In a place that prides itself on its variety of cultural offerings—especially when it comes to theatre—there is one company in Iowa City that stands out both for the ways that it is extraordinary and for the ways that it is just like any other theatre company. Combined Efforts Theatre (CET) has some of the most varied creative output in town, and yet it remains under the radar of most Corridor residents looking for entertainment.
CET began while founder Janet Schlapkohl worked as a special education teacher at City High School. “I saw so much untapped talent in the classroom,” Schlapkohl recalls.
After serving as an assistant director for drama production, she decided to stage her own play in 2002 in which students in both mainstream and special education could perform together. That play was the beginning of a theatre company that would expand beyond City High School, eventually becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 2009.
Today, CET remains the only theatre company in Iowa that is purposely inclusive of people with disabilities. It has as many as 60 members at any given time. The acting company performs several times throughout the year in its own shows, at city events and at fundraisers for other organizations. The performances vary between longer plays and short one-acts, but all of the material is original and written by company members. The company has also expanded beyond acting to form a dance company and a men’s choir. They receive all of their funding from tickets and individual donations.
While the mission of the company is inclusivity, members are quick to point out that their productions don’t focus on disabilities. Board president Mary Vasey explained, “I like the fact that we are inclusive, but when we are into doing a play we don’t think about disabilities.”
They draw from a variety of subjects to produce plays that are relaxing, fun and creative. For example, their upcoming Trubblesume Tymes at the Faire is a farce set in Elizabethan times. Co-writer Kalvin Goodlaxon said that he likes writing for the company because, “I can [put] my knowledge to use for the plays in order to make my area of interest … what I like to do.”
Board member Rip Russell acts in CET productions in addition to his work at other theatre companies (most recently The Price at Old Creamery Theatre). “CET is no different than other theatres in the fact that we are telling a story through action, spoken word and movement,” explained Russell. “However, CET utilizes actors who may or may not have all of those traditional tools at their disposal, so the means by which they communicate the story can be wildly inventive and wonderful!”
It is this discovery of personal expression that members often cite as their favorite part of being involved with CET.
“I really like seeing people start to blossom as they perform, and feel good about their performance,” said Vasey.
Shulman Hillel director Jerry Sorokin has been performing in CET with his teen daughter Phoebe for several years and offers the Hillel building for use as rehearsal space.
“I think [CET is] one of the real points of pride that this community ought to show off,” said Sorokin. “That people coming from all these different backgrounds are working together to create art in a way that is entertaining, meaningful and from the heart in a sense that nobody has anything great to gain from this. This is genuinely art for art’s sake.”
The opportunity to create art is so meaningful for its members that one actor and his family moved from Vermont to Iowa City to participate in the company.
Like other Iowa City theatres, CET does not have a permanent rehearsal or performance space. They rehearse in a variety of places around town, including Shulman Hillel and Uptown Bill’s. Shlapkohl feels that this can make it hard for the community to identify the theatre as its own entity. “You feel like a raven borrowing someone’s nest all the time,” he said. But their space issues might be resolved in the near future: Recently, CET and Dreamwell Theatre announced that they are working together to find a permanent space.
CET faces additional challenges. Transportation, in particular, is difficult when members have a variety of driving abilities and living situations.
“Group homes have shifting staff, so the person who used to transport a cast member to rehearsals might no longer be there,” explained Schlapkohl. “Cast members might not be able to advocate for themselves to say they are in our group.”
Schlapkohl would like to see CET continue to grow in new areas. She wants to start a puppetry workshop, as well as a mime company for nonverbal members.
Ultimately, Schlapkohl’s dream is that CET will become a professional company, one where they can pay members for their time creating a show and hire local actors as job coaches. She realizes that this is a lot to ask in a town where paid opportunities are limited for actors, but she believes in the legitimacy of acting as a profession.
“Why not pay someone to do something as a community service, and pay them like they do at Goodwill?” she asked. “Why not pay someone to be an actor? Why can’t that be valid?”
Other theatre companies, like Interact in Minneapolis, have successfully achieved a model that allows actors with disabilities to be paid for their work. As CET grows, Schlapkohl hopes there will come a day when company members will respond to the question, “What do you do?” with the answer, “I am an artist.”