BY MELANIE BUCK –
The Ouachita Little Theatre has provided decades of entertainment for Mena and the surrounding communities through live action plays and musicals. The Theatre, known as the OLT, was founded in 1979 by Leda Benson and until 1985 provided plays and other performances in the Mena Middle School Auditorium. In 1985 the group took possession of the old Lyric building, which was built in 1923 and housed a movie theatre. It was converted to produce live performances.
Over the years, dozens of shows have played in the venue, featuring hundreds of members of the community, from the smallest child to the aging adult. Rudi Timmerman, who is serving his second stint as President of the OLT Board, said, “The theatre provides serious quality entertainment and well-established musicals for the community’s enjoyment. I believe we enhance the overall culture of the area by exposing folks to an array of serious plays. We also provide a venue for other organizations to promote their projects and benefit fundraisers.”
Throughout the years, the theatre has shared its ups and downs with the community as well. On November 13, 1993 a devastating tornado wreaked havoc on downtown Mena and swept the back third of the OLT away. For two years, OLT again performed in the Mena Middle School Auditorium. OLT was able to move back into The Lyric building in 1995.
OLT is a unique facet in Mena as Timmerman explained, “There are not many towns the size of Mena with an ongoing community theatre. We’ve been in operation for 39 years.” And, as he also explained, the theatre provides a draw for visitors to come to Mena as another tourist attraction.
“We also provide opportunities for members of the community to participate and develop communication skills and give folks a chance to experience life onstage,” said Timmerman. Some, he said, have gone on to pursue degrees in college in theatre and communications and a few of those have come back to enjoy their hometown stage once again. Currently, Logan Sweeten, who began his theatre experiences as a member of JOLT, is directing a show that he wrote, bringing his stage life to full circle. “We make hammers out of people so they’re not all nails,” smiled Timmerman.
“We recognized that we needed to provide the same opportunities for the kids as we did for the adults.” That’s when JOLT was launched, which is the junior branch of the theatre begun by longtime OLT member, Judy Kropp. JOLT produces a play each summer and every other Christmas. The program provides a chance for younger children to bring their talents on stage, and teaches them responsibility and skills that can be used in all facets of life.
There are also jobs off stage that teach life skills as well. Learning how to work the lights and soundboards provide electrical experience, while costuming provides sewing, and stagehands learn carpentry and more.
On March 14, 2009, the OLT won a statewide community theater competition sponsored by the American Association of Community Theaters (AACT), and was named the 2009-2010 Arkansas State Community Theater Champion. They took Best Costumes, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Play Performance awards. In February 2013, the OLT regained its American Association of Community Theaters Arkansas Community Theater Championship, for 2013-14.
Being a completely volunteer organization, OLT, which is a 501(c)3 organization, they rely solely on the support of the community. “We are totally volunteer, nobody gets paid. We have a lot of expenses as far as maintaining the building and paying for royalties. We always need contributions,” said Timmerman. However, he added, “We can have all the money in the world, but if no one shows up to the shows, it doesn’t do any good. So as much as anything, we need people to participate; to come to the programs and be in the shows and to realize that we are a community theatre and so all the things that we do, it all works as a package, we can’t do one thing without the other.”
If you are interested in learning more about the OLT or becoming a member, supporter, or would like to help with a show, visit www.oltmena.com. You’ll find season ticket information and pricing on their website. They also have a Facebook page, Ouachita Little Theatre.