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Center Stage

Des Moines Young Artists’ Theatre


Floatin’ like a butterfly, stingin’ like a bee

Sage Johnson as Raja Englanderova in the Des Moines Young Artists’ Theatre production, “I Never Saw a Butterfly,” Feb. 9-18 in the Stoner Theater at the Civic Center of Des Moines Performing Arts. Photo by Brandon James Photography.

Theatre cuts a wide swath when it comes to its purpose and effectiveness. Comedies, musicals and dramas expand into areas of history, society and humanity. A performance hall becomes a safe place for new experiences, to learn, then to take an expanded perspective back into the world after the final curtain. The best theatre sparks a cultural dialogue lasting well beyond the final bows, where a new experience spills out of the performing space and into the viewers’ communities.

Des Moines Young Artists’ Theatre (DMYAT) continues to boldly engage its actors and audiences, firmly establishing itself as a captivating institution where a diverse cross-section of central Iowa youth converges in challenging and beneficial experiences through stage performance. Founders Bob and Maria Filippone’s 2008 vision blossomed into an award-winning, youth-based performance arts powerhouse. David Van Cleave’s hiring as the company’s artistic director brought an elevated and more passionate fire to DMYAT’s growth and work.

“We have three main goals: to introduce students to the arts, to train them in all aspects, and to encourage them to use the arts to create positive social change,” Van Cleave explains.

“ ‘I Never Saw a Butterfly’ is a really special script that set up a little home in the back of my mind, patiently waiting to come out,” he shares.

Prep Iowa

The national cultural climate seems right for this show.

“ ‘Butterfly’ gives us the opportunity to fulfill all three of our goals,” he says.

Mark Finkelstein, Community Relations for the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines, explains how the Federation’s partnership with DMYAT is a good one and helps to promote Jewish culture.

“Through performing arts, the history and messages from this story will appeal to many,” Finkelstein says. “Terezin is the story of young creative minds subjected to situations beyond horrible. They (the children) had their childhoods taken away.”

Van Cleave provides the overview.

“When you hear that we’re presenting a ‘Holocaust play,’ you might think ‘Oh, well that’s going to be depressing.’ And while the Holocaust certainly was depressing, this production is filled with such hope and beauty. Terezin was a ‘model camp’ created by the Nazis to show the world (and the Red Cross on their many inspections) that they did not hate the Jews — in fact, they gave them this beautiful community filled with gardens and operas and theatre! The inhabitants were able to practice their faith more in Terezin than any other camp. They were encouraged to write and draw and paint and sing. The Germans even printed real tickets to their performances. Yet, even with all this culture, over 15,000 Jewish children died in the camp. It was a horribly deceptive place.”

Van Cleave cast 15 young actors, each representing 1,000 Jewish children who died in Terezin.

The Federation and DMYAT will have a post-show discussion with a panel including designers, actors, Jewish leaders and a Holocaust survivor. This is where the post-production expansion into our community will begin. Details are available on the DMYAT website,

Through the horror of this wartime atrocity, however, spring many positive messages. Resilience, creativity, loyalty, friendship. Of the 15,000 children who entered Terezin, only 100 would live to walk out. “Butterfly” is a performance elegy which carries the unquenchable spirit created by the prisoners of Terezin into perpetuity.

“I believe that the most powerful message from Terezin, as distilled through this play, is that there is always hope,” shares Finkelstein.

Through the power of performing arts, DMYAT believes you, too, will share in this universal hope.

Overheard in the Lobby

Show options abound in February: “Almost, Maine” (Ankeny Community Theatre, Feb. 9-18); “The Sound of Music” (Class Act Productions, Feb. 16 – March 4); “Miss Nelson Is Missing!” (Kate Goldman Children’s Theatre, Feb. 23 – March 11); and “A View from the Bridge” (Iowa Stage Theatre Company, Feb. 23 – March 4). Plus, Kerry Skram’s new one-act play, and a panel discussion, Thursday, Feb. 8 at 6 p.m., Kum & Go Theater. ♦

John Busbee is a creative project developer, critic, playwright, author, producer and media professional. He has produced his weekly show, The Culture Buzz, on KFMG since 2007.

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