A fresh cocktail for theater arts5/3/2017
Playhouse board of directors implements a three-legged leadership stool
John Viars is happy to break down the numbers.
“When I began here, we did six shows a year and employed two folks full-time,” says the man who’s run the Des Moines Playhouse since 1982.
No longer, however.
“Now we’ve got a dozen people full-time and nearly 30 part-time,” says Viars, “and we’re running 10 to 15 productions a year.”
As the budget mushroomed, it created a ripple effect. Next door, the Shops on Roosevelt do a brisk business, and high schoolers from across 42nd Street come over after classes — part of the booming Playhouse education program. Growth like that, however, raises challenges. Viars puts it this way: “We need to keep our community engaged.”
Therefore, with the retirement of Managing Director Rod McCullough — indispensable over the past dozen years — the board of directors has designed a three-legged leadership stool. First, Viars will stay on as artistic director, concerned with matters like play selection. Second, 2014 arrival Nikki Syverson will step up her fundraising, as director of advancement — Viars marvels at Syverson’s “gift for building relationships.” Third, following a nationwide search, the board brought on a new executive director, Wisconsin’s David Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick welcomes the move. He’s especially glad to be on board for the Playhouse’s 100th anniversary in 2019.
“I honor the history,” he says. “But we’re also looking to the next 100 years, redesigning the space and embracing fresh opportunities.”
Neither StageWest nor Repertory Theater of Iowa has been around long, but they too are looking to the future. A couple of years into sharing the Kum & Go space, they’ve joined forces as the Iowa Theater Stage Company.
“We’re so excited,” says Brad Dell, artistic director. “This is the best way to build on the tremendous growth in local theater.”
Growth is the core of the Iowa Stage mission.
“Just look at the website,” Dell says. “We’re about fostering creation and improving the theater experience.”
In pursuing these goals, Dell has partnered with some of the city’s best talents, like Jay Jaglim, a two-time Cloris Awards winner in set design. But the company is also determined to cast a wide net.
“We’re holding open auditions for every show,” he says. “We’ll welcome fresh blood in tech as well. In sets, lighting, costumes — anywhere someone wants to share their skills.”
People will have plenty of chances to help, with seven shows on tap for the 2017-18 season, plus script readings and “talk-back” sessions, in which the audience can explore the play further.
“Also, we’ve got both cutting-edge stuff and classics,” Dell adds, “The same as we had with StageWest and the Repertory Theater.”
Reorganizing as Iowa Stage, though, will help realize a greater goal.
“Eventually, everybody is going to be paid. We’re committed to providing stipends for the entire cast and crew,” Dell says.
In this the new outfit stands apart, definitively, from the old one. The Playhouse was founded as a community theater; its mission calls for “volunteers.” Going forward Des Moines should enjoy both professional stage work and the kind that’s primarily a labor of love. A great cocktail for the arts in any city. ♦