Garden District: Scandal, High Society, and New Orleans on TV

Garden District:
"Garden District" is a new TV series written by Rosary O'Neill.

“Garden District” is a new television series set in the historic Garden District of New Orleans, Louisiana. The show chronicles the (mis)adventures of a wealthy Dubonnet family, who are old money, stylish, and extremely eccentric. Dysfunction runs through their clan like water runs on the bayou with greed, lust, secrets, deceit and backstabbing plaguing their family history. All gracefully hidden behind the lavish mansion walls within the Garden District, the family’s troubles grow when the patriarch falls ill and decides to rewrite his will.

“Garden District” invites viewers to immerse themselves in a world veiled by the illusion of carnival Kings and Queens, Sazerac, jazz, and the swampy seductions of the Big Easy. The show was created for New Orleans, in New Orleans, by a New Orleanian, but the themes and characters can prove compelling to anyone from any place and background. The pilot–which was filmed in a private home located in the ritzy Garden District–is set to be approximately twelve minutes long containing a grand total of eight scenes. The entire cast–both on screen and behind the scenes–are from New Orleans, which makes the show even more authentic and of great interest to the local papers. Rosary and her crew are actively seeking funds to get the pilot produced and picked up by a television network.

The show was written by the award-winning author, Rosary O’Neill, who was born and raised in New Orleans. A Ph.D.-holding professor of theater history, Rosary has penned a remarkable 25 plays (16 of which have been published by Samuel French Inc.) and 4 books of non-fiction. Rosary is a Senior Fulbright Drama Specialist (2012-2019), and the recipient of 8 Fulbrights, including one from the University of Bonn for the fall of 2020. From 1983-2001, Rosary was a tenured professor of Drama and Speech at Loyola University and served as the Founding Artistic Director of Southern Repertory Theater in New Orleans. “Garden District” is her first foray into television.

Garden District
“Garden District” is a new television series set in the historic Garden District of New Orleans, Louisiana.

Recently, author Rosary O’Neill, producer Rory O’Neill Schmitt, and actress/producer Kelly Lind discussed their experiences working on the show and their hopes for its evolution.

Meagan Meehan (MM): You conceived “Garden District” based on your plays. So, how many plays did you draw from and/or reference whilst creating this series?

Rosary O’Neill (RO): I drew upon a series of ten plays I had written in New Orleans: Wishing Aces, Solitaire, Black Jack, Hearts, A Louisiana Gentleman, Property, White Suits in Summer, Wing of Madness, Turtle Soup, Rhapsody. The plays were produced annually at Southern Rep Theater and many were written with parts for the Southern Rep actors who I admired: Janet Shea, and of course, my son, Barret O’Brien. The first play was Wishing Aces, which won me a Fulbright to Paris, where there was so much interest in Louisiana families. I continued to write about my family and the people I knew in New Orleans.

I named many of the plays after card games- having watched my Grandma play and my parents play every night throughout their marriage. Games were based on hoping and wishing and dreaming in the beautiful blue moon South. It was less about communicating, and more about presence with each other. No one knew anyone else deeply, except perhaps mother and child. Many women didn’t work, so there was more presence and more time for play and for hoping and the biggest hope for many was to rise to fame as an artist or movie star, a pioneer of some sort beyond the box of getting trapped inside oneself or the house.

After I moved to New York in 2003, I had readings of these plays and found to my astonishment many were comedies (not dramas). It usually takes me at least a year–at eight hours a day–to write a play. So, by starting early and producing my work, and raising the money and getting the best actors I could, the plays were able to get a good start. New Orleans is a great place to start because people love each other here and it’s kind of a big small town. There’s a team of people from high school, college, or your neighborhood who are ready to help you, and such was the case when I started and also when I came back. New Yorkers are equally generous. It just costs so unbelievably much to get anything done in New York; it makes startups there much more difficult.

MM: How and why did you decide to try your hand at a television show and how did you find a production company?

Garden District
Playwright Rosary O’Neill is a native of New Orleans and the TV series is based on her plays. Photo courtesy of Tiffany Christy. 

RO: Throughout my career in NYC, people always told, me: “You should write for television.” But I had no idea how to do that. When I had the honor of being admitted into the Actors Studio, I noticed that many of the best playwrights were swooped up by Hollywood. TV was where you could make a living. Then, TV writing got better and better. Finally, I had three fellowships with the Norman Mailer House in Providence Road Island with one of the creators of “Law and Order,” David Black, who also gave me two fellowships to Harvard, and said I had so many plays that I was a natural for TV. Thus, began my journey to translate ten of my plays to a TV series. David Black felt if you had “product,” people would feel safe supporting you. I needed at least twelve episodes of a series, which I now have.

Several magical people in New Orleans appeared shortly after I returned home in 2017 to transform the series on paper into a living breathing reality in a mansion on Felicity Street. The first was Oley Sassone, director extraordinaire. I had met Oley via another NYC director, Susanne Brinkley, who staged a few of my plays at Alice’s Fourth Floor in NYC. Oley and I met over 10 years ago and he had ongoing support for my work, but somehow now he felt the series could take hold.

“Garden District” has been a mostly female-driven project. Three other producers showed up to fire the piece forward. I met Kelly Lind, producer and lead actress extraordinaire, at journalist’s, Nell Nolan’s Christmas party in 2018. Kelly said, “Let’s do it.” Kelly introduced me to Jennifer Zoe Taylor, New Orleans architect, who had just produced her first film, starring Kelly. Our team grew to include: Allison Musso (who had produced one of the plays in Budapest), and Michelle Dumont. Additionally, my daughters joined our team: Rachelle O’Brien, marketing director and musician par excellence, and Rory O’Neill Schmitt, Ph.D., administrator from the University of Southern California.

This team of seven (mostly women) met weekly meetings and successfully ran a kick starter campaign. We achieved our goal of shooting the sizzle of “Garden District.” Star, Bryan Batt, jumped aboard, as did brilliant lead actor, Barret O’Brien.

Rory O’Neill Schmitt (RS): My mom, Rosary, was so excited about this project, that her energy electrified me. Earlier this year, she asked that I join the team to help bring this dream to life. We work well together. Mom and I have previously collaborated on co-writing a screenplay (Blind Love: Degas Paints New Orleans, 2019) and a book (New Orleans Voodoo: A Cultural History, Arcadia and History Press, 2019). Our production team has been phenomenal. Jen Zoe Taylor has been a terrific producer. The production team works extremely well together. Personally, I believe the future of art is film and television. I’m inspired to help create this Garden District television series to showcase our hometown, New Orleans.

Kelly Lind (KL): We formed a production company for this show. Its kind of snowballed throughout the year. Rosary and I had coffee in January and talked about a film that I shot last year (which had just completed a successful crowdfunding campaign). She asked if she could meet the director/co-writer/co-producer, Jennifer Zoe Taylor, so the three of us met together and started this conversation.  Soon enough, Oley was on board, and not long after, Rosary brought on Michelle, Allison, Rachelle and Rory.  With Oley’s guidance as a Hollywood veteran, we became a production team.

MM: How did you find locations to film and what makes the Garden District mansion so special?

RO: My director, Oley Sassoon, brought the lovely mansion to the series, as the owners, Gregory Morey and Scott James, are his friends.

Garden District
The show follows the lives of the members of a wealthy yet dysfunctional family. Photo courtesy of Tiffany Christy. 

RS: Our goal is authenticity. You can’t capture the soul of New Orleans with anything that isn’t completely real. Oley’s good friends, Greg Morey and Scott James, hosted our film shoot in August and were absolutely gracious. Their 1857 home in the Garden District of New Orleans was absolutely a work of art in itself. Renovated extensively over the past 6 years since the couple moved in, the house and grounds are magnificent. Simultaneously, the house preserves a New Orleans history and spirit (I wanted to ask them if the house was haunted, as so many New Orleans homes are.) On the set, Scott was often adjusting artworks, furniture and backgrounds to support Oley’s vision.

In addition to the exquisite interior design and restored architecture, the couple has an incredible collection of art in their home, including works by Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, and Nam June Paik… My background is in visual art, I’ve a bachelor’s degree in Art History, a master’s degree in Art Therapy, and a PhD in Art Education. I was floored to be filming in the presence of an incredible art collection. I was also inspired to meet individuals who truly believed in the value of art and wanted to support us.

KL: Thanks to Oley, he had the perfect location in mind as he had shot there before, and the homeowners were kind enough to let us shoot there.  It really is one of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever been in.  And it’s interesting to think about what goes on inside the walls of these mansions in the Garden District. While there is such beauty and serenity on the outside, there can be so much drama and turmoil on the inside.

MM: How did you find your acting talent and what did you most seek in the portrayal of the characters?

RO: Acting talent was found through the director, the casting director, and other actors. We obtained the finest talent from New Orleans and people who had chemistry with each other and to that end had readings of the material.

KL: When I met Rosary at a Christmas party last year, she said she had a role that would be great for me. I had only just met her, so I was a bit surprised to hear her say that, but she had good instincts because I definitely feel a connection with Kitten. I’m lucky to be surrounded by a great community of actors here in New Orleans, several of whom are friends who I thought would fit the roles well, so I reached out to some of them, and they graciously accepted.  With Rosary getting Bryan, Janet and Barret on board, we ended up with a cast that had great synergy.

MM: How many characters are there? Can you tell us a bit about all of them?

RS: In our film shoot, there were seven characters: Rooster Dubonnet (a painter, played by Bryan Batt), Quint Levitt (a businessman, played by my brother, Barret O’Brien), Irene Dubonnet (the family matriarch, played by Janet Shea), Kitten Levitt (played by Kelly Lind), Jasmine Dubonnet (an actress, played by Sherri Eakin), Clovis Debango (the family attorney played by Carl Palmer), and Ella (a house assistant, played by Dari Lynn Griffin)

MM: When will the first episode—really a twelve-minute reel—be available for view?

RS: We are currently in post-production and we will update you with a release date. Due to demand, in a few weeks, we are going to release a short 2-3-minute clip of the episode prior to the full episode being released. More to come.

MM: You wrote twelve episodes, so how long is each one going to be and can you give us a little synopsis of them?

RO: I’d rather keep that a mystery. Bryan Batt, who is a wonderful actor, said that even on his series (“Mad Men”), they didn’t let the actors know what’s going to happen in order to keep them on edge!

Garden District
“Garden District” is filmed in the same district as the program’s title. Photo courtesy of Tiffany Christy. 

MM: What episode and character is your personal favorite and why?

RO: Of course, I love the first one because it sets up the drama of family members’ need for the inheritance; their desperation; their dreams.

RS: I love all of the parts because it brings me back to my childhood and watching all of my mom’s plays at Southern Rep. I’m always looking for my mom’s autobiographical references -Rooster’s struggles with this artist identity, Irene’s determination to lead, Kitten’s self-discovery and empowerment…

MM: What are your hopes for this series and which networks are you pitching it to?

RO: I hope the series will entice the world globally to love New Orleans as much as we do, to visit and protect her and to cherish our artists. I hope, like Tennessee Williams hoped, the stories will make the world a kinder place.

RS: I would like Garden District Productions to procure a contract from a major broadcasting network to make the 12 full-episodes (which have already been written) in the first season. I can’t wait to be a part of a collaborative film production with people that I enjoy working with, commemorating a city that refuses to be forgotten.

KL: I hope that it will get picked up by a network and become a huge hit!

MM: Has the local community and media been supportive of the project?

RO: Journalists have supported us at our gatherings at Gasa Gasa and Parkway Bakery & Tavern. The world here is eager for work for our great local artists. We hope to set the stage for the best of the best local talent to be shown to the world. Like our food and our music, performers here dazzle the room. The first ten years I ran Southern Rep, we had nine international invitations and accepted eight. We create the entertainment here that the world yearns to hear. Our talented actors are prepared to show the New Orleans Garden District to the world through television.

RS: In addition to journalists, we’ve had terrific local support from so many people and companies. Yvonne LaFleur contributed wardrobe. Friends and family have sponsored our crowdfunding campaign. Articles are being written, including in Offbeat, NOLA Vie, and an interior design magazine, a story on local WWNO radio, as well as inclusion in a local news station: News with a Twist.

KL: Yes, and as we’re getting the word out more and more, many people have been saying how excited they are to see it and/or want to get involved with it.

MM: What are your ultimate goals for “Garden District” and is there anything else that you would like to talk about?

RO: I would like the series to run for at least twenty years and bring many more series to New Orleans, so that artists can celebrate and live in their hometown.

RS: Through film, I would like to celebrate the greatest city on earth: New Orleans!

KL: I want to show a side of New Orleans that is so rarely seen by outsiders so that people will have a more “well-rounded view” of the city, so to speak, than what’s so commonly portrayed in films and TV shows.  I also want to be able to showcase what exceptional talent we have here.