Forty years after its 1981 founding, Riverside Theatre is entering a new stage that promises to bring new life and new avenues for adventures in Iowa City’s Pedestrian Mall district.
When the pandemic shut down in-person entertainment and revenue streams in mid-March, it didn’t make sense for the professional troupe to keep paying rent on a space it couldn’t use. So Riverside closed its intimate Gilbert Street stage at the end of June.
But an idea already had been planted for a possible new home in a Ped Mall redevelopment project, not far from where downtown Iowa City once had a second-floor opera house.
If all goes according to plan, Riverside Theatre could open its new doors early next year in the revamped, refurbished and re-imagined site of the former Union Bar, 121 E. College St., across from FilmScene’s original complex. Known as the Crescent Block Building, it’s also near the Weatherdance Fountain, site of many outdoor concerts and dances, and a short walk south of the Englert Theatre.
When venues reopen after COVID close-downs, the area will be hopping.
“I love the idea that we’re going to be across the street from FilmScene and that we are going to be closer to the Englert. We’re also on the same street as UNESCO City of Literature and the Iowa City Public Library. It’s almost creating — solidifying what was already becoming an arts district in Iowa City,” said Adam Knight, 41, of Iowa City, Riverside Theatre’s producing artistic director.
“So the idea that you can see a matinee at Riverside, catch a film at FilmScene, while getting a great dinner in Iowa City is really exciting to be a part of.”
As reported earlier in The Gazette, Riverside’s new home is part of a $54.4 million revitalization project in that area. Since 2017, Tailwind Group, based in Mankato, Minn., has purchased all the buildings from 109 to 127 E. College St. for historic preservation and renovation.
“That whole block has kinda been dead apart from some key shops like Revival (women’s new and used clothing), and bars,” Knight said. “Adding this cultural space is an important part of redeveloping that whole area.
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“There used to be an opera house on the corner of the block where MidWestOne (Bank) is, and it was on the second and third floor. I love the idea that we are almost reviving this tradition of having a theater above the street.”
Riverside Theatre will have a presence on three floors of its new space, with the lobby and box office on the first floor; dressing rooms on the first and second floors; and a green room, kitchenette and conference room also on the second floor. The third floor will house a flexible stage configuration, with seating for 150 patrons, up from 118 seats at the Gilbert Street site. An elevator will make all three floors accessible for actors and audience members with mobility issues.
Accessibility was “always a concern for us,” Knight added, and he’s thrilled that the new space will do away with those barriers.
Flexibility in staging also is a big plus, building on the reconfigurations Riverside had started doing at the former site in 2019, by seating audiences in front and behind the playing space “Feast,” creating a theater-in-the-round type of experience, then building out into the seating area for a modified thrust staging with “Men on Boats.”
The initial contact came from Kevin Monson, principal and chairman of the board for Neumann Monson Architects, with offices at 221 E. College St. in Iowa City, as well as in Des Moines. Knight said Monson reached out while Riverside was still at its Gilbert Street location.
“I got a message from Kevin Monson ... and it’s one of those calls I’m glad I returned,” Knight said. “It was just an idea — it was a spark of an idea that this development project could really be bolstered by adding a cultural space. And I think unbeknown to them, Riverside was soon going to be in need of that. We didn’t come to terms with the developer until after the decision to leave Gilbert Street was made.
“There was long period before then where we knew that this project was a possibility, and it was important for us to continue to work with the architects to flesh out the idea,” he said. “It’s not a theater — this building was never intended to be a theater — and so the challenge is, can we bring the soul of a theater into this space. Can we make it a space on the third floor that’s accessible, that’s exciting if it can do things that our Gilbert Street space couldn’t do.”
Riverside Theatre was been involved with designing the space from the beginning, Knight added, and the meetings continue as the ideas are being fleshed out. He was thrilled when the architects proposed creating a flexible playing space, which could be arranged for traditional proscenium (picture frame) presentations; thrust, with seating on three sides; in the round, with seating on all sides; or other configurations.
“It opens up the possibilities for plays we never could have done at Gilbert Street,” he said. “ ... This space offers a lot more amenities than our previous space had. The ceilings are 30 percent higher, so in the back rows, you’re no longer hitting your head on the grid. Our lighting package is going to be energy efficient. The space is going to be handicapped accessible, not only for audience members, but also for artists.”
And no more cramped lobby and restrooms — they’ll all be larger.
“The lobby itself will be almost as big as the stage,” Knight said.
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The expanded space not only offers Riverside new ways to engage with audiences before and after shows, including post-show music and receptions, but rental opportunities for other groups, as well as cabarets or “opera on-tap” when Riverside doesn’t have shows onstage.
“We’re thinking of that area as a gathering place,” he said. “It’s going to have a great view of the Ped Mall from those windows, making our theater more than just a place that you rush into to see a play and leave as soon as the show’s over.”
Riverside also will be able to expand its season beyond the current six-show season plus two summer shows.
“Now there’s the possibility to have several lanes of programming,” he said. “The definition of what it means to be a Riverside patron is going to be expanded, as well as what it means to be a Riverside artist.”
But this all comes with a price tag that’s still being worked out as a partnership between Riverside and the developer, including a rental fee that Knight said will encourage growth for Riverside Theatre, while still being sustainable. Riverside’s first capital campaign in 20 years also is in the works.
Being able to do all this during a pandemic is “inspirational,” he said, with an eye clearly focused on the future.
“When do you get to do this? When do you get to have a theater built to your specifications that fits the vision of where the theater’s going? If you look at our strategic plan, this space checks so many boxes there.”
For Riverside Theatre programming and updates, go to riversidetheatre.org
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