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Mirrorbox Theatre moving closer to opening new Cedar Rapids home
Family, friends get a sneak peek at recent fundraiser
Mirrorbox Theatre is thinking inside the box more and more these days.
Trim work, bathroom fixtures, some window seats in the lobby, beverage bar, box office and office furnishings. That’s pretty much all that’s left to add before the nonprofit professional troupe presents Iowa premieres of cutting-edge theater in its new home at 1200 Ellis Blvd. NW.
The 1946 building has been stripped to the studs and renovated to create a flexible theater and actor and patron amenities. Those include ADA compliant restrooms, which Mirrorbox Founder and Artistic Director Cavan Hallman and his wife, Theatre Cedar Rapids Executive Director Katie Hallman, papered with pages out of the 60-plus scripts Mirrorbox has produced since launching in 2018.
True to the black box theatrical style, the performance space walls and ceiling are painted black, with wide-open spaces to accommodate flexible staging and seating on comfy chairs not bolted to the floor. The code will allow seating for up to 130 people, but Hallman said that with Mirrorbox Theatre’s intimate performance style, they’re more likely to seat 60 to 90 people.
At a glance
What: Mirrorbox Theatre’s new home
Where: 1200 Ellis Blvd. NW, Cedar Rapids
Fundraising: Ongoing, with renovations rising from initial projections
Details, donations: mirrorboxtheatre.com/newhome/
Mirrorbox will christen the space with Deborah Yarchun’s sci-fi “Drive” in the fall. This script, first presented as a Zoom reading on Jan. 7, is set in a future where “a community of truckers in a small town in Iowa are forced to shift gears when they lose their jobs to self-driving vehicles.”
“We’re not a sci-fi theater company,” Hallman said, “but we are (producing) plays that are giving us that lens into contemporary culture.”
In August, Mirrorbox will turn to unconventional spaces — from homes to conference rooms — in which to present “the wish.” Described as “a manual for a last-ditch effort to save abortion in the United States through theatre,” two actors will lead at least 10 attendees in a group reading of this work, with a portion of the proceeds going to a nonprofit working to preserve reproductive rights.
Before all the theatrical magic kicks in, the theater’s family and friends got a sneak peek inside the new digs Saturday night at a fundraising party. Initially, Mirrorbox raised $118,000 in 60 days last fall and winter, but when the hard bids came in, costs increased 60 percent.
“We were able to find solutions that allowed us to continue the project in a financially responsible way,” Hallman said. “There have been some very generous individuals who have come through, as well as some really very meaningful foundation support. … The support that we’re getting from the community is pretty incredible.”
Walking through the doors for Saturday’s sneak peek, “I love it,” said Sue Lowder of Cedar Rapids, a banker who serves as the theater’s board treasurer. She’s been in that position for about a year, coming onboard to “add that value as far as financial management, fiscal responsibility, and making sure that we’re responsible to our donors, to our patrons, to our community, advocates and volunteers.”
Her family has been onboard, too, for the transformation.
“I’ve had my husband and our two boys down here scraping old paint, doing renovation. So we’re totally a hands-on board. It’s been very fun.”
She’s not only looking forward to opening night — yet to be announced — but also to the transformation in the Time Check neighborhood, so hard-hit by the 2008 flood.
“(I’m) also excited about this Ellis Boulevard corridor,” she said. “If you drive up Ellis Boulevard, you’ll see the Matthew 25 Cultivate Hope market. You’ll see new development across the street; you’ll see new development and housing down the corridor this way. I just think this is such a positive and energetic addition to the community.”
Center stage at Saturday night’s fundraiser was a sign with this statement from Clint Twedt-Ball, Matthew 25’s executive director:
“It is rare to have a broad coalition of entities working to revitalize an economically challenged neighborhood. Mirrorbox brings the artistic presence that has been missing and is desperately needed.”
As she looked around a room full of possibilities, Lowder added: “It’s a great complement to all the other theater things” in the area. “We’re not a TCR, we’re not really big Broadway musicals, but we’re a nice complement for these productions.”
Board president Carrie Pozdol of Cedar Rapids landed her first role in Cedar Rapids in Mirrorbox Theatre’s 2019 production of “Bully,” staged at CSPS Hall, home to Mirrorbox shows before the pandemic.
She, too, loves the new space intended to be the troupe’s permanent home.
“I was in Chicago for a long time, so it feels very grounded with that storefront theater vibe, and I really like that,” Pozdol said.
She gravitated toward Mirrorbox as an actor, director and board member, appreciating its fresh take on theater.
“I like that it is new work that is related to what’s going on,” she said. “And it’s stuff that people can really make their own. I love doing establish shows, too, but there’s always all that kind of baggage that comes with it from previous productions. Where with newer stuff, especially the stuff that hasn’t been seen around here, there is just so much you can do with it to introduce it to a whole new audience.”
While Hallman and company are breathing new life into a vintage building, they also are mindful about preserving its history.
The structure housed a plumbing business for a short time, then Chirp’s automotive shop for more than 50 years, then two former Rockwell engineers bought the building to tinker on their own cars, Hallman noted, and during that time, a dog groomer set up shop in the front.
All that history hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“After the 2008 flood, the city of Cedar Rapids did an architectural survey, and this was considered one of two architecturally significant buildings in the Time Check area,” Hallman said. “It’s considered an excellent example of art moderne or streamline art deco architecture. And it’s also significant, because that kind of commercial building is not typically found in a residential neighborhood.”
That style is reflected in the building’s curved facade, which also has been preserved in the lobby. Additional exterior amenities include space for a patio on one side, and room for food trucks along the street side.
A big plus for the theater is the large loading dock door on the alley, big enough to bring in scenery and building materials. The interior may be all-black, but the exterior back wall is awash in color.
As recently reported in The Gazette, the exterior’s west wall off the alley sports one of two colorful murals by Jeff Huntington and Julia Gibb of Jahru Studio in Annapolis, Md. The Mirrorbox mural features portraiture inspired by the comedy and tragedy masks, while the mural along the north wall of new residential row housing across Ellis Boulevard is an abstract version of the goldfinch, Iowa’s colorful state bird.
“You kind of have to triangulate yourself, but if you stand in the alley, you can see both the mural on this building and then across the street,” Hallman said. “You can see them both and how they kind of use the same color palette.”
Taking a theater from idea to brick-and-mortar has been an educational experience for Hallman, 43.
“I'm learning something every day,” he said, giving credit to the building’s owners, Tyler Oswood, Alex Frazier and Josh Bass of OFB real estate.
“The landlords are also serving as the general contractors and they have just been incredible,” he said.
He also is quick to give a shout out to the volunteers who have rolled up their sleeves to roll on the paint — an effort led by his mother, Beth Moriarty, who came up from North Carolina to help with the project.
But leaving the heavy lifting to the pros was paramount for the renovation’s success.
“Really, our goal is to get people a really finished space where they feel comfortable and taken care of,” Hallman said. “We love the raw parts of our values. Our values are to be raw and relevant and daring. But not raw to the point that nails are sticking out of the floor. If it was all left to me, this space would not look nearly as nice as it does now.
“So we’re letting the professionals do it right, because the goal is for this to be our home. We want it to be built well (and) built right.”
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