A new artistic director helps Combined Efforts Theatre ‘LEAP!’ into 2016


Coralville Center for the Performing Arts — Monday, Feb. 29 at 7:30 p.m.

Combined Efforts Theatre has a lot of exciting new things going for it: a new Artistic Director, new ensembles, new faces in their old ensembles and a new show, Leap!, this Leap Day to, well, “leap” into a brand new season.

Leap! goes up Monday, Feb. 29 at 7:30 p.m. at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts (1301 5th St., Coralville). It’s a variety show hosted by Chris Okiishi. Tickets are $10–$15. It features a range of local talent, including Kristen Beherndt DaGrazia, Mia Fryvecind Gimenez, James Tutson, Amy Stoner, Fritha Coltrane, Nora Garter and more.

Combined Efforts Theatre was founded in 2002 by Janet Schlapkohl, when she was a Special Education Instructor at City High School. The company is a nonprofit that seeks to provide performance opportunities with the purposeful inclusion of people with disabilities. Combined Efforts productions include both those with and without diagnosed disabilities, collaborating to make a show together.

CET Artistic Director Michael Penick
Michael Penick, new artistic director of Combined Efforts Theatre. Photo by Von Presley Studios, courtesy of CET.
Since it’s start, it has grown from a small theatre company to a broader performing arts institution, including a men’s choir, a dance group, a new writer’s workshop and a visual arts group. In order to keep the group going smoothly, Schalpkohl has stepped into a Managing Director role and brought on Michael Penick as a new Artistic Director.

We sat down with Penick to talk about the future of this unique theatre company.

Little Village: When did you take over as Artistic Director?

Michael Penick: I took over in December of last year. It’s been quite an experience; the first show that I’ve organized is the upcoming Leap! which is on Leap Day. It’s a variety show … It will feature all of our groups as well of a lot of local artists. Between Janet and I we have a lot of talented friends, and we’re happy to have so many involved in this event.

So it’s a little bit of everything.


It reminds me of ISO — the sci-fi show Combined Efforts did a few years ago — they had some sort of time capsule on the spaceship so they’d break from the story to do song and dance and variety show stuff.

I missed that one. Combined Efforts actually started when I was in high school; I came back to Iowa City after I graduated from Luther College. That’s when Janet approached me about directing the Men’s Choir, which I did for three years while I was getting my Master’s from the University.

Those guys are great.

They really are. I went to New York for a year after I finished my Master’s and one of the things I missed most about Iowa City was directing Men’s Choir. I was happy to be back. Now they have Cole Hotek directing them and he’s great. He’s gotten their numbers up and he’s doing a great job. Which is good, because I’m super-busy with artistic director stuff.

CET Men's Choir
Combined Efforts’ Men’s Choir rehearses for ‘LEAP!’ Photo courtesy CET.

Men’s Choir seems to be one of the signature Combined Efforts groups; every time I see a CET show they’re there.

Yeah. And I’ve seen a lot of progress with them especially. Through singing, and working together as a group, it really translates well when you see them in one of our shows. They’ve learned to project their voices a lot more through singing.

Have a lot of the same singers stuck around? Do people rotate out or has it been growing?

We have a very strong core group that has stayed there since the beginning, and now we’ve started slowly adding on to that. Right now it’s primarily people with disabilities but we are open to having people without diagnosed disabilities join that ensemble. It would be a good way to incorporate our central message, which is basically collaboration.

I see that spirit whenever I go to those shows; everyone’s having a blast and they’re all working together … which is the spirit of theatre, really.

It really is one of the most positive groups I’ve working with in the arts community.

So you’ve have quite a few groups now – Men’s Choir, the dancers, you also mentioned the new Expressive Arts group and the writer’s workshop.

Yes. And we’re hoping to add some other things as well, we’re hoping we will also have an acting group in the future. Most of our actors, the experience they get is mainly on stage, which is arguably the best place to get it, but we’d like to fill the gaps between the shows and continue their progress.

With classes?

Yeah, acting classes, acting games, stuff like that, building more of the foundation, so that when they go into rehearsals for our plays they have more tools in their bag to use.

This is a growing company. Where do you see it going in the future?

We would really like to grow the new groups that we have now, as well as the theatre company we started off with. Right now we’re still doing three large productions a year. We would like to increase the number of shows in general, maybe having some smaller shows in-between those larger ones we’ve already established. Also, one of the great things that I love about Combined Efforts Theatre is that it’s all original works. I don’t think we get enough of that considering how many talented writers we have in Iowa City. That’s great, but I would also like to see how we do with approaching some already established shows and seeing how we can make those work for our groups. I really loved seeing the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening on Broadway. Kind of similar to Combined Efforts, but they do work with the deaf community. They work together to put on a musical. They were last seen on Broadway with Big River.

CET Dance Company
Combined Efforts’ Dance Company rehearses for ‘LEAP!’ Photo courtesy CET.
A lot of their choreography is based around sign language … It’s incorporated into the dancing, it’s incorporated into the scenes, it’s done just beautifully. So I’d like to see how we could take what we have and see what we could do with some of the standard rep. So those are some ideas. We’re constantly developing new things to try. I would like to do something like Leap! each year, an annual variety show to launch into the new season. We’d also like to incorporate more concerts that have those branch groups as a central thing. The theatre right now sort of acts as a vessel to showcase our various branches, but it would be nice to have the Men’s Choir present their own things. Or have a musical evening, or have the dance group do a show with other area dancers.

When do you hold auditions?

We’re always taking on new people, especially in the Men’s Choir and the Dance Troupe. Tight after a performances would be the best time to start coming to rehearsals, but we’re always looking for new people. And a lot of people in the community don’t even know about Combined Efforts. So if they hear about us and are excited to join? Contact us and we’d be happy to have you. You could go to our website, or you could call 319.321.7926.

Are there fees involved in joining the groups?

It’s free to participate. That being said, we’re always looking for donations as well, so we can keep things going, keep people costumed, and basically keeping this company going. It’s the only company of its kind in Iowa.

Do you get grants or is it completely funded by donations?

See, that’s why Janet is taking over more of an Managing Director position. When she was Artistic Director, she wasn’t able to focus on grant writing. So that’s something we’re trying to start this year. We’re also trying to build a lot more infrastructure so she doesn’t have to be relied upon for every aspect of every show.

Are the directors and teachers staff, or are they volunteers?

They’re paid, but they’re not paid as much as they’re worth.

Isn’t that basically the arts life? Whom should you contact if you want to make a donation?

You can go to our website if you’d like to make a donations. Or you can come to one of our shows. This Leap! event that’s coming up is a really good way to get an idea of what we’re all about.

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