ACTS Returns to SWLA
By Madelaine B. Landry
Just like beauty, what is historic varies with the beholder. What does “old, but worth the trouble to preserve” mean when the words refer to a building that is part of a community’s past, present and future? While cynics may scoff, communities understand that old buildings hold many keys that can unlock their cultural, economic and entertainment opportunities. They also appreciate that preservation goes only one way: there is no chance to renovate or save an old building once it is gone. A piece of history will have been destroyed; lost forever.
ACTS Theatre (Artists Civic Theatre and Studios) in Lake Charles has survived for more than half a century; their building, almost a century. The company’s belief that access to the arts is intrinsic to a community’s higher quality of life, meant not only preserving but also rescuing their historic venue when it fell victim to the wrath of Hurricane Laura in 2020.
“ACTS Theatre has been a part of the Lake Charles community for 54 years now,” notes producer and cast member, Mike Ieyoub. “We have managed to get our historic building back in shape and ready to entertain the community again. Our building dates back to the silent movie era. Formerly known as the Dixie Theatre, it is the only building still standing on Railroad Avenue.
“We have the original carbon arc projectors still in place in the projector room and some of the original décor in the lobby. The seats in our house were recovered from the Paramount Theatre before it was demolished. We still have original seats from the Dixie Theatre in the balcony. That’s our past. We are so excited about getting back on stage with our October, 2021 production of the musical 42nd Street.”
Bringing art and acting opportunities back to the SWLA community is the present. The theater company had been off-stage since February, 2020, due to Mother Nature’s intervention on many fronts.
Hurricane Laura could well have been its death knell, damaging the building’s roof and flooding the interior. ACTS Theatre was temporarily down, but certainly not out. The show must go on, so when the call for help went out, donors and volunteers rose to the challenge.
Repairs to the building made its recovery story possible, allowing it to open for this October’s production of 42nd Street. The physical repairs helped to restore the flailing spirit of a community that had been battered and bruised, yet was united in its refusal to give up. The arts have long been credited with this special ability to help people heal and process their emotions.
“The theatre was reopened after much thought,” says Ieyoub. “It was touch and go until we could find a roofer. We dried out the theatre; painted and cleaned it; and we knew we were ready to entertain again. This could have only been done because of the dedication of our volunteers.”
Community theaters all around the country have faced similar challenges during the pandemic. Waiting to invite patrons back, waiting for people to feel comfortable in a room filled with others again, has been the uncertain reality for an industry filled with optimists.
For ACTS Theatre, however, recovery from a Category 4 hurricane added yet another level of difficulty. Without an audience and venue, stage performers and behind-the-scenes crews have no fuel with which to create their art. A shared live experience is the heartbeat of a community theater, but no one could have anticipated a pandemic or catastrophic storms. Going forward, no one has a crystal ball to know what the future holds in store. How will community theaters like ACTS continue to survive? Several major components must come together to ensure that they continue in their ongoing mission.
Theatre People — A Unique Community
Artistic organizations attract folks from all walks of life. For some, love for live theater is passed down in families. That was the case with Ieyoub. “My father Daniel Ieyoub was a founding member of ACTS Theatre. So, I grew up watching him perform in leading roles from Fiddler on the Roof, The King and I, Hello Dolly, Oliver, and many more. He was an avid supporter of the arts, especially community theatre. I was fortunate to share the stage with him during our production of Guys and Dolls, which was his last time on stage before his passing.”
Although he is not in this month’s production, former cast member Mark Hebert came to the theater as a first-generation participant. “My interest in theater began in 2017 when I saw auditions for Monty Python’s Spamalot come across my Facebook news feed. I’ve been a Monty Python nerd since fourth grade, so I gave it a shot. They cast me as Arthur, and I had more fun than I should be allowed to have. Since then I’ve been in at least a half-dozen shows and enjoyed every one of them. Each production cast becomes a sort of family to the players. Lake Charles is blessed with a very talented theater community that has been hit hard by the pandemic and storms.”
Some may give it up for a time, but they simply cannot stay away. Dancers like Cathy Kurth never fully lose their passion for live performance. Owner of Cathy Kurth Dance Academy in Moss Bluff, she says she just had to be in the cast of the latest musical. “I first appeared onstage at ACTS Theatre under the direction of director Marc Pettaway in Gypsy as Gypsy Rose Lee back in 1991. I then appeared in several shows, nearly every year for the next 15 years.
“My final appearance on stage was in 2004 as Roxie Hart in Chicago. It was so much fun, and I loved being on stage. Theater really became my passion. But with four kids and a business to run, I just had to give it up. While it is incredibly rewarding, it was also a huge commitment.
“When I got the e-mail about 42nd Street I was so excited. I love tap dancing. I feared that I might be too old to participate. I’m 25 to 40 years older than all the other tap dancers in the ensemble. I’m really glad that I auditioned, and that Walt Kiser let this old gal be in [the show]. I hope our 42nd Street cast can bring as much joy to our Lake Charles audiences as being in the show has brought to me.”
Live theater offers continuity to participants, extending their traditional families to include a show’s cast and crew. “The camaraderie that develops among a cast is a unique type of community,” says Kurth. “I can assure you there will be many tears being shed on this show’s closing night.”
Live theater is a unique, immersive learning experience for audiences and participants of any age. Communities like Lake Charles are aware of how important performance opportunities can be for the development of youth who aspire to act, dance and sing on stage before a live audience. The professional quality of companies like ACTS Theatre demonstrates that young audiences and wishful performers are worthy of respect. Imagine being a child again, seated in the audience, watching the magic of a live show unfolding in front of you. How many children, seized by creativity and curiosity, have discovered their passion for performing this way? The older cast members become their mentors, nurturing their ambitions, helping them find their way onto a stage, in front of a live audience for the first time. For communities like Lake Charles, which is blessed with live theater venues, this chance is too good to forfeit.
For 15-year old cast member, Eli Prudhomme, who made his dancing debut in the ACTS 2018 production of Mamma Mia, the chance to return to dance on stage again is not something he takes for granted. “ACTS Theatre has really helped me to develop myself and my skills as an aspiring actor. I enjoy being mixed into a professional environment with the adults.”
Choreographer Lauren Fontenot stated that working with young people like Eli has always been a wonderful experience. “I taught him in Kinder. He and his twin brother are very musically talented. It’s a pleasure to be able to offer kids like this a chance to get on stage early.”
Kurth agrees. “I enjoyed teaching dance because so often I got to watch my students go from little tiny 3-year-olds into beautiful grown-up dancers. The lead in 42nd Street, Kristen Harrell, was a student of mine for 14 years. She was one of my ‘little Indians’ when I played Tiger Lily in Peter Pan. I loved getting to be onstage with her and performing a number together again!”
Essential To The Cultural Health of Communities
Community theater not only enriches the lives of those who take an active part in it, but it also benefits the audience members. It is crucial for the cultural health of any community in which it is offered. ACTS’ recovery story helped restore the emotional health of SWLA.
On either side of the footlights, those involved in any production represent a diversity of age, culture, and life experience. They share a passionate commitment to, and appreciation of, this ancient art form. The recent restoration, as well as the ongoing maintenance of the theater, is a big undertaking. It greatly depends on the community response of faithful participants who want to see the organization succeed.
Director Walt Kiser and choreographer Lauren Fontenot had planned the recent musical production, 42nd Street, for three years. Then the triple whammy of COVID, Laura and Delta hit. That could’ve been the final curtain call. However, with the venue readied once again, their dream was revived.
Next, they had to recruit enough advanced tap players to perform in the show as they envisioned it. Perhaps the combination of virus and winds instilled a sense of urgency: SWLA realized the wisdom of the adage “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
“Once the word started to spread, tappers from all over the community started showing interest and we ended up with this incredible ensemble of tap dancers and singers,” says Ieyoub. “This show is unique in that the tap dancers are the stars of the show, rather than the principles.”
Nothing Beats As Strong As The Hearts of Volunteers
Community theater brings together not only local on-stage talent, but also behind-the-scene volunteers. An army of loyal volunteers helped repair and clean the historic venue when the call went out. The members of ACTS realize it will be volunteers who continue to maintain and raise awareness of the treasured building for its future productions. Volunteers help spread the word through word-of-mouth publicity; they help to keep everyone motivated, keeping the momentum going forward. No community theater group can survive without generosity measured in the donation of time. There is no financial compensation; only a willingness to support local talent in future performances.
Volunteers generally live within the community; they realize that theater is a vital part of the overall local economy. Therefore, they proudly toot the horn for the venue and its productions. They encourage ticket sales. And they encourage their friends and family to patronize area restaurants before heading out for a night of entertainment.
With Silver You Can Turn Your Dreams to Gold
That line from “We’re In The Money” from 42nd Street says a lot about another essential element to a community theater’s success and survival. Famous dancer Martha Graham once said: “Theater is a verb before it is a noun; an act before it is a place.”
A verb: to be; to exist. Without capital, all the talent and good intentions have no place to be. The absence, and near loss, of the ACTS Theatre building, has opened the hearts and wallets of donors and patrons.
“ACTS was very fortunate to receive one of the Community Foundation of SWLA’s grants after Hurricane Laura,” says Kris Webster, ACTS’ board president. “That made a big difference in our ability to rebound from both the pandemic and the damage our property received from the hurricane. We also received generous donations from the community to help us stage our last play Once Upon a Mattress, which was in production for over a year while we found our footing again.
“Our No. 1 way of bringing in revenue is to mount a production. So for us, it was imperative that Once Upon a Mattress be successful as a springboard for this show. It takes the support of our community and our patrons to help us keep the doors open. Added to that, a production the size of 42nd Street is no small endeavor; nor is any show involving more than 20 people. If it weren’t for the generosity of companies such as Stine’s, Entergy, Phillips 66, Exit Realty Southern, Magical Memories by Markie and individual donors, I’m not sure we’d be sitting as well as we are now. We still have a long way to go, but we’re very excited to reopen our doors to Southwest Louisiana.”
ACTS Theatre is supported by a Lake Charles Partnership Grant from the City of Lake Charles; a SWLA Convention & Visitors Bureau Tourism Marketing Grant from Visit Lake Charles: the Lake Charles/SWLA Convention & Visitors Bureau; and a Louisiana Division of the Arts, Office of Cultural Development, Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism Decentralized Arts Funding Grant in cooperation with the Louisiana State Arts Council. All of these are administered by the Arts Council of SWLA. ACTS is also supported by a grant from Entergy and a grant from the Community Foundation of SWLA. ACTS also received a CARES grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.
ACTS Theatre is presenting its production of 42nd Street October 8-24. For performance dates, times and ticket information, go to actstheatre.com.