Broadway On The Bayou
● By Christy Quebedeaux
Iberia Performing Arts League
By Shanna Perkins
Kim Monroe and Kate Gulotta sit cross-legged on the corner of the stage at the Essanee Theater. They idly discuss what needs to be done before the wooden antique theater seats in front of them are filled and the navy blue curtains slowly glide open, revealing a cast of local talent poised to take on a new persona and share their talent and passion with a transfixed audience.
“We are so lucky,” gushes Monroe, who is an actress and the President of the Iberia Performing Arts League (IPAL) Board of Directors. “We have so many talented people in our area and it definitely helps maintain the arts in our community. Not many small towns have what we do. It’s so fortunate for IPAL and the Essanee Theater to be set right here in the historic district of Main Street.”
The Essanee was built at 126 Iberia Street in 1937 as a movie theater. Known for other historic buildings throughout New Iberia, Owen James Southwell was the architect. Over the years the building changed ownership several times, but was only owned by individuals or small businesses and never by a government entity. In 1980, the Essanee closed and sat unused for years, until 2000, when owner Freddie DeCourt sold the building to IPAL.
The group began renovations to create a space that would serve as a haven for the performing arts. Through these renovations, they have always held at the forefront the preservation of the history and the beauty of the original theater. The energy in the Essanee can best be described as effervescent – there’s a constant sense of excitement. It’s likely one part historical energy hangover and one part IPAL’s enthusiasm for their art and what they’re creating.
“I’ve been here for 10 years,” explains IPAL performer and board member Gulotta. “It’s so amazing, because when I first started, it was such a big deal for me to be involved with this organization and for it to be centered in the heart of the town. I feel like the arts, especially in the last few years, have become so synonymous with New Iberia. And to be able to touch so many lives in the community – a community that is so tightknit, passionate and cultured – it’s such a beautiful and very interesting thing to be a part of.”
IPAL may be one of the rare instances in which the phrase “the sum is greater than its parts” doesn’t quite apply. While the sum is incredible, each and every part is astounding. As Gulotta explains, the faces on stage would be irrelevant without the people behind the scenes – and often those behind the scenes are the very same ones who are also on stage. The IPAL members all work tirelessly toward the same goal, meaning that no one is above or below any task.
Monroe began at IPAL 16 years ago as an actress. She has since gained intricate knowledge of the theater, even learning to work the lights and sound. And today, as president of the board she is by no means exempt from her other duties of stocking the concession stand, sweeping the floors and cleaning the toilets.
“This place could not make it without the tech crew, stage manager, concession stockers or costume crew; so many people keep this theater thriving,” Monroe says pointedly. “We’re all here to do whatever it is that needs to be done. Everyone involved comes to clean up the weekend before an opening and every single person rolls up their sleeves to make sure we’re ready for guests. We’re extremely proud of this place.”
It’s said that the only drama that happens at IPAL is when the director calls “Places.” Everything else is family. Working diligently together creates a bond that’s nearly as close to blood as you can get. The ebb and flow of emotions that course through each participant from the auditions until the final curtain call weave these individuals together in an unbreakable fashion.
“We’re a family,” Gulotta expresses. “We all know that tomorrow we will all be here for another day working on something that we are all so passionate about. There’s so much blood, sweat and tears and long hours happily put into every single production. It doesn’t matter what happened on that stage or how it went, every time a play closes…there are tears.”
When it comes to selecting a performance, IPAL isn’t afraid to take on a challenge. The theater’s front lobby’s art deco walls are littered with framed playbills representing some of the most iconic and beloved plays of modern theater. Monroe and Gulotta banter back and forth ineffectively trying to land on a favorite. “Spamalot,” Monroe laughs. “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Gulotta says rubbing away chills from her arms. “Chicago,” both women fall silent nodding in awe of the memory. “’Little Shop Of Horrors,’ ‘South Pacific,’” they continue. “A Raisin in the Sun,” Monroe trails off.
“We work very hard to have diversity in our theater,” she continues. “We were very proud to have had our first all African American cast for ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ last year. It was a huge hit. With everything going on in our world right now, this place, it’s not allowed here. This is a safe haven. Everyone is accepted and loved like family.”
IPAL believes that there is a place for everyone within their organization and encourages anyone who is interested in lending a hand or exploring their talents to contact them through their website, ipalthearter.com. And if the theater doesn’t beckon your name, they’ll save you a seat in the audience.
“What’s so wonderful about being from a small town is that IPAL is so well known and when you have a show going on, you can fell the buzz around town,” Monroe says smiling. “In a larger town, you might not have that level of encouragement. We have the most wonderful support from our community.”