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Theatre Cedar Rapids' Facebook Live programs reaching kids, adults

Joe Link livestreams #x201c;Happy Hour#x201d; for Theatre Cedar Rapids from his home office-turned-studio in Cedar Rapid
Joe Link livestreams “Happy Hour” for Theatre Cedar Rapids from his home office-turned-studio in Cedar Rapids. Star of the show is Happy, a hand-and-rod puppet Link created about 10 years ago. The show is designed for kids, to teach them about theater and keep them entertained with interactive projects during the COVID-19 pandemic. But adults are tuning in, too, to get in on the fun. (Jessica Link)
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The stages and spaces are dark inside Theatre Cedar Rapids during this pandemic, but the lights are shining brightly from a pair of home offices, streaming very different content to viewers via Facebook Live.

Happy Hour

For the past six weeks, theater educator Joe Link has been brewing up an intoxicating “Happy Hour” for TCR. This one airs at noon Wednesdays on Facebook Live, is designed for kids and doesn’t involve any hint of alcohol.

It’s also not quite an hour. Instead, it’s 45 minutes of silliness, theater lessons, crafts, a guest interview, a new dance break and an interactive question-and-answer wrap-up — all starring Happy, a bespectacled Muppet-style hand-and-rod puppet Link created.

“He’s my right-hand man,” said Link, who wears Happy on his right hand.

Head of the theater department and a language arts teacher at Jefferson High School, Link, 43, of Cedar Rapids, has worked at Theatre Cedar Rapids as a summer camp teacher for about 14 years, directed and designed the pop-up book scenery for “Elf The Musical” on the main stage in 2018 and designed the set for “Dracula” in the subterranean Grandon Studio space in 2019.

Now Link is sinking his teeth into the weekly “Happy Hour,” produced at home during the pandemic. He started out setting up shop in a corner of the dining room, close to electrical outlets, but has since moved operations upstairs, in his office-turned-studio. It’s tricked out with a green screen, scenery he created with a 3D printer, a couple of cameras, tripods, a laptop, a monitor and notes taped out of sight of the viewers.

“I slouch in a folding chair, look at the monitor, and go to town,” he said.

Angie Toomsen, TCR’s artistic director, serves as his stage manager, moderating the audience comments and questions, and operating the PowerPoint programs Link creates for various elements of the show.

The interactive parts let Link flex his improv muscles and keep him on his toes, illustrated in these Q&A exchanges.

“What’s your favorite flower?” Happy: “Unbleached white — you can make some really good bread.”

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“Do you like ‘The Wizard of Oz’?” Happy: “Personally? Do I have him over for a socially distanced barbecue?”

“Where is Juliet?” Happy: “Probably in the balcony. Do you mean my cat?” And then from the bottom of the screen, a paw stretched up with an assisted wave.

“Joe is incredibly quick-witted. It just comes right to him,” Toomsen said.

She noted about 15 to 20 kids actively participate during the free live feed, but the episodes are posted to Theatre Cedar Rapids’ Facebook page, so anyone anywhere can tune in as their schedules allow. The videos are averaging anywhere from 600 to 800 to 1,100 views. Adults are tuning in, as well, she added. “They’re having fun, and it’s a nice break from the day.”

Link draws his inspiration from the kids’ shows of his youth, including “Reading Rainbow” and “The Secret City.”

“All these PBS shows that used to keep me occupied and creative and building and drawing,” he said.

Happy was born about 10 years ago, when Link was looking for a snow-day project he could do with his eldest daughter. He bought some fabric, and the next day, turned to a muppet-making video from Jim Henson for guidance.

Happy is a familiar figure to TCR summer campers, greeting the kids and filling the gaps while they’re waiting for classes to start or waiting for their rides home. That’s part of the reason “Happy Hour” starts with Happy darting about various sites within Theatre Cedar Rapids.

“While the doors of TCR are locked up tight, he wants to leave just a bit of theater in all the kids’ hearts, so someday, when we can open up the doors, we can bring back the magic of theater together,” Link said.

Coffee with Katie

At 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Katie Hallman, TCR’s executive director, pours a cup and coffee and invites viewers to see her chat with the day’s guest theater artist, drawn from the vast network she’s created from coast to coast.

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Whereas Link pitched his Happy Hour concept to Toomsen and Hallman, who quickly jumped onboard, Hallman credits Toomsen with coming up with the coffee talk idea, building on “all the great conversations” the TCR staff and board were having via Zoom.

Hallman found the notion “really scary,” but recognized that it would be “a great chance to open up our process to our community,” she said.

The format is completely conversational and relaxed.

“I want to get to know these makers and masters — who they are, where they come from, why they love what they do, and really move forward into what is our evolving purpose — what do they see as their evolving purpose, what are their hopes for the future and how are they working with their communities and beyond to get there,” Hallman said.

The chats started April 29, and have been getting upward of 2,000 views online.

Among her guests have been Iowa City actor Patrick Dulaney, who has been performing in “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” on Broadway, now on pause during the pandemic, and Chicago-based actor Curtis Jackson, who starred in “The Agitators” at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City, and has been involved as an actor and director for the Mirrorbox Theatre’s weekly Out of Box play reading series.

But other guests have been people she just reached out to because she’d like to get to know them.

“Relationship building has not been stopped by this pandemic,” Hallman said, and she’s hoping to raise the theater’s national profile and spark future collaborations through this project.

From what she called her “bold inquiries,” she’s been able to chat with Jennifer Tepper, creative and programming director at Feinstein’s/54 Below in New York City and the producer of “Be More Chill” on Broadway; and Lauren Gunderson, whom Hallman described as “the most published playwright in the country,” including “Ada and the Memory Engine,” produced at TCR in March 2019.

“I want to represent diverse voices,” Hallman said. “I want to bring people in who are Black, Indigenous, people of color and women — just trying to get a really wide breadth of representation.”

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She does her homework, so she can ask informed questions about the guests’ current passion projects and has been pleased with the results.

“I’ve been really grateful that folks have been willing to get really vulnerable really quickly,” she said. “These are heart-led conversations. It’s kind of scary, because it’s out there in the universe. There’s nothing ‘gotcha’ about it. We’re talking about real things — we as artists and leaders as we work through this pandemic and the pandemic of systemic racism.

“There’s some really heavy stuff right now, and I’ve just been really proud of being able to bear witness to people’s vulnerability and honesty. I’ve learned so much.”

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

To Watch

• What: Theatre Cedar Rapids’ “Happy Hour”

• Target audience: Kids, but adults welcome, too

• Host: Theater educator Joe Link and Happy the puppet

• When: Noon Wednesdays

• Where: Facebook.com/theatrecedarrapids/

• Cost: Free

• Work sheets: Print from online links or pick up from a box outside Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE

• What: “Coffee with Katie: Inspired Conversations with Makers and Masters”

• Host: Katie Hallman, TCR executive director

• When: 2 p.m. Wednesdays

• Where: Facebook.com/theatrecedarrapids/

• Cost: Free

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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.