Lyla Hay Owen, actress and bedrock of local theater, dies at 84

Lyla Hay Owen, a multi-talented woman of the theater who not only acted but also was a playwright, director, author and producer, died Feb. 7 at Passages Hospice. She was 84.

“She had an incredible talent, a sort of compulsive creativity,” said Jim O’Quinn, a fellow performer and frequent collaborator. “She was an artist in her heart and soul, and she lived the life of an artist. She wanted to transform life experiences into art.”

She could be extravagant — David Cuthbert, a former theater critic for The Times-Picayune, called her “a down-home diva” — but, he said, “when the chips were down, she was a professional who could do whatever she turned her hand to. … She was a pro.”

A native New Orleanian who was born Lyla Ruth Lagarde, she spent six years in New York studying at Columbia University and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. When she returned to New Orleans, she started appearing on stages all over town – at Gallery Circle, Tulane University and Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, to name a few.

In 1969 and 1970, she also was a member of the acting company at Repertory Theatre, which the actress-director June Havoc ran. But Ms. Owen never got to go on because she was Havoc’s understudy and Havoc never missed a performance.

Ms. Owen and other members of New Orleans’ theater community started The People Playhouse in 1970 as a venue for original, innovative and classic theater. It lasted eight years, closing when, Cuthbert said, the artistic and financial burdens of running the enterprise became too great.

She told Cuthbert that she realized that it was time to move on during a performance of “Uncle Vanya”: When the stage manager was telling Ms. Owen she had to go on, she was trying to unclog a toilet.

In addition to appearing in plays, Ms. Owen created them. Among her productions were “Looney Blues” and plays she wrote for Le Petit’s Children’s Corner, including one inspired by Tarzan and two musicals about Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy, as well as “The Snow Queen” and “The Phantom of the Old French Opera House.”

She also appeared in movies such as “Hard Times,” “Everybody’s All-American” and “Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles,” in which Tom Cruise broke her neck – in character, as Lestat, the vampire.

“He was very careful and concerned not only about how he would break my neck, but how it would read on camera,” Ms. Owen said in a Times-Picayune interview. “He is the consummate professional film actor.”

She also sang – her favorite was “La Vie en Rose” – and she performed often in a cabaret act with her daughter Cynthia, who also was a local actress. She died in 2008.

Cynthia Owen’s death came shortly after the death of Ms. Owen’s fourth husband, Larry Landers.

Eight months later, Ms. Owen returned to the stage as Amanda Wingfield in Marigny Theatre’s production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.”

In a 2009 interview with The Times-Picayune, Ms. Owen said that the losses hit hard but that she felt…

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