CSPS, Czech troupe, local actors combine forces to create theatrical work

First-person stories connect Cedar Rapids' immigrant past, present

Philipp Schenker, an artist with Archa Theatre in Prague rehearses portions of a dramatic piece at the C-Space at CSPS on Wednesday, October 5, 2016. CSPS commissioned the piece as part of its celebration of its 125th anniversary. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Philipp Schenker, an artist with Archa Theatre in Prague rehearses portions of a dramatic piece at the C-Space at CSPS on Wednesday, October 5, 2016. CSPS commissioned the piece as part of its celebration of its 125th anniversary. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — From little grains swirling inside an oyster shell, a pearl is about to emerge.

That’s the way performer Chad Willer, 44, of Cedar Rapids, describes the yearlong process of creating a play from blank page to black-box stage inside CSPS, 1103 Third St. SE.

The historic arts venue in the NewBo District served as the creation space for “New Bohemia: In the Middle of America,” a new theatrical work bridging Cedar Rapids’ immigrant past and present.

In the spirit of the Bohemians who arrived here in the 1870s, Legion Arts, which owns and operates CSPS, commissioned Archa Theatre from Prague to develop a dramatic piece as the shining candle in an extended celebration of the building’s 125th birthday. The result is a multidisciplinary collaboration created from scratch, featuring four local actors onstage and video-portraits of other area residents, telling immigrant stories.

The idea evolved from a conversation in Seoul, South Korea, then gathered momentum through three trips from Prague to Cedar Rapids, leading up to sneak-peek presentations this week at CSPS.

Thanks to the American Embassy in Prague, the Cedar Rapids actors are to stage the show’s world premiere on the Archa Theatre stage Nov. 12 and 13, then perform it in Cedar Rapids next spring, for the CSPS anniversary capstone.

The recent flood preparation and recovery efforts at CSPS derailed plans to present polished performances here this week.


Instead, an open rehearsal begins at 5 p.m. Thursday in the first-floor C-Space at CSPS. Two 75-minute work-in-progress presentations begin at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday. While most seating is being held for invited audience members, the public also is welcome. Donations are to be accepted at the door. Anyone interested in attending should call CSPS at (319) 3640-1580 to check on availability, since the small theater has room for just 25 to 30 chairs.



F. John Herbert, Legion Arts’ executive director, met Archa’s Jana Svobodova at a theater conference in Seoul three years ago. Herbert was intrigued by Archa’s devised theater approach, which begins with a blank slate instead of a script. Interviews, research, conversations and improvisations meld into a structured work. Music, lights, sound and words carry equal weight in the final performance.

“We are trying to push the limits, to go out of the theater premises to break the standard rules,” Ondrej Hrab, Archa producer, said. The troupe’s emphasis on creating socially responsible theater and working with immigrant populations meshes with Legion Arts’ emphasis on supporting experimental art forms and using the arts to build community.

“We’ve had other companies here at CSPS who work in that way,” Herbert said. “What’s distinctive about Archa’s approach is that they tend to have a pretty unique focus on first-person stories. They work a lot with heterogeneous communities, where people are coming from different cultural backgrounds, different perspectives.”

Archa has been working on the CSPS project for a year now, coming here initially to research the neighborhood.

“We started with just breathing the air and listening to the sound of the city,” Hrab said.

The Czech troupe, which opened its theater in Prague in 1994, also spent time meeting and speaking with Eastern Iowans, interviewing them and conducting storytelling workshops to begin formulating the show.

Five Archa artists have spent the past month working with four of the workshop participants, who were invited to help shape the show and appear onstage to tell their own stories, as well as other area residents’ stories. So while they are playing themselves, they also are stepping away from their own experiences and adding other theatrical touches.

“It’s a level of real, but pretending,” Svobodova explained.


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It’s like telling a favorite story over and over, “until the whole story has become a script for us,” said Mel Andringa, 73, of Cedar Rapids, cast member and producing director at Legion Arts. He’ll be adding musical elements, playing an old-fashioned pump organ and singing a traditional Czech song that has been given a few twists.

“It’s interesting to have to imitate yourself,” said David Van Allen, 64, of Cedar Rapids. A noted photographer and retired Mount Mercy University art professor, he provides the common thread for the stories through his artistry and the camera’s point of view. “I also add commentary about making photographs and looking at the surface of things,” he said.

Minny Deol Olson, 52, of Marion, a life coach who has acted on stage and screen, brings to light her immigrant experiences, after moving from India to Canada with her family at age 3 and growing up without any brown-skinned peers or role models in magazines and television. She then moved to the United States for college in North Dakota, met and married an American and has worked hard to raise their two children with an appreciation for both cultures.

She appreciates the way this theatrical experience has allowed her to dig deeper into the process of creating a show.

“I went to a workshop. I didn’t know I was auditioning for anything,” she said with a laugh. “That was probably the best way to do it, because I wasn’t looking to perform — I was just looking to learn. And I learned a lot about myself, as well as the process. What they’re talking about, I’ve never experienced here in Cedar Rapids.”

Willer, a Rockwell Collins engineering assistant, was drawn to the workshops because of the immigrant angle, and is embracing the opportunity to speak the words of an African immigrant in the show.

From the workshops, he said “you could almost see that little grain spinning around in the oyster, and you knew it was going to become a pearl. It just continued to grow. ... For me, seeing everything swirling around, coming down to family, to love, to laughter, to light — there’s just so many things we’ve added to this piece. But ultimately, this piece is about heart and living a true life.”

“Sometimes we work with real people who have no (theatrical experience), like refugees in refugee camps,” Svobodova said. “But these guys, they all have stage experience, and they have beautiful voices. Minny’s a wonderful singer. I always watch when people perform, and these guys are always 100 percent aware of what they’re doing. The professional level is quite high. This is something we can really build on.”


What: “New Bohemia: In the Middle of America”

Where: C-Space, first floor, CSPS Hall, 1103 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids


When: Open rehearsal, 5 p.m. Thursday; work-in-progress presentations, 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday

Admission: Donations accepted; limited seating, call (319) 364-1580 for availability



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