It played out like it was scripted; Theater director surprised with tribute

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Nathan Wilson
Dramatist and director Marc Pettaway of Natchitoches described a dinner invitation he recently received from a friend. “I was up in Natchitoches, and I got a call and a friend said, hey what are you doing (July 11)? Are you coming to Lake Charles?” he recalls. “He says put it on your calendar (and) make sure you’re there. I want to take you out to dinner.”
Though he’s now retired, it’s not uncommon for Pettaway to travel to Lake Charles. He’s Director Emeritus at the ACTS Theater there, where he served as director for 50 years. He describes the evening of July 11, when he arrived at dinner. “When we walked in, I said ‘oh these look like some old people that used to be down at the theater.’ He says ‘oh really? Well, that’s interesting.’”
During the meal, Pettaway’s friend seemed ill at ease. “He was a little bit anxious. He says ‘we have to go by the theatre and pick up some things,’” says Pettaway. “We drove down to the theater (and) as we got there, a car pulled out from directly in front of the theater so there was a place for us to park. I thought that was very strange.”

This article published in the Aug. 18, 2022, print edition.

Pettaway remained in the car as his friend went in the theater until a young girl came outside and asked for him by name and introduced herself as his escort for the evening’s performance. He explained that he didn’t have tickets and was told they would be provided. “She took me in and they sat me in the aisle. They had put two overstuffed chairs, tables, wine, paper and pencil and I thought, ‘what is this?’” he says. “Then I noticed everyone there, I knew. There must have been 400 people there. It was huge.”
“They were having a tribute to me for the years I had spent in Lake Charles doing shows,” says Pettaway. “People were there who had come from Italy, San Francisco, New York, New Mexico and all these people I had dealt with over the years. Some of them had been kids and they were 50 years old.”
“(It) was an hour and 45 minutes.” says Pettaway. “People came back and they did whatever they had done, a portion of it. If it was a song, they did a portion of the song. They gave a testimonial. They did like they do in the Tony’s and the Academy Awards in memorial, and they had pictures of people who had been there and had been my friends.”
The tribute may have been for Pettaway, but he appreciates the recognition of the theater’s cofounders too. “When we started the theater, there were seven actual people… We were very good friends, and they worked their tails off to get the thing going and to help maintain it,” he says. “People ask me why I stayed in Lake Charles. I stayed because I had such a nice cadre of friends who supported the theater.”
Pettaway reminisces about the theater’s earliest years, when he and his friends could more accurately be described as a theater troupe. “Prior to having a building, our slogan was ‘If you can find where we’re performing, you can see our shows.’ We performed all over Lake Charles,” he says. “Along the way, I bought a theater building there in Lake Charles which was an old silent movie house, built in about 1910, and we converted it.” He also remembers the theater’s earliest equipment. “The first thing that the theater ever owned was an old, broken down, upright piano that we paid 50 dollars for so we would have something to use to have music,” he says. “The second thing the theater ever had was a director, and that was me. From there we went on to make a community theater that was very vibrant and had something for all ages.”
Pettaway explains the theater’s name. “ACTS Artists’ Civic Theater and Studio. It also stands for Adults, Children, Teenagers on Stage and we had a full program where we had classes for young people, both pre-teens and teens, and I did the stage for the adults, and we did a full season of drama, comedy and of course everyone enjoys musicals.”
Pettaway also explains the theater’s success. “My job involved a lot of love. Everybody loved what they were doing,” he says. “I would tell them, you’re coming to the theater, and when you leave you will be changed in some manner or fashion,” he says. “My approach to theater is different from a lot of people’s. Yes, you want to do the show, but I wanted to help people,” he says. “I think I did therapeutic theater.”
As he describes his therapeutic theater, it becomes clear why so many people traveled to attend Pettaway’s tribute. “(After) being in the show, they’d say ‘I’ve opened up. I can speak on the stage. I can move. I feel good about myself.’ I said, ‘Well that’s what it’s supposed to do for you. You shared your talent with us in the audience, and we have to give you that as a gift,’” says Pettaway. “One gal told me, ‘When I came down here. I could not talk. I could not get up and talk to anyone. I was timid, (and) you changed me. You made me so self-aware. You also made me find out I had something to bring to somebody, and that was of course on the stage, and she said, ‘I figured out that if I could do it on the stage, I could do it in my real life.’”
Alumni of ACTS Theater in Lake Charles gathered from across the world, July 11 to honor Marc Pettaway and his impact on their lives. Pettaway now resides in Natchitoches but remains Director Emeritus of the theater.

He describes theater’s gift to another child. “I had a little girl who had a speech impediment, and she couldn’t say certain words, and kids would laugh. I remember writing a show and putting that impediment in that character and having her do that, and we worked on her sound production,” he says. “It wasn’t so much a physiological problem. She heard the sound wrong all her life.” He describes the transformation that occurred as the girl practiced. “She had to do it deliberately and be aware that she had a problem, but then after the show, she corrected the problem and she was always my friend for the rest of her life.”
Pettaway explains why he travelled to Lake Charles from Natchitoches, and later Lafayette for decades to work in theater. “I’m just an ordinary person. What I did. What I was able to do. I believe in God and that’s my privilege,” he says. “No theater can maintain quality without somebody who’s trained to pass on the knowledge, to train the actors.”