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Center Stage

The Iowa Stage’s success recipe for 2024

3/6/2024

Iowa Stage Theatre Company season listing for “The Glass Menagerie.” Photo credit: ISTC marketing

The evolution of Greater Des Moines theatre companies is fascinating. Exploring these unique purveyors of community engagement gives cultural adventurers a greater understanding of the cultural icebergs beneath the surface. 

One of the longest continually running community theatres in Amerca is the Des Moines Community Playhouse. Surpassing its centennial producing mile-marker a few years ago, its evolution from the Iowa Press and Authors Club to the Kendall Memorial Community Playhouse to its current one-name status as the Playhouse, is filled with great history, including Cloris Leachman. 

The Broadway, national and international player in Iowa started as the Civic Center. It now better represents its variety of programming under the Des Moines Performing Arts umbrella, symbolically represented in Nollen Plaza by Claes Oldenburg’s “Crusoe’s Umbrella” sculpture. 

Community theatres in Urbandale, Indianola and Ankeny have thrived for decades thanks to committed volunteers. Tallgrass Theatre Company, considered by most as the West Des Moines Community Theatre; Class Act Productions (CAP Theatre), the children’s/youth company in Altoona; and, Pyramid Theatre Company, nationally recognized in “…illuminating the presence of Black artists in the theatre canon…” all established their unique niches. Add Des Moines Young Artists’ Theatre, Iowa Shakespeare Experience, and Once in a While Productions, and the live theatre landscape offers a tantalizing, diversified wealth of performance options. 

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Shades of past theatrical enterprises no longer around continue to weave into today’s conversations about central Iowa’s theatre history. Charlie’s Showplace and the Ingersoll Dinner Theatre faded when the concept of dining in the performing hall became passé. The Drama Workshop ended (1951-2006) its stellar run.

The commitment to sustain proved too great for others. While artistic quality may have been excellent, the underwriting efforts were daunting. Shakespeare on the Loose (SOTL) produced a memorable series of the Bard’s works in Greenwood Park’s Sylvan Glen and at Living History Farms, about 1986-1992. SOTL also toured Iowa with an enticing array of Shakespearean scenes and Madrigal music.

Iowa Stage Theatre Company (ISTC) officially launched in 2017. Prior to this, Joseph Leonardi formed the Central Iowa Repertory Theatre (CITR) to produce professional theatrical productions. It presented shows in the lobby of the former Kirkwood Hotel and initiated Shakespeare on the Lawn in 2011 at Salisbury House & Gardens. CITR evolved into Repertory Theatre of Iowa (RTI), the progenitor of ISTC. The Drama Workshop assets went to RTI. Running a parallel community performance track was StageWest. These two companies alternated producing works the Des Moines Social Club’s Kum & Go Theatre for several years. StageWest and ISTC merged under the ISTC banner. For those who view ISTC, its mission reflects the interwoven history of other influences to “transform Iowa, its citizens, and arts community by producing truthful, relevant, and intimate theatre that inspires, enlightens, and entertains.”

ISTC experienced a deep reevaluation of itself, while keeping aligned to its mission. They open the 2024 season with “The Glass Menagerie.” ISTC now has two artistic directors, Davida Williams and Alex Wendel, guiding the creative energy as its new season begins now. 

“(We) decided that ‘The Glass Menagerie’ was the perfect show to start this new chapter with,” explained Wendel. “Tennessee Williams wrote extensively about the importance of expressionism and exploration in theatre. Our creative focus is to honor Williams’ request for expressionism with the sensibilities of a contemporary theatre in 2024.”

In the hands of a gifted company such as ISTC, expectations are high to see how they produce this award-winning memory play, beginning with its 1945 New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award as Best American Play. Wendel continues how ISTC wants “to keep this classic accessible and exciting. ‘The Glass Menagerie’ covers so many themes: escapism, neurodivergence, sexual orientation, problematic heritage, hope for the future, and many more.”

The rest of the ISTC 2024 season includes “Melancholy Play” (June), “Witch” (October), and “A Christmas Carol” (December). 

 

Speaking of classics

Two other shows draw special attention this month as Carousel Theatre tackles Arthur Miller’s tragedy, “Death of a Salesman,” and Des Moines Performing Arts welcomes the national tour of “Funny Girl.” This is the show’s first national tour in 27 years. The “Funny Girl” revival earned the Audiences Awards Tony in 2022. ♦

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.

Overheard in the Lobby 
  • Iowa Stage Theatre Company: March 1-10. “The Glass Menagerie” 
  • Carousel Theatre of Indianola: March 8-17. “Death of a Salesman” 
  • Tallgrass Theatre Company: March 10. “Broadway Karaoke”
  • Des Moines Community Playhouse – Kate Goldman Children’s Theatre: Through March 10. “Dragons Love Tacos”
  • Des Moines Performing Arts – Temple Theater: March 12-17. “Funny Girl” 
  • Des Moines Performing Arts – Temple Theater: Through March 17. “Dixie’s Never Wear a Tube Top While Riding a Mechanical Bull”
  • Des Moines Community Playhouse: March 29 – April 14. “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”

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