Marc Pettaway, director of the Artists Civic Theatre and Studio, has guided the theater through its development, found its current home and oversaw the growth of a Lake Charles theatrical legacy. (Brad Robichaux / American Press)
Marc Pettaway teaches ''The Actor’s Voice'' to students during the Louisiana Theatre Festival at Central School in the 1990s. (American Press Archives)
Last Modified: Sunday, October 14, 2012 1:52 PM
While teaching theater at a private girl’s school in New York City, Marc Pettaway received a call about a contract to run the theater department at LaGrange High School in Lake Charles. Pettaway initially said no.
“The only reason why I signed it was it said I was going to be taking a man’s job who’s going to be on sabbatical and he will be back at the end of nine months. I felt safe,” Pettaway said.
It didn’t turn out quite like he expected.
“We were doing all kinds of things, going to all these tournaments and doing quite well. So at the end of the year the principal came up and said it was the end of my contract. I said ‘I know, I’m out of here, it’s OK.’ And he said, ‘No, we want you to stay.’”
After four years of teaching theater at Calcasieu Parish Schools, Pettaway and seven others decided in 1966 to start a theater company in Lake Charles that would appeal to all ages. For 46 years, Pettaway, as founding director of the Artists Civic Theatre and Studio, guided the theater through its development, found its current home and oversaw the growth of a Lake Charles theatrical legacy.
“I think it’s important to note that Marc could have gone anywhere in the world. Instead, he chose to remain here because he believed that what he had to offer to this community could make a difference, and it has, more than people will ever know,” said Bob Marcantel, who has performed in several ACTS productions under Pettaway’s direction.
“I stayed in Lake Charles because I got involved,” Pettaway said. “I like community theater because you can take someone and say, ‘So you’re unhappy. Come to the theater; I can make you happy with yourself and by the time you leave you’re going to say ‘Wow!’”
Pettaway was born in Alexandria and developed an interest in theater early in his life, taking any parts offered to him.
“There was no provision for student theater back then, I always wanted to be on stage. ‘Walk-on,’ they’d call me. If they had anything they’d always call me to do the part.”
Pettaway served in the Army and spent three years teaching with the Army Dependent Schools in Tokyo, Japan. He worked with the Tokyo Western Theater on stage and as a stage hand for the Kabuki National Theater of Japan.
“I was a scene-shifter, and I was the tallest one, so I always moved the tree,” Pettaway said.
ACTS credits Pettaway for providing the theater with professional experience during its inception, the ACTS website says. Pettaway received his bachelor’s degree in theater from LSU, his master’s degree from Northwestern State University, and his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of New Orleans.
“I was involved with ACTS from the beginning and know of the many obstacles which had to be overcome in order to bring such professional productions to this area,” said Daniel Ieyoub, ACTS founding member. “Because of Marc’s persistence and expertise, he was able to get the support of many who enjoyed the theater, as I did.”
“Marc is an incredible director. ACTS’ productions under his direction were well-known for their high quality, professional standards,” Marcantel said. “Today, if you get on YouTube and you see what other community theaters around the country have to offer, you realize that they pale in comparison to the quality of ACTS’ productions under Marc’s direction.”
Pettaway brought his professional talents to almost all aspects of theater production, including set design, lighting and makeup.
“Marc has an innate ability to know what will and won’t make a scene work,” Marcantel said. “He knows how to create interesting tableaus through blocking, costuming, scenic design, etc. He knows just what to add to a costume or even a hair style in order to not only make it work for the scene or look more interesting on stage, but also what makes it appropriate for the period in which the scene is presented.
“He once did an old-age make-up on me for a production that I was in and I was absolutely amazed when he finished and I looked in the mirror. It was incredible!”
ACTS, however, did not have the money in the beginning to pay Pettaway, so he accepted a teaching position at Northwestern State and commuted between Natchitoches and Lake Charles.
“It was a three-hour drive. What was good was that I could plan my classes as I was driving there and on the way back I could test myself to see if it was going to work, so I was doing my work for my classes in the car,” Pettaway said
Four years of commuting, however, took its toll on Pettaway.
“I went to the doctor and said I was always tired and I shake. He says, ‘Tell me about your life,’ and I said, ‘Nothing fabulous, I’m doing shows in Lake Charles, and teaching in Natchitoches.’ He asks me how often I do that and I say every day. He says, ‘Well that’s your problem.’”
Pettaway resigned from NSU and for a time worked as a manager at a furniture store managed by his brother in Lafayette before becoming ACTS’ full-time director.
During his time at ACTS, the theater went through several location changes. Originally the theater performed in the Arcade Theatre Stage. After four years there ACTS was forced to leave due to fire code violations.
ACTS converted a warehouse into a theater-in-the-round as its new home after leaving the Arcade.
“We’d go to the American Press the Friday before the show and get the remnants of the ends of the papers and we would staple it on the ceiling. And we had what we called “Renaissance Seating” you’d buy a ticket for $2 and we’d give you a carpet square and that was your Renaissance Seating. You’d put it on the floor and you sat on the carpet,” Pettaway said.
After losing the warehouse theater to a fire, ACTS performed on various stages around the area.
“We were like gypsies. We would say, ‘If you can find our shows you can see them!’” Pettaway said.
While looking for a new location in 1983, Pettaway found a store and a silent movie house on Reid Street that was for sale. The property became the new home for ACTS.
Among other contributions to ACTS, Pettaway developed a touring troupe from ACTS that staged productions in Crowley, Welsh, DeRidder and DeQuincy. He was also responsible for bringing dinner theater productions to the area in the 1980s, performing in front of dining audiences at the Lake Charles Country Club, the Hilton Hotel, the Sheraton Chateau Charles and the Lake Charles Civic Center.
Management of the dinner theater began to be taxing, however.
“As time evolved, it became very difficult having volunteers move the bulk of large productions in and out of the various sites, and that segment of the theater vanished. During this time the director often would have staged as many as 10 productions during a season.”
During his tenure, Pettaway wrote the book, music and lyrics of one original production each year. One of his works, “If the Shoe Fits,” was performed at the International Children’s Theatre Festival in the mid-1980s in Washington, D.C.
Outside of ACTS, Pettaway also served as the artistic director for the official Louisiana state play, “The Louisiana Cavalier,” in Natchitoches during the summer in the 1980s.
Pettaway retired from ACTS in November 2010, after the final performance of the musical “Oliver!” He hopes to organize the productions he’s written into a catalog and sell it.
“I will always be indebted, however, to Marc Pettaway for enriching my life and helping me to enjoy for many years the pleasures and riches gained by my association with him and ACTS,” Ieyoub said. “His professionalism, dedication and commitment to community theater has had a tremendous impact on this area and has helped many to enjoy the productions which ACTS has produced over the years.”
“I think that Marc’s legacy was, is, and will be the high, quality productions that ACTS has become known for over the years,” Marcantel said. “He is part of a small, elite group of master teachers who have left an indelible mark on the artistic history of Lake Charles, such as Dr. Francis Bulber, Bill Kushner and Lamar Robertson. Lake Charles will probably never see their likes again, because they raised the bar pretty high. And while we may never exceed it, we can certainly strive to emulate it and achieve it.”