Arts & Culture

Into 'The Woods of Old Bohemia' - Theatrical jack of all trades carving out niche in local scene

Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette

Cavan Hallman of Cedar Rapids stands in the C Space theater on the ground floor at CSPS, home to his new endeavor, Mirror Box Theatre. It’s a dream come true for Hallman. “Every great theater city deserves to have a company devoted to new plays,” he said. Two Iowa premieres have been staged there, and two more remain in the troupe’s inaugural season.
Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette Cavan Hallman of Cedar Rapids stands in the C Space theater on the ground floor at CSPS, home to his new endeavor, Mirror Box Theatre. It’s a dream come true for Hallman. “Every great theater city deserves to have a company devoted to new plays,” he said. Two Iowa premieres have been staged there, and two more remain in the troupe’s inaugural season.
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CEDAR RAPIDS — All the world’s a stage for Cavan Hallman, whether playing all the roles in his head as he writes scripts or watching his plays unfold for actors and audiences around the world.

It all began with an accidental pants-drop in the spotlight.

“Up until my junior year of high school, I was very determined that I was going to be a doctor,” said Hallman, 39, of Cedar Rapids.

Then he was cast in Neil Simon’s “Rumors” at his high school in Orlando, Fla. — and everything changed.

“The next to last show, it was like a real-life ‘Noises Off.’ I was wearing these pajama pants that were eight sizes too big, but had been safety-pinned to me,” he said. “And I’m running up the stairs, running down the stairs, and I go to one of the last times running up the stairs and the pants just fall, in front of 700 people.” Luckily, he was wearing boxers.

“We had a huge auditorium full of people, and people just start losing it, and I just go along with it. I’m just playing it up and having fun, and ended up getting this huge ovation before the show was even done,” he said.

“That kind of ego-trip is something you don’t recover from.”

With the door to theatrical magic flung open, medical school flew out the window. His father, an oral surgeon, and his mother, who owned her own law practice, “could not have been more supportive,” he said, when he told them he wanted to be an actor.

“But what was really interesting, is that my dad said, ‘I think you’re a really good performer, but I actually think you’re going to end up being a writer.’”

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That prophecy has played out for the actor, writer, director, teacher and technician who has lived and worked in Florida, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Ireland, and since May 17, 2017, in Cedar Rapids. He landed here after his wife, Katie Hallman, became executive director at Theatre Cedar Rapids.

Because his wife is a Lisbon native, he had been to the area before, for weddings and family gatherings, but touring TCR was illuminating.

“The support for the arts here is insanely robust,” he said, and he quickly became immersed in the Corridor’s vibrant arts community.

He brings to the area an MFA in playwriting from the University of New Orleans and nearly two decades of professional experience in all facets of theater. He’s written 30 to 40 plays, ranging from 10-minute shows to full-length scripts, in a mix of original ideas and commissioned pieces.

His latest projects include forming the Mirrorbox Theatre project at CSPS, devoted to producing new plays; and working with Robert Lindsey-Nassif of Cedar Rapids on a new musical about inventor Nikola Tesla. Hallman has another musical collaboration in the works, focusing on the women’s suffrage movement. At Theatre Cedar Rapids, he has been teaching playwriting classes and will direct “The Full Monty” this winter.

On top of all of his theatrical pursuits, he also works full time as a media storyteller at Informatics, a web agency in downtown Cedar Rapids. His latest production is due in late August, when he and his wife will welcome their first child. Good thing he has lots of experience entertaining children.

CHILDREN’S THEATER

The bulk of his work the past 19 years has been for Chicago’s Windy City Players, which takes original adaptations of classic fairy tales to school audiences across the nation. Hallman writes a play every year for the troupe, then directs multiple companies of three professional adult actors, who take the 45-minute show on tour.

“About 5 million students have seen these plays,” he said.

That experience caught the eye of Playtime Poppy, a local institution that has been bringing educational theater programming to Cedar Rapids schools, children and families since 1951.

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Last year, Hallman directed Poppy’s summer show, “110th Street Hullabaloo.” This year, he was invited to write an original setting of traditional Czech and Slovak fairy tales for the free Summer Theatre Adventure, produced in collaboration with the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids.

Titled “The Woods of Old Bohemia,” the auditioned cast of 26 children, ages 7 to 14, will present the free show at 10 a.m. June 16 at the museum. Professional storyteller Darrin Crow, 46, of Cedar Rapids, is directing.

Hallman enjoyed this collaborative adventure, building on his previous experience writing musicals for the National World War II museum’s professional acting troupe in New Orleans.

He’s grateful for the attention to detail and resources museums bring to such a joint venture. The Cedar Rapids facility’s librarian provided him with books, and the collaborators decided early on to have him weave together several stories with woodland settings.

“The woods are always a place of magic, a place of possibility,” Hallman said.

And giving a nod to Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” was a conscious decision. “I’m sure you’ve heard before, ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal,’” he said with a laugh.

“They’re really fun fairy tales, and I think what’s especially fun about them, too, is that so much entertainment for young audiences gets sanitized, and these older, medieval fairy tales are full of death and gore. Kids play at killing each other, they play dead. A natural part of growing up is playing with these scary ideas. It makes them less scary,” he said.

“Not that this is a scary play, but it was really fun to find that balance between these grotesque stories.”

One involves a woodsman and his wife, who can’t have a baby. So the husband carves her a stump baby.

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“The doll comes to life and is so hungry that it keeps eating everything, including the woodsman and the wife,” Hallman said. “It’s so fun that you can play with this very sweet and sincere idea, and then also this kind of horrific idea — and that it all gets to exist in this same world is really, really fun.”

He’s also excited to see what Crow will do with the script and the young actors. The recent auditions were lively and fun, as the animated director encouraged the actors to move and act freely through their assigned lines. The forest is a major player in the show, Crow said, as it interacts with the characters and moves as the settings change.

The educational value is immense, said his wife, Robin Crow, 41, drama director at Cedar Valley Christian School, and technical director for this summer show.

“Just the experience of being in front of people,” is a plus, she said. “It’s definitely a team-building activity — they’re working with kids they don’t know in a range of ages, and they’re going to create this team that comes together to produce this wonderful show.

“Another really big benefit is getting exposed to Czech fairy tales, and finding out that some of these fairy tales are very similar to ones that we grew up with. Every culture has a Cinderella story, and I think it again just shows us that we are much more similar than we are different — and it helps the kids see another part of our heritage that’s so important in Cedar Rapids.”

The couple then pointed to the Iowa High School Speech Association’s maxim that “the ability to communicate is the most important skill a young person can develop.”

“Playtime Poppy is as much about education as we are about the three high school productions,” said Anne Ohrt, 40, of Hiawatha, an actress and past president of the children’s theater board of directors. “So Poppy is more than what it used to be. We are emerging as a leader in theater education for students, and naturally, that’s what we want to do.”

If you go

• What: Playtime Poppy’s Operation Backstage presents “The Woods of Old Bohemia,” written by Cavan Hallman, directed by Darrin Crow

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• Where: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids

• When: 10 to 11:30 a.m. June 16

• Admission: Free; donations welcome

• Details: Ncsml.org/event/woods-old-bohemia-performance/

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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