HER MAGAZINE

On stage: A look behind the scenes at Giving Tree Theater in Marion

Heather Akers sits in her favorite chair at the Giving Tree Theatre in Marion on Monday, February 4, 2019. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Heather Akers sits in her favorite chair at the Giving Tree Theatre in Marion on Monday, February 4, 2019. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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Heather Akers sits on the comfy couch situated in the center of the lobby of Giving Tree Theater in Marion while her husband, Richie, works on a project in the theater’s house, occasionally walking in and out of the lobby. Their retired greyhound, Thunder, wanders from one to the other and back again.

She smiles before talking about Giving Tree’s beginnings — the kind of smile that shows pride and contentment mixed with just a hint of overwhelmed exasperation.

“I’ve always loved the theater,” she starts.

Akers didn’t study theater in college or pursue a career in acting. Yet, in 2015, Heather and Richie Akers opened Giving Tree Theater in Marion, a modest theater with aims of being “the best little arts organization in the region, committed to sharing profits with local human services organizations, as we shine a refreshed spotlight on truly great stories,” according to the theater’s mission statement.

“I don’t think we’ll do bigger things. I don’t think this model is going to shift,” she said. “This works for us and for the area.”

BEGINNINGS

Akers holds a master’s degree in dispute resolution and works full time as a human resources leader for MercyOne. But her love of theater has always been a part of her life. She started volunteering at Theatre Cedar Rapids — then Cedar Rapids Community Theater — when she was 7 years old, occasionally appearing in productions.

She met Richie in May 1997 when they were dance partners for TCR’s production of “Hello, Dolly!” The two were engaged that December. Theater was a part-time interest for each of them; Heather was working at GE Capital at the time, and Richie was in sales and marketing.

“We had talked about opening our own business when we retired,” she said. “We didn’t know what it would be, but it was always going to be ‘when we retired.’ ”

Those plans were pushed to the forefront in 2014, when her mother died unexpectedly at the age of 63.

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“It shook everything I had,” she said. “I realized that no one is guaranteed that ‘someday.’ You make all these plans for retirement, but what if you never get there?”

The couple began talking in earnest about their own business and about opening it sooner rather than later. They talked about different ideas and different locations.

“Then Richie said, ‘What if it was a theater, and it was something between Theatre Cedar Rapids and Riverside Theater?’” Akers said. “I was skeptical about how it would work, but I thought if he’s really serious, he’s got to make a spreadsheet and come up with a business plan.”

Within a few days, Akers had a business plan in her hands, with potential locations outlined.

“He had a hunch that Marion, Hiawatha or Robins would be the place to be,” she said. “He was like, ‘Marion’s going to pop.’”

They started looking at buildings, and he brought her to the location that would eventually become Giving Tree Theater at 752 10th St. in Marion. It had most recently been a real estate office — picture desk and chairs.

“I was like, ‘No, this can’t work. It’s an office,’” Akers recalled. Again, her husband put the vision before her. That night, using Google SketchUp, a 3D modeling software program, he designed Giving Tree Theater.

“It looks like what he drew. It absolutely does,” Akers said. “That is his gift, he has great vision. This space is a great example — he came in and he just knew.”

Giving Tree Theater opened in January 2015. Its eclectic style — patrons sit on sofas and side chairs in a changeable layout — mixes with its giving foundation: a portion of each show’s proceeds are donated to a local human services organization chosen by that show’s cast.

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Though they run the theater as partners, Akers said, “I’ve become my husband’s boss, in a way. The only people who hold us accountable are each other, and that’s been a shift in our relationship.”

She manages the human resources aspects of the theater, and he “loves the physically busy part.” They both direct and act in productions and work with each production’s cast and crew.

The couple’s working relationship doesn’t follow the traditional 9-to-5 time clock, she said.

“Our meetings happen at 10 p.m. in bed or at 7 a.m. when I’m drying my hair,” she said. “We talk when we can.

“I think there’s a benefit to being married for 20 years when we’re working on a production,” she added. “We don’t have to use many words, we just know each other well enough to know what direction the other is going. It becomes more difficult when we’re working with a contracted director because we have to really explain things.”

THE FAMILY BUSINESS

Giving Tree Theater is more than a business for Heather and Richie Akers — it’s also a way for their kids, Harrison, 16, and Zoey, 14, to follow their own theatrical passions. Both kids work in the theater and have had various roles in productions, from acting to stage managing and set production.

“Our kids have always loved the theater, so our hope was that they would want to hang out here and help out here,” Akers said. “We’ve been surprised by how much we’ve brought family into the theater, but I think that’s what makes people more comfortable. They see us as a family.”

There’s also a good chance that seeing the Akers family together is a reason the Giving Tree community of cast, employees and supporters stood with the family during a time of crisis in early 2018.

“The balls were just going to fall,” she said.

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“Something’s got to give, there’s only so much you can do,” Akers said, looking back at the crossroads her family — and the theater — faced. “I don’t think I realized it until it was almost too late.”

The Akers’ 14-year-old daughter, Zoey, had been struggling with depression and anxiety.

“I told Richie, ‘Zoey needs to know she is the most important thing right now,’ ” Akers recalled. “As much as we thought we were attentive, I think Zoey would say we missed some early signs. That was some really good feedback for us.”

What Akers learned through it all, though, was just how much community support her family and the theater had.

“It’s really tough for us to ask for help,” she said. “But we’ve come to learn there are a lot of people who are just as vested in this as we are, and they want to help.”

At one point, Akers and her husband found themselves faced with a tough decision for a theater: They had to cancel a whole weekend of shows.

“I remember thinking, ‘People are going to judge us, question our ability to keep it going,’” she said. “But we had a flood of emails, and they were all very supportive.”

It eventually came down to running the theater but stepping back from other community involvement for a while.

“We had to press pause,” she said. “We had this fundamental objective: We had to protect our kiddo.”

LEANING IN, LETTING GO

Letting the proverbial balls fall wasn’t an easy concept for Akers, the self-described “not-so-silent partner” of Giving Tree Theater.

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She found herself an almost reluctant follower of Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” philosophy, that if more women advance to leadership, then all women benefit. She supports the concept but isn’t sure it always works.

Before working for MercyOne, Akers was a senior learning leader for GE Capital. While there, she was asked to speak to a women’s network on work-life balance.

“The thing is, I didn’t have my ‘stuff’ together,” she said. “It might appear that I’m together, but the scales have never balanced. And it’s not just me. A large number of women I’ve talked to have said they love their work, but it’s killing them.

“The message of ‘lean in’ is unfair and premature,” she said. “It just creates another level of expectations for us, and it’s unfair because it implies that everyone else is ready for it, too, and they’re not.”

Each time Zoey needed their undivided attention, Heather and Richie Akers left the show and the cast in the hands of stage managers and assistants.

“We left them completely vulnerable, but we all got a little closer, too,” she said. “We were transparent with most of them. Everyone was so kind and full of grace.

“We were so lucky to have those people, so when that earthquake happened and that snow globe got shook, we were still OK,” she said.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.