanian?
CW: No, I'm from Lafayette. I spent some time when I was a child in New Orleans then I moved to New Orleans for a brief stint-in the 70's-that's when we did that play come to think of it--
GP: What year?
CW: 74, 75, 76 somewhere in there because I finished high school in 73 and graduated in 74-something like that. So when we got back we started producing things we liked.
GP: Who's "we?"
CW: A group of people--Suzanne Stouse, Mickey Baham, I'm sure there were others, but we did this thing in the basement of St. George's Church called Talking With...and it moved to the CAC and for some reason-we moved to the CAC I believe they were going to do a production called Tooth Of Crime there--
GP: No-when did the CAC open-was this after--
CW: Oh this is after I returned from school.
GP: You went to Boston University?
GP: Did you graduate?
CW: Yes. I spent four years there. I was at Harvard too but you can't get a degree in theatre there or you couldn't at that point and was acquainted with-Peter Sellers was there at the time, Brustien, Ed Sherrin, Jane Alexander, Ed Herrman, these were my running buddies, people I went to school with like Jay Greenspan who is now Jason Alexander, Julie Smith aka Julie Ann Moore, Chris Cousins, a soap opera star.
GP: What did you think of Boston?
CW: Loved Boston.
GP: Liked the winters too?
CW: Loved the winters. Back to this thing at the CAC we moved Talking With... over there because there was this production of Tooth Of Crime that had to be canceled suddenly because somebody had gotten ill and it was fortuitous.
GP: And when was this?
CW: 82 or 83, 84 I really don't--
GP: I think I was here when that happened...
CW: Well, strangely enough, not long after that, there was a play that I loved-no one else did-called Miss Margarita's Way that I began working on with Claire Moncrief and we were going to find a class room and do it in a class room and I was at friends' of mine house and there was a phone call at Cody and Bruce's-no one knew where I was-and it was from the CAC saying that a production of their's was canceled because someone had gotten ill and would we consider taking Miss Margarita's Way there. And I hung up the phone and explained this to Bruce and Cody and Bruce said I sounded like Guy Woodhouse in Rosemary's Baby that whereever you go you're going to get what you want because of the tragedy of somebody else. I never thought of it that way but he had a point and it just sort of evolved because I worked at the CAC for awhile and certainly while I was there we were doing all kinds of stuff.
GP: Was that still BLT presenting?
CW: No, No. Well, I guess BLT did stuff like that. I don't remember exactly where we transformed but when I left the CAC we started producing things ourselves and we suddenly realized that the spectrum of things--
GP: Now when you left CAC you say "we." Who was your right hand person?
CW: It was still a bunch of people: Mickey, Suzanne--a bunch of people who followed me from the CAC--Sandra Mazier, Lisa Levine, both of whom have wisely withdrawn from public life.
GP: They grew up.
CW: They're probably very wealthy and very happy.
CW: I think--I don't honestly remember. Kathleen and I did Driving Miss Daisy-Kathleen Turner. It was like Turner, Walker and Associates. And there was that sort of inbetween period where Kathleen and I were producers on Nunsense and--
GP: Steel Magnolias?
CW: That was the CAC. You must understand when I was at the CAC I was the producer of those things and the CAC was the producing organization. They were very funny about this because at some point when they got a new director I asked if it was okay to list myself as producer in the program. "Oh sure, that's great 'cause that's what you are." And then suddenly and quite mysteriously they would eliminate that title from the program and other people would have all sorts of bizarre titles and it just seemed like a really good time to get out of there. This is when they were remodeling and they had gone through so many directors. Now the CAC seems great with Jay [Wiegal] there. It was just a period we went through and I guess it was around that time that we moved Women Behind Bars and Psycho [Beach Party] over to the Toulouse [Cabaret Theatre].
GP: Now Psycho Beach Party. Wasn't that originally done at the TrueBrew?
CW: It started at the TrueBrew.
GP: And that one lasted a long time.
CW: At that point--and it was another situation. The story of my life-and I'm sure I'm going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of analysis on this ultimately. But people are forever closing my shows for me. Not because they have to. For example, when we were doing Girls [Where The Girls Were], somebody made a commitment for us to go to Kenner in September of the following year so when September came we had to honor that commitment and we had to go. We had to get out of Le Petit when we were doing Steel Magnolias. They closed it for us so we went around the corner to the Toulouse and it was during that period that I left the CAC so nothing made them happier than for them to close my show.
GP: In other words the CAC closed the Toulouse Theatre production of Steel Magnolias--
CW: The people there at the time, uh-huh--
GP: Even though it was doing business.
CW: It was doing business. I think it had taken a dip. It had run for six or eight months. It was very viable. It was at Christmas time so we imagined we would be good at least through Mardi Gras. They may have made the right decision. I do not know. But the idea was, somebody else made the decision for me.
CW: When we did Psycho, Abby Garfinkel--her raison d'etre for her theatre [TrueBrew] was to do a season or something and she had planned to do a play called Danny And The Deep Blue Sea and it was just time to stop-you know, close Psycho so we can do this. Which always struck me as somewhat odd since she had a cash cow in that little 80 seat theatre or whatever it was then.
GP: This is the TrueBrew we're talking about and she [Abby] was the one who ran it before Fred [Nuncio] and Trish [Denmark].
CW: I was never clear on who owned it. You know another situation where she tells you she's closing your show and she was--it was her theatre so there you are. And then we did Women--
GP: Now we is--
GP: All Kinds of Theatre.
CW: A producing group. We put up our own money or we raised it.
GP: This was the first show--
CW: Yes. Although Psycho Beach Party was certainly us and a great deal of Miss Daisy.
GP: Now when you say "us" you're referring to--
CW: There are several people involved in that.
GP: So who are the ones now.
CW: The people that we credit and list are: Carole Stone Wright, Jacquee Carvin, David Cuthbert, Suzanne Stouse, Kathleen Turner, Barbara Motley--
GP: Is Wess a part of that--
CW: Wess Hughes, thank you. Joanne Sealey. The way it operates is you can come and go. I mean if you've done it once you're a part of the group but if you don't want to deal with a particular production, though you certainly can assist and offer your opinion, if you're not in there slugging every day and you didn't raise the money you're not going to make the decisions.
GP: So this group of people's responsibilities are both monetary as well as sweat.
CW: Oh sure there's sweat equity as well as raising money involved and just the day to day grind of it.
GP: And anyone could become a member of the group.
CW: Well, you sort of have to be invited in. We don't really have a--
GP: Is it incorporated?
CW: Oh yeah.
GP: Is it profit or non?
CW: Non profit. And we have a great deal of support.
GP: So the first play that was under an umbrella called All Kinds Of Theatre would be--
CW: Women Behind Bars.
GP: Then was it Ricky--
CW: [The Mystery Of] Irma Vep? Yes.
GP: Now Irma Vep was a big hit also but it didn't run very long.
CW: That was at Le Petit.
GP: So you had a time problem.
CW: When we rented the theatre we knew we could only be there for a period of time.
GP: When you did that did you try to find a place where you could move it?
CW: No, we didn't do that. Irma Vep is an infinitely more sophisticated play, I think, than Women or Psycho so it didn't--
GP: It played to its audience.
CW: Yes it did and not as many people found that as we thought they would but because it's not nearly as ribald or raunchy or campy as the other ones, its appeal was more -it was sophisticated. You had to have a working knowledge of so many genres to catch what was going on. Though very possibly of all the things I did that is probably the most favorite thing I ever did. I just love that little play. It's just so smart. It just sits there. It's perfect.
GP: I know. It's the best thing he [Charles Ludlam] ever wrote.
CW: Yeah, yeah. And the production we did--I think we got it right. The first time I went to New York, in 76, I saw Ludlam in Camille and when he came in in a ball gown and I think Blackeyed Susan came in [wearing] the same gown and he saw it and he looked at the audience and said, "I must change" and he came back out with a dress with a train that was elevated off the floor with helium filled balloons-you know--
GP: I know.
CW: People talk about their lives being changed when they see their first Broadway musical, my life was changed there.
GP: So then after Irma what happened?
CW: I worked some with the Williams Festival-what'd we do? Can't remember. And I think the next thing we did was Prelude To A Kiss, which I loved but--
GP: Which was not successful--
CW: It was successful but it wasn't hugely successful.
GP: I mean financially successful.
CW: I honestly don't remember. People got paid they went home that was it. It wasn't right for a New Orleans audience. Every region is a different market and I think you don't pander to your market but you have to learn what your market's going to go for. And I worked at the little theatre at this point. Don Marshall was there.
GP: You did The Women there.
CW: And Educating Rita which was really good.
GP: When was the first time that you became aware of a show called Pageant?
CW: In 91.
GP: Did you see it?
CW: With Pageant I'd read about it for a long time and we started negotiating for it. The guy that owned the Toulouse, I think he still owns it, John Arbrazani-we had done Women and Psycho and a couple of other things there [Steel Magnolias and Where The Girls Were] and he just liked theatre because it was fun for him. He's a ship builder and this was just kicks for him and he went up with us and he saw it too and it was better than we had anticipated and we started then negotiating with these people and we negotiated on off with God knows how many different people since 91.
GP: Initially, they [New York] wanted to do it themselves?
CW: Well, they gave it to us with some horrible, some God-awful expensive percentage and advance-like, they'd give it to us with a $20,000 advance with a 151/4% royalty of the weekly gross and everyone involved with the production had first right of refusal, which was impossible down here. The market can't bear that. And so we just sat and waited and it availed itself literally quite suddenly.
GP: So how is Pageant going?
CW: People seem to like it.
GP: Is it selling out?
GP: Are there tickets available?
CW: Oh, there are tickets available.
GP: You're not performing on July 17?
CW: Between you and me, you know what we're doing-it's one of those great lies in the theatre-sold out that night. The CAC simply has--
GP: Something else planned--
CW: They can make a lot more money.
GP: And you're extended to July 26?
GP: And can you extend beyond that?
CW: We can stay, if business merits, through the end of August but right now its just through the end of July. At this point we're very close to recouping which is good.
GP: And if you are able to extend through August would you be able to retain your cast?
CW: My understanding is everyone would stay. They're actors so you never know. I think they're happy. They seem to enjoy themselves. They're a great bunch. Couldn't ask for a more beautiful and more talented group of young ladies.
GP: You had to go outside the community to cast Pageant? Even though Brooks Braselman is a native New Orleanian he's been living in New York for a while.
CW: Both Brooks and Steven [also from New York] had spent some time here. Steven Sherman lived here so in essence, it's not like we went out and got a complete foreigner.
CW: And when we had open call there were a lot of terrific people but some of the people who were terrific simply would not have looked good in a bathing suit. A lot of people acknowledged that.
GP: When you had auditions did you have them strip?
CW: When we had call backs. They had to come back in full maquillage and wear something resembling a bathing suit and then we made them walk in high heels.
GP: That must have been fun.
CW: Everybody was a little edgy.
GP: I can imagine.
CW: Because it's rare you get a call that says, "come in drag, wear a bathing suit."
GP: And you're not using drag queens you're using actors.
CW: Right. We got Brooks and Steven because--well, I'm just a great fan of Brooks and I called him one day and said "do you have any plans for the summer." And he said, "No." I hadn't spoken to Brooks really in years. And I said "We've acquired the rights to Pageant, would you like to come down and do it?" And he said, "Um, let me think. Yes!" So he came down and Steven--a lot of these were prefaced with a codicil where I would say, "do you do this or do you do that?" I was looking for a particular physical type for Miss Texas that Steven embodies in my mind. To say a big girl is misleading. You think of Texas women as being bigger than the other girls because Texas is a big state and everything is big in Texas, etc. and I said, "Steven, do you tap dance?" And he said, " I've had to in my life." And I said, "I'll just take your word on that. I hope you don't lie." And he can. He's terrific. And he's a terrific actor and he can sing. Michael Howard was also familiar with him because he'd worked with Michael and Michael recommended him. We took Steven on a lark. He didn't come down. He didn't audition. He just said "yes" over the phone. He had been around here. He'd done Confederacy of Dunces, he got his graduate degree at LSU and worked for Swine Palace. Doug [Park] came in to sing. Doug was a recommendation from someone in the cast of Wess and I don't think anyone in the Country has ever sung Miss Bible Belt two octaves--several steps above the original notation. Paul [Soileau] Miss Industrial Northeast--the standing joke at all auditions: "Do you play the accordion?" Anybody can learn to roller stake but if you can play the accordion--" And he said, "I can play Moon River on a toy accordion." And I said--
GP: That's amazing--
CW: Come back and bring an accordion and he could finger it so at least he had the coordination necessary and so we just handed him an accordion and Michael worked with him a great deal.
GP: And what about Brooks' ventriloquist act?
CW: Brooks read a couple of books and I said, "Pitch the old lady high, pitch you in the middle and pitch the old man low." And he and Michael worked it out. It's all Brooks that does that. Brooks just put his mind to it and he came up with that. Kenny [Weatherup-Miss West Coast] was great. He's tall and funny and he has that extraordinary smile--
GP: Great smile--
CW: Biggest smile I've ever seen in my life. Wess is great. He's appropriate for it because he's a big fellow so he doesn't look overpowered by these big women.
GP: Roy [Haylock] Now Roy is a coup for you because this is basically his debut on the stage even though he's worked backstage. And I don't think you're familiar with this but I was very much interested in him playing Emory in The Boys In The Band.
CW: Oh really.
GP: Way before Pageant happened.
CW: If you'd like to see it again, you're welcome, you know.
GP: Maybe we'll bring Shirl [Cieutat].
CW: That would be great! We'll make her one of the judges!!