Louisiana Country features local theater

Louisiana Country features local theater

Impromptu Players take the stage for fun and education

Though she rarely appears on stage, Anna Wiggins is clearly the star of the Impromptu Players Community Theater in DeRidder.The diminutive 75-year-old dynamo is constantly on the go, managing the theatrical company and operating the Wooten Theatre facility on East First Street - all while tending to her Curious Cargo gift shop just a few blocks away.

How does she do it all? How does someone who ought to be comfortably perched in a rocking chair run circles around so many who are half her age? “My secret is to never stop. But I wouldn’t be able to do anything without all the many people who have a
love and passion for the theater,” Wiggins said, speaking in her distinctive rapid-fire fashion. “That’s what’s so great about this community. We’re all like a family. All you have to do is ask and people are ready to step up andhelp out and volunteer however they can.”

One of those many volunteers is DeRidder City Councilman and BECi member Gordon Jenkins, who helps build sets and props and performs maintenance
projects as needed. Jenkins became a fan of the theater when he saw the impact of the program first-hand. “You can’t be around Anna for very long without getting excited about the program and all she does for the community. If it wasn’t for her, I think the theater might have folded back in the 1990s,” Jenkins said.

“This program has really done a lot for our young people, especially.”Jenkins said one example of this positive impact on local youth is the Summer Drama Camp led for the past 11 years by Kari Ifland, who also serves on the board. Ifland directs two weeklong summer camps, which have
become so popular there is a waiting list to enroll. Ifland, who works as the pubic relations director for the local school board, said that while the camp teaches drama and the finer points of the performing arts, students learn much more than the process of memorizing lines, overcoming stage fright and gesticulating more demonstrably.

“Drama teaches not only theater skills but also how to be more confident in the classroom and how to project when you’re speaking in front of an audience. They become more sure of themselves and they learn skills that will help them in life when they’re having to communicate with others,” Ifland said. “We have students who have learned theater here and have gone on to do well in college theater.”

That’s a path that Emily Smith plans to follow. Emily is a 17-year-old junior at Singer High School. When she was 6, she went to the Wooten Theatre to see a play and was immediately smitten. She approached Ifland about getting involved and the next year had a role in Doo-Wop Red Riding Hood. This summer’s Drama Camp will mark her 13th play.

“Whether you’re a kid or an adult, this is an amazing program that DeRidder is blessed to have,” she said. “When you get involved, you experience so many different things and you discover things about yourself that you never knew. It’s really great for kids because it gets
you out of your shell.”

Emily admitted being a little nervous at first, but Ifland coached her through it. She’s so enthusiastic about drama, she plans to visit a theatre academy in New York City and visit other college drama departments, working around the Drama Camp schedule, of course.

“This is something I plan on pursuing for the rest of my life,” she said. “In theater, there’s such a sense of family. You’re instantly accepted. You work hard but you have a lot of fun.”

Wiggins added that there is also a scholarship program for theater students. “A lot of what we do is all about the kids,” she said. “They need something to be passionate about, something they can enjoy and get engaged in. It helps them bring focus and purpose into their lives.”

Wiggins keeps her focus on making the Impromptu Players and the Wooten Theatre a successful operation that is unique in that it is one of only a handful of theaters in the country to still offer a dinner theater.

One guess as to who actually cooks the dinner.

“I cook everything,” Wiggins said. “I want it to be good and I want it to be served warm, so I just do it myself.”

  The one thing Wiggins couldn’t do herself is complete the renovations required before the Impromptu Players   moved into the old West Brothers Building on
First Street.

In the early days back in the ‘80s, the group rehearsed, built sets and created props in the BeauCare Building on High School Drive and presented plays at
DeRidder High School. The group later moved to the K.C. Hall at St. Joseph’s Church for a spell and in 1990 began renting space in the Old VFW Building on Lindsey Street. After 12 years, the building owners announced their decision to sell the building, so the search was on for a new facility.

The company took a deep dive when leaders decided to borrow $250,000 to refurbish the West Brothers Building. Local businessman Johnny Wooten issued a challenge grant to pay off the debt along with a request to name the theater in memory of his parents, John and Bernice Wooten.It took two years of hard work from dozens of volunteers to renovate the building, but in 2004 the Impromptu Players had a new permanent home.

Today, the Wooten Theatre is a prime venue for a variety of events such as reunions, proms, concerts, receptions and other public and private functions.
Wiggins enjoys working with people to produce plays or organize receptions, but what she doesn’t like is a big ego. If anyone comes around the Wooten Theatre with an ego, she has some advice: “We’re in this to learn about performing, to have fun and to entertain our audiences. If you have an ego, then you can just go to New York.”