Top Shelf: New theatrical troupes popping up among Corridor's established companies
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Theater happens wherever there’s a will and a way — from roving bands of professionals in 16th century Italy’s commedia dell-arte movement to today, where theater troupes continue to spring up among a field of established ensembles with deep roots in the Corridor.
But even they had to begin somewhere.
Grant Wood not only left his mark on Eastern Iowa through his world-renown paintings, he helped start the community theater movement that would spin into Theatre Cedar Rapids. The year was 1925 and the show was “Cardboard Moon,” which played to a capacity crowd of 30 in Wood’s home studio at 5 Turner Alley, where he would paint “American Gothic” five years later.
The Iowa City Community Theatre, established in 1956, just wrapped its 61st season with “The Diary of Anne Frank,” staged in its home at the Johnson County Fairgrounds.
The Old Creamery Theatre created a professional troupe in Garrison in 1971, and as the name implies, turned a former creamery building into a theater. The act soon branched out, spending six seasons on the Clinton Showboat beginning in 1973, then performing in more than 200 Iowa communities in 1976.
Garrison was the main stage until 1988, when the Amana Society beckoned the not-for-profit company to move to Amana. The name went with them, and the Old Creamery Theatre has continued to grow and prosper there, carving out auxiliary performance spaces in a former train depot, middle school band room and local restaurants, while still taking theater arts to schools around the state.
Riverside Theatre brought a professional troupe to Iowa City in 1981, now housed in its permanent home on North Gilbert Street, an intimate setting with 118 seats. In the summer, it moves to a larger outdoor stage in Lower City Park, built in 2000 and modeled after London’s Globe Theatre.
Newer to the scene is City Circle Acting Company of Coralville. Established in the summer of 1997, the community group found its permanent home at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts in 2011.
The Corridor theater scene changed dramatically in 1996, with the birth of Torchlight Theatrics in the natural amphitheater behind Brucemore mansion in southeast Cedar Rapids. That was the beginning of today’s summer theater under the stars and inside auditoriums from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City.
“I love the idea that theater is proliferating — I absolutely love it — and the fact that Torchlight was the springboard for it,” said founding member Jim Kern of Cedar Rapids. “We would take credit for initiating year-round programming and outdoor theater, and we know Riverside followed our lead with their outdoor Shakespeare.
“I love the proliferation, I love the fact that we are given a variety of spaces in which to engage in live theater. We’ve got everything from Giving Tree to SPT at CSPS and some of the less conventional spaces that we see down in Iowa City,” he said.
“I get a little concerned that with more offerings, are we in fact increasing or putting pressure on the director, the actor, the designer, the choreographer, the music director. Are we putting higher expectations on quality?
“We’ve got quantity — has it influenced quality?
“ ... With the growth of opportunity, I would love to see an equal growth in quality,” said Kern, 67, who has worked professionally as an actor, director, educator and in management throughout his career.
“Some have carved out these rather narrow niches, and I get that, because that’s what Torchlight did. We said we’re going to concentrate on the classics because they’re not being done. What I see now is more of a whirlpool effect where you might have started a doing a certain kind of product, but now to be sustained, you are infringing on the kinds of products that others used to do.
“And so I love the fact there are tremendous offerings; I don’t like the fact that everybody seems to be trying to compete on an even plane.
“But I love the fact that there has been an explosion of theatrical opportunity, and I embrace it, and encourage it. I would love to see it grow from a quality standpoint, as well, that we’re not just offering more stuff, but that we’re offering more opportunities for actors to get even better.”
Giving Tree Theater in Marion is in its third season of offering “great stories, big heart,” on a stage founders Richie and Heather Akers and company carved into a one-time movie theater in downtown Marion.
Unlike other new troupes, they wanted to operate in a home space from the beginning, and are leasing their building.
“We’re not making as much money as theaters that are just renting a space, but the experience is really important to us,” Richie Akers, 40, of Cedar Rapids, said. “The micromanager part of me wanted to make sure we execute our guest experience the way we want to.” Part of meeting that goal is to offer “comfy seats” on vintage couches, side chairs, cabaret tables, conventional theater seat and box seats accommodating two to 16 patrons. The other part is exploring vintage shows like “Blithe Spirit” and new shows like the upcoming “Fun House,” a script hot off Broadway.
“For almost as long as we’ve been together, we wanted to open a business of our own,” he said. “In the late ’90s, we thought about a coffee shop or B&B. But we’ve always loved being in theater and doing theater. Heather’s mom passed away suddenly in 2014, and that’s what spurred the whole thing. Wishful thinking about ‘someday’ turned into ‘Why should we wait — let’s try it, and if it works, it works.”
He said the for-profit theater “behaves as a nonprofit,” so when earnings allow, they make a donation to a local charity or social service agency the cast and crew designates, typically aligning with the play’s theme.
Choosing shows in six-month chunks, rather than a yearlong season, allows them to dovetail their titles with the shows other theaters are producing.
“We’re constantly trying to complement what else is going on,” Akers said. “We look at what’s going on in the Corridor, to drop in things that are a nice alternative to what else is happening.”
He’s also thrilled to see so many new faces at Giving Tree auditions — especially people who haven’t been onstage in years or are casting their hat for a bucket-list role.
“We’re growing talent when we do that,” he said. “They get to spread their wings and go on to Theatre Cedar Rapids or other theaters in the area. It’s cool to see that happen, and they come back to us sometimes, too.”
Draining the acting and production pool doesn’t worry Brian Glick, 30, of Cedar Rapids, who launched Revival Theatre Company in 2014 with musical director Cameron Sullenberger.
For years, Glick’s colleagues and mentors said that starting a company today would be “the most ridiculous thing you can do — it just seems like failure from the thought.” But after he moved back from New York, the idea began to take shape, building on the experience of independently staging “Side Show” and “Baby” at Coe College, where he studied theater.
In discussing projects with Sullenberger, the notion of “doing their own thing” turned into forming a professional company. An initial $10,000 fundraising effort gave them the seed money and confidence to proceed.
Unlike Giving Tree, Revival has remained a troupe on the move, staging shows in Cedar Rapids venues from Brucemore’s outdoor stage to CSPS, the Scottish Rite Temple and Coe College.
Revival only stages musicals — some with name recognition like “Funny Girl” and others that drew industry accolades but aren’t often, if ever, done in this area, like “Parade” and the upcoming “Victor/Victoria.”
Not every new theater spins a full season. Leslie Charipar, 50, of Cedar Rapids, started Urban Theatre Project in 2004, shortly after returning from Chicago.
“Chicago is the storefront theater capital of the world. We don’t do that here,” she said. So she set out to stage shows in non-theatrical spaces seating no more than 100 people, like performing “Rabbit Hole” in a living room and “True West” in an empty store in downtown Cedar Rapids.
The idea was to do “something that isn’t being done — small, edgier, adult material,” she said.
Charipar is now artistic director at Theatre Cedar Rapids, and would like to see more collaboration between the various theater groups, to build on each other’s experiences and explore new spaces in which to perform — or even offer season tickets that include a couple of offerings at other theaters.
“I love that there’s theaters all over the place. It takes the pressure off an individual company to provide all of the theater. They can look at their mission and get really focused. They’ve all got their ‘thing,’ so let’s do our ‘thing’ really well, because the rest of that is covered,” she said.
“Everybody has a limited amount of time and their own agenda. We need to find ways to work together, empower each other and cultivate a rich theater community without considering somebody a competition. Let’s do our things really well and help each do that.”
Lightswitch Theatre Company grew out of University of Iowa class assignment and popped up for two productions this year of what founder Skyler Matthias, 22, calls “immersive theater.” As with Urban Theatre, he seeks to get audiences so close they feel involved in the unfolding story.
The Central City native staged two shows in Public Space One in downtown Iowa City, which offers room for making and presenting art in any form, from film screenings to music and theatrical performances. Matthias’ first show, “Tender Napalm,” even went on the road to North Carolina, where a friend who was intrigued by his project found a performance space there.
He has now graduated and is moving to St. Louis for a scenic artist internship with The Muny, so Lightswitch is on hiatus. But he plans to turn it back on in the future, building on the current big-city movement to create theater that doesn’t merely offer audiences two hours of escapism, but immerses them in the production.
“The mantra of our company is: ‘Lightswitch Theatre Company enables audiences to engage in theater that transcribes human experience.’ We’re specific enough to comment on real-life human experience in order to enable audiences,” he said. “I don’t want audiences to come and just leave.”
Audiences become part of the art.
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