116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — In the coming months, the faint whiff of auto shop will be replaced by the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd at 1200 Ellis Blvd. NW.
The tan brick building that says “Chirp’s” on the side is being transformed into a permanent home for Mirrorbox Theatre in the evolving Time Check neighborhood.
“I think it's just one of the coolest buildings — the rounded edges and everything about it,” said Cavan Hallman, 42, of Cedar Rapids, Mirrorbox Theatre’s founder and artistic director. “It's a beautiful building, in and of itself.”
OFB real estate owns the property, formerly used as an auto body and brake alignment shop. It’s now a blank slate with high ceilings and a concrete floor, which Mirrorbox will lease and turn into a 99-seat black box theater in which to continue producing the Iowa premiere of contemporary plays. A big plus is the big garage door at the back, perfect for loading in scenery, seating and equipment.
“We're building this out with the full expectation that this is our forever home,” Hallman said, and he’s hoping to begin producing shows there by the end of next summer.
What: Mirrorbox Theatre’s capital campaign
Efforts are well underway to raise the funds needed for the transformation. With expenses projected at $235,000, landlords Tyler Oswood, Alex Frazier and Josh Bass of OFB have committed $132,000 in cash and financing for the initial lease, Hallman noted, leaving $103,000 to raise through a capital campaign launched in November.
In less than a month, Mirrorbox has garnered more than $75,000 in donations and grants, including $10,000 from Linn County's Legacy and Cultural Attraction Fund.
“That's a grant that's really meant to support and sustain projects that are going to attract people to cultural attractions,” Hallman said.
That leaves about $28,000 to raise by Feb. 1.
Expanding its footprint
Mirrorbox also is one of 113 Iowa organizations to receive federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Arts program. The theater’s $5,000 grant is earmarked for staffing, and will allow Hallman to assume a full-time paid position of artistic director — the first step in creating a staff needed to run a small professional theater. (To see the full list of awards, go to iowaculture.gov/arts/grants)
He also hopes to eventually expand the theater’s outreach, by introducing senior educational programming.
“There are a lot of organizations that are doing great work with youth programming for theater and youth education,” he said, “but there's some great research out there that talks about the benefits of engaging with literature and what that does for the senior population, and in making sure that demographic isn't forgotten.”
Mirrorbox, formed in 2018, presents what Hallman described as “raw, relevant and daring contemporary theater.”
"We're the only company in Iowa that is exclusively dedicated to presenting plays that have not been staged in our state. Our hope is that when people see something new with us that it provokes a conversation and that it makes them want to talk about the issues that are the issues of our times,” he said.
Mirrorbox presented its first two seasons of plays at CSPS Hall in the burgeoning NewBo District in the city’s southeast side, along the Cedar River.
Then the pandemic hit, and Mirrorbox moved to an online play reading format, while still producing “The Parking Lot” in the parking lot behind CSPS, in September 2020.
CSPS has since turned its first-floor C Space black box theater into a gallery, but Hallman had been keeping an eye on commercial real estate possibilities for a while.
“It was amazing to be there,” he said of CSPS, “but there were limitations. They couldn't have something going on in the auditorium and in C Space at the same time because of sound bleed. And, they needed to prioritize their own programming.”
When he spotted a listing for the vacant building in the city’s northwest quadrant, also along the river, he jumped at the chance to be part of another revitalization effort in the wake of the 2008 flood. He came to Cedar Rapids four and a half years ago, so he hasn’t witnessed the Cedar’s wrath, but he isn’t worried about the theater’s proximity to the water.
“Flood protection is planned for the next couple of years, and flood insurance will be part of our lease payments,” he said. “So I trust in the plan, and while I haven’t been here when Cedar Rapids has gone through any of the historic floods, I know that it’s a resilient city, and I trust in that.”
Hallman has been coworking out of the nonprofit Matthew 25 and Groundswell initiatives that seek to strengthen northwest neighborhoods.
"We're very aware of all the work that Matthew 25 is doing in Time Check, where they're building the healthy grocery store and the community farming — all that work that they're doing. So we knew that things were happening here and want to be part of that revitalization.”
He’s especially excited about the prospects for the corner Mirrorbox will occupy — across Ellis Boulevard is The Flamingo, an established restaurant and event center, as well as the proposed Fancy’s New York, a pizza restaurant Lincoln Wine Bar owner Jesse Sauerbrei announced a year ago.
“This corner can be a real destination for people to have an evening,” Hallman said.
“It is rare to have a broad coalition of entities working to revitalize an economically challenged neighborhood,” Clint Twedt-Ball, Matthew 25’s executive director, said in a prepared statement. “Mirrorbox brings the artistic presence that has been missing and is desperately needed.”
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