Wednesday, September 22, 2021

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Center Stage

Fresh talent across town


The goodwill in the room practically spills out the windows. Upstairs in West Des Moines Public Library, laughter punctuates the run-through of “Masha,” the latest project for the Tallgrass Iowa Playwrights Workshop, one of two new local programs for developing fresh talent.

An instructor works with apprentices during an Iowa Playwrights Workshop session.

An instructor works with apprentices during an Iowa Playwrights Workshop session.

At this rehearsal, the script has reached “version 2.7,” according to workshop director Andrea Rickey. Author Robert Vrtis (“Bobby” in the rehearsal room) is having fun with Anton Chekhov classics, and some of his dialog crackles.

“You didn’t invite him, did you?”

“Your husband? Of course not!”

Prep Iowa

Still, the jokes are only part of the enjoyment. The folks around the table include Des Moines actors, Tallgrass personnel and another writer as well, a veteran of last year’s program. Together, the banter sounds like a group of kids who’ve found a new box of toys.

“Rehearsals are just so rewarding,” Rickey tells me later.

She recalls how, at one session earlier this summer, a writer decided to drop a character. “Hearing the work aloud, that’s what did it,” Rickey explains. “As soon as she heard it, she insisted: ‘Kill him off!’ ”

The Tallgrass program, now 10 years old, has tinkered with various approaches. In 2015, three participants were selected from spring submissions, then, one at a time, put through workshops like the one I visited. Each completed the process with a public reading, the last early this month. Tom Perrine, the company’s artistic director, believes the effort “contributes to the larger creative process. It encourages collaboration.”stage2

And this summer, the collaboration stretches across town. The Social Club and Stagewest have launched a “Guest Artist” program. Two MFA candidates from Yale School of Drama — Jiréh Holder and Tori Sampson — are running an intensive two-week workshop they learned from their mentor, Pulitzer winner Paula Vogel.

Vogel calls her process a “bake-off,” because she selects the play’s “ingredients,” its material and then sets a stingy time limit for whipping up a dramatic cake. At the Social Club, Holder and Sampson had participants work with Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and the artwork at DMSC, and allowed just 48 hours to complete the first mash-ups. Small wonder that Sampson describes her eight apprentices as “really special.”

The program also calls for readings of the guests’ own work in progress, Aug. 15, and both are pitching in with the next show at Kum & Go, “A Soldier’s Play.” In conversation, though, what excites these two, both out of greater New York, is the theater scene in Des Moines.

“The commitment is definitely visible to an outsider,” says Sampson.

“We have a wide range of ages in the bake-off, and everyone’s writing a different kind of play,” adds Holder. “It’s so accepting, so exciting.”

“To join this community,” Sampson claims, “is like walking into a new identity as an artist. Here, everything’s done at such a high level.”

With programs like theirs in place, the level can only go higher.

Overheard in the Lobby: Des Moines Metro Opera was the recipient of $150,000 from the Cowles Foundation for education and outreach. CV


John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See

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