If you ask what Opelousas is known for, Acadiana residents will likely answer football or a vibrant zydeco scene. What they may not mention is theater and the performing arts.
But located near South City Park, in an inconspicuous and quaint church built in the 1800s, is the Opelousas Little Theater, a community theater troupe that got its start in 1939.
The theater, funded solely by donations and ticket sales, has become a mainstay for Opelousas residents interested in the arts and, over its 84-year history, has built a large family and provided children and adults the opportunity to express themselves.
However, as the building ages, the future of the theater hangs in the balance. is at risk. Although many improvements have been made to this 140-year-old building, maintenance is still necessary and cannot always be completed quickly. A fundraising campaign was interrupted by the pandemic and organizers are now lobbying for more public support.
The theater had humble beginnings. Lacking a stage, early performances took place in school gymnasiums, local churches, dinner theaters, and residences. The troupe had its first performance, “The Adorable Spendthrift”, on November 25, 1940.
Originally the Little Theater of Opelousas, the theater was founded in 1939 by Guy J. Palazzolo. Not much is known about Palazzolo other than newspaper clippings announcing the theater's opening, said Dana Reed, volunteer director of the OLT.
In 1965, the theater purchased a church built in 1880. The church was moved to where the theater stands today. Opelousas sold the land to the theater for 100 years for $1, Reed said.
The production would “go dark” several times over the decades, Reed said. In the 1980s, the building began to collapse. The ceiling collapsed, furniture was destroyed, and drug addicts took over the space.
“Opelousas said you clean it up or we take it down. Not our 140-year-old building,” Reed said, “we shoveled the door, reupholstered the seats, painted, put in air conditioning. »
Since 1984, the theater has never “gone dark,” Reed said. Barring a pandemic, the theater has maintained its seasonal programming of four to five major productions each year. He has performed classics from “Oklahoma” and “The Wizard of Oz” to “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “She Kills Monsters.”
“During the first year of production, we had no air conditioning or heating. We did it with the windows open. We had that heavy makeup and sweat on, otherwise the June bugs would hit you in the face,” Reed said.
Family away from home
Claire Vidrine joined OLT in 2012. Being homeschooled, she says, she always felt out of place and struggled to make friends as a teenager.
“I haven’t really had all these opportunities to join all these clubs. My aunt and uncle took me to see a play in Eunice and I loved the experience. I saw OLT auditions. I’ve loved the community I’ve been a part of ever since,” Vidrine said.
Vidrine, now a theater board member, considers the theater an important part of the Opelousas landscape. She said Opelousas and nearby small towns don't have many spaces for children and teens interested in the arts. These kids, like Vidrine, might not feel like they fit in in a city obsessed with sports. Reed and the theater have impacted many lives in Acadiana, Vidrine said. They gave people confidence, purpose, acceptance and family.
The theater offers summer theater camps for children and a showcase each January for anyone who wants to show off their talents.
“I tell my newbies that I eat divas for lunch. Don’t embarrass yourself, do it right or don’t do it at all because we all worked so hard to get you here,” Reed said.
Reed may seem harsh, but deep down she believes everyone deserves a space where they belong. She recognizes that not all children are cut out for or want to play sports. She also understands that some children and adolescents grow up in environments that do not allow them to express themselves or provide them with a healthy outlet for the stresses in their lives. In this way, she views performance and the rigor required to put on a show as therapeutic for many of her actors.
“When you pass this curtain here, I don't care what a bad day you had, you're here and I don't want to hear anything about it. I promise you it's over there. But here it disappears, these curtains are magical,” Reed said.
Sudeep Vijayan had his first performance at OLT in November. He said the second he joined, he felt an immediate connection with the cast and executives. After their first show, the cast rushed to Vijayan to officially welcome him to the OLT family.
Many cast members have been performing in the theater for decades and range in age from 8 years old to old age. Many raise their children there and these children often end up performing in the theater.
Small towns like Opleousas deserve theaters, Vijayan said. There are creatives all over Louisiana, and the performing arts shouldn't be limited to big cities like Lafayette. He believes that everyone deserves to have access to the arts without having to travel long distances.
“It makes sense to have the OLT in Opelousas,” he said. “It’s a magnificent theater. It is old and has a vintage touch. It's just nice to have these artistic spots in and around Lafayette.
At OLT we are not afraid
Historically, theater has been seen as a place where queer people can thrive and find acceptance in a world that often rejects them, Reed said. Even though LGBTQ+ people are much more accepted today, in South Louisiana and small towns like Opelousas, being openly queer can still be difficult. At BTA, these people can be who they are without fear of condemnation or shame.
“Theatre doesn’t care who you are as long as you can act,” Reed said.
The theater is also not afraid to tackle topics such as homophobia and racism, Vidrine said. This has led to the theater causing controversy in the past. In the 1990s, the venue performed a play called “White Picket Fence.” The play was written by a gay man who grew up in the fictional town of Opelousas and faces homophobia after returning home with his husband. Other performances such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” sparked threats of arson in the theater.
“I had to bring the cops in for that,” Reed said, “I never fell for any of that.”
“A pretty common thing in small, local theaters is that they play safely. At OLT, we are not afraid to make the shows that need to be made,” Vidrine said.
She said she believes that while performance can be about escapism and fun, the arts are often about challenging the audience. Plays and musicals with themes of racism, drug addiction, suicide, homophobia, queer identity and domestic violence have all been presented at the theater.
“It opens up the conversations that need to happen, but in a small town those conversations don’t always happen,” she said.
Struggle to maintain
The building has become a symbol of a kind of perseverance in the performing arts. Without city funding and loss of historic status, this preservation will come at a high cost and constant maintenance, said Walter Duncan McBride, president of the BTA.
“We're a poor theater, we never really have enough funds to renovate everything. It’s just about figuring out what’s important and fixing it as you go,” McBride said. “In 2018, we made the difficult decision to do something drastic or close the establishment. »
The Board of Directors chose to create the Preserve Onstage Opelousas Fundraiser in 2019, affectionately known as POO.
The fundraiser grew in popularity until the pandemic, Vidrine said. After a lull, show attendance and fundraising reached previous levels. The venue was closed for 15 months during the pandemic and, like businesses across the country, the fear was real that the venue would be closed for good.
Vidrine said she was worried about the future of the theater. It is not located in the safest part of town and has struggled to accommodate homeless people sleeping near the property. If they start a fire, the building could easily go up in flames.
Although many improvements have been made to this 140-year-old building, maintenance is still necessary and cannot always be completed quickly. In the past, there have been discussions between the city and the theater to secure funding, but those plans always seemed to fall through. Reed, Vidrine and McBride believe that theater is vital to Opelousas' cultural identity and deserves the attention of local officials to promote the arts in the community.
“In Opelousas, theater is not very popular but we do it anyway because we love it,” McBride said, “if it disappeared, (the city) would lose a little point of light.”
Reed thinks that if the place disappeared, the troupe would stay. Everyone has put too much time and dedication into it to just disappear because they don't have a stage.
“Theatre has been around for 4,000 years and it’s not dead yet,” Reed said.