Etienna Wright: A Tour de Force for Education & the Performing Arts in Acadiana
By: Marisa Olson
Among Acadiana’s newest leaders in arts and education is Abbeville’s own daughter, Etienna Qualls Wright. At age 31, the wife and mother of three children is Executive Director of the Lafayette Education Foundation, co-founder and associate director of the Acadiana Repertory Theatre, board member of Theatre 810, and an accomplished stage actress.
The versatile Wright performs her various leading roles in the community with little fanfare, and hardly pauses in her relentless pursuit of advocating on behalf of area teachers and students, as well as performing artists and playwrights. Until recently, the ambitious creative has outpaced the spotlight, but recognition is at last catching up with Wright, who has become well known throughout the community, particularly the Lafayette Parish public school system, as Lafayette Education Foundation’s new chief administrator.
Since its inception in 1989, LEF has been incredibly successful in its mission to promote and support excellence in education, and has funded over $2 million in classroom grants and awarded $396,000 to educators. With several years of non-profit career experience already under her belt, Wright came on board LEF in 2012 as Program Director. Impassioned and articulate about the foundation’s cause, her enthusiastic ambassadorship in the community paved the way for her eventual rise to Executive Director. Over the last four years, she has gained the admiration of grantors and grant recipients alike. Wright feels at once privileged and excited to lead the foundation into the future.
LEF, although deceptively small, exerts enormous social and economic impact. The organization has facilitated a powerful alliance between private donors and public educators through grant assistance that brings much needed funding directly into the classroom. The decades-long collaboration between private and public spheres has transformed the lives of thousands of schoolchildren and their teachers, bolstered the public school system, and fueled Lafayette’s economic development by ensuring that students are workforce ready.
Through its grants, LEF rewards bold classroom initiatives that promote innovative literacy and creative, social-emotional programs. Among its greatest successes have been The Leader In Me, a curriculum adapted from Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and also, Books That Fit, a reading program designed to increase the percentage of students who read on or above grade level by the third grade.
Wright understands the inextricable relationship between the arts and academic achievement, and her own background in theatre, dance and music informs her perspective as the non-profit’s new ED Theatre has been the central, organizing principle of Wright’s life.
From age three when she auditioned for her first play, she has been onstage. Both parents were artists: her mother, an actress and director; her father, a musician. For Wright and her siblings, growing up in a home where mom and dad were always rehearsing for a gig or stage performance was completely natural.
Wright admires her sisters, both highly talented singers, but counts her mother, Shana Ledet Qualls, as her greatest influence and inspiration, instilling in her daughter a passion for the performing arts: “She always encouraged me and my siblings to explore [the arts]. In fact, we didn’t have much of a choice. Mom was always at the theatre, so that’s where we were, too. It all happened naturally, for all of us to become performers.”
From 2003 – 2006, Wright trained at Northwestern State University, majoring in Theatre under the instruction of Dr. Roger Held. His best advice for the young actor? “Stop acting. Just be the character.” Wright reflects: “He helped me to honestly portray characters onstage. I don’t have anything to do with the people I’m playing. I try to meet them where they are, and go from there.”
While honing her performance skills in those early days, Wright drew inspiration from her favorite actors, who include Cate Blanchett, Paul Giamatti, Julianne Moore, Laura Linney, Kevin Spacey, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Her muses share a natural acting style that allows them to morph easily from one character to the next, and, just as effortlessly, from stage to screen. Wright’s own tastes in performance genres span the spectrum from “meaty” dramas to slapstick comedies.
Although she enjoys performing onstage, Wright prefers directing. In 2009, she fulfilled her aspiration while still in her early 20’s. Then, a new mother and the Development Director at the Acadiana Symphony and Conservatory of Music, Wright and her longtime friend and fellow actor, Steven R. Landry, formed their own theatre company, incorporating as Acadiana Repertory Theatre (ART). The non-profit, which was part of Acadiana’s cultural revitalization efforts, was dedicated to the production and performance of quality works. They organized a theatre troupe comprised of professional actors, directors, technicians and visual artists, with Landry as Managing Artistic Director, and Wright, Associate Director.
The theatre company was a dream come true, and a boon for Lafayette’s emergent performing artists and theatre scene. Landry and Wright received a warm welcome from established troupes that embraced ART’s mission and concept.
In 2013, at the end of its first full season, and after three shows that were either regional or world premieres, ART shifted its focus to the development and production of original works, arising from collaborations with new playwrights from Acadiana and across the country. ART’s expanded vision ambitiously seeks to reshape the landscape of American Theatre, while providing audiences exciting new theatrical experiences.
Presently, Wright and fellow company member, Gabe Ortego, are co-directing twelve 10-minute performances soon to open at Theatre 810 on July 14 -16, as part of ART’s 5th Annual ONSTAGE Project. ONSTAGE is a nationally recognized festival, featuring new works by acclaimed female playwrights. The script contest is peer-reviewed, and live readings of the new works are performed on stages across the country. This year, the winning playwrights will receive two separate productions of their plays, with both plays premiering in Lafayette.
ART’s next full-length play, Once Upon a Bride There Was a Forest, opens in September and features Wright in a role where she remains mute throughout most of the performance. She looks forward to the challenge of connecting emotionally with an audience strictly through facial expression, movement, and body language.
Among Wright’s favorite roles was the Irish maid, Clara, in Hay Fever by Noel Coward. Although a minor character, Clara was hilarious to play: “The director had me come on in scenes where I wasn’t written in the script to improvise funny bits of physical comedy. I also loved playing Annie in Cody Daigle-Orians’ play, The Survivalists. I hope one day that I’m lucky enough to play Eleanor in The Lion in Winter. She was quite a woman.”
In the upcoming years, Wright’s dual community roles as leader of an education non-profit and co-director of her own repertory theatre are certain to synergize with unpredictable and exciting results for the greater community. One already sees in the young trailblazer a legacy in the making. Wright’s remarkable ascent and anticipated trajectory signal a bright, secure future for education and the performing arts for Acadiana’s next generation.