Louisianian at Large

Lafayette’s new theater
Following four years of delays, the theater portion of the Acadiana Center for the Arts is at last under construction in downtown Lafayette.
For the surrounding performing arts community, this means the availability of a smaller location where music, dance and theater can be presented in a more intimate setting. For the Acadiana Arts Council, the nonprofit facilitator of arts development for the area, the theater represents the ability to provide performing artists a suitable venue, just as it has done for visual artists.

About five years ago, the Acadiana Arts Council opened its Acadiana Center for the Arts within a 1920s-era bank at the corner of Jefferson and Vermilion streets. The center houses art galleries and offices. What has been missing, though planned for inclusion from the beginning, is a theater where performing artists can showcase their work.

The theater, opening in the fall of 2010, will be a new structure located directly next to the galleries and offices.

“Imagine a small, very sophisticated black box theater that allows for a totally different experience than a traditional performing arts building,” says executive director Gerd Wuestemann.

Able to seat 300, the theater has a flexible design that incorporates the ability to reconfigure within minutes, allowing more types of performances to take place, he says.

Great care has been taken in the choices of lighting, sound and acoustic design. Thought was given even to the way air conditioning and heating are delivered –– streamed, rather than pumped –– so as to not disrupt a performance.

From the street, one will face a wall of glass surrounding an interior atrium. Behind the atrium, a second wall of soundproof glass will reveal the interior of the theater.

“People will be able to see from the street practices and performances, and when you don’t want anyone looking in, the glass turns dark,” Wuestemann says.

Nothing like this exists in Lafayette, he says. “It will invigorate art forms of dance and theater in this town.”

The Acadiana region, while long associated with Cajun and zydeco music, has within the past 20 years undergone a renaissance of sorts, setting off rural art movements and an annual film festival focusing on the area’s unique heritage.

Although Lafayette’s premier performing arts facility, the Heymann Performing Arts Center, is certainly an asset for the city, it seats more than 2,200 and is often too expensive a venue for many.

When the center is complete, a total of $12 million, primarily in state funds, will have been spent for the purchase of the property, the renovation and redesign of the center’s offices and galleries and construction of the theater. According to Wuestemann, increases in construction costs following hurricanes Katrina and Rita forced the center to rebid the theater portion several times.


Oil City: Making a better school
When Oil City Elementary School was told to either increase enrollment or close, it was from the very environment surrounding the school that principal Mike Irvin and his staff found a solution.

Named for the oil strike of 1906, Oil City has a long and continued history as a major area of oil production. It is the dead center of a major lumber-producing area and is located just north of Caddo Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake in the South.

Irvin says most of the students attending Oil City Elementary School came from households supported by timber, aquaculture or oil, so making lessons relevant to the things they knew provided interest.

Curricula were developed to show practical applications, and the Oil City Elementary Magnet School was born.

As a magnet school, the allowed zone for student attendance was expanded throughout the northern portion of Caddo Parish.

Another change included the addition of 20 days to the school year, thereby allowing for even more learning.

“We wanted to make the school unique because there was a perception in the community that this wasn’t a really good school,” Irvin says. “Enrollment more than doubled that first year.”

Cynthia Kilpatrick, the school’s environmental science facilitator, says each grade level is assigned a theme: In kindergarten it’s “Be a Friend to the Earth”; in the first grade, “Life Cycles”; in the second grade, “Forestry”; in the third grade, “Water Cycles”; in the fourth grade, “Horticulture”; in the fifth grade, “Meteorology”; and in the sixth grade, “Habitats.”

All lessons in reading, writing, math, social studies and science are designed around the grade-level theme. As a result, the appearance of the school has changed to represent science laboratories.

A decayed tree trunk, once scheduled for removal, was left in place and now serves as a decomposition station. With the help of parents and area residents, a greenhouse was constructed for the study of plant life cycles. A nature trail, lined with trees and shrubs indigenous to the area, encircles the school’s former football field. Annual field trips to Caddo Lake allow fourth-grade students to capture, measure, weigh and release various fish, while sixth-grade students hike nature trails and note observations for writing assignments that describe seasonal changes.

“In my opinion, having these kids outdoors and actively engaged in programs gives them a real world experience,” Kilpatrick says. Now, “they look forward to school and to each new lesson.”

Measurable changes of school success are seen in fewer numbers of student absences and increases in teachers seeking work at the school, Irvin says. In addition, “we have surpassed parish and state averages in all areas consistently each year since changing over,” proof that students are learning, he says.