Contact Buzz: Volunteer work keeps central Iowa’s community theaters running smoothly

Ally Frame/Little Village

“Volunteerism is the voice of the people put into action. These actions shape and mold the present into a future of which we can all be proud.” –Helen M. Dyer (1895-1998), American biochemist and cancer researcher

Much attention is given to volunteerism in the realms of advocacy, human rights, community and education. Arts and culture gives heart to all these efforts — and typically relies on volunteers, as well. Without the tens of thousands of volunteer hours, central Iowa’s theater scene would crumble.

The region is blessed with a dedicated group of volunteers who offer their time across an array of venues. These include the nationally recognized Des Moines Community Playhouse (The Playhouse) now five years into its second century of delivering live theater, to Iowa Stage Theatre Company (ISTC), Ankeny Community Theatre (ACT), Tallgrass Theatre Company (Tallgrass), Carousel Theatre of Indianola (Carousel), Class Act Productions (CAP Theatre), Des Moines Young Artists’ Theatre (DMYAT), Pyramid Theatre Company (Pyramid) and Urbandale Community Theatre (UCT). Each relies on a contingency of people to prepare every show for opening. There have been other companies producing shows, too — some long gone, some still present — adding their artistic contributions to the mix.

Rebecca Davis, Alexis Davis and Cle Shai Harden in ‘Buffalo Women.’ Steve Gibbons / Des Moines Playhouse

Operating at a much different, national level is Des Moines Performing Arts (DMPA), anchored by its Willis Broadway Series which brings national tours, often during first runs, to the Civic Center stage. DMPA does support the local scene, even serving as the performing venue for several companies in the Stoner Theater which shares a building with the Civic Center.

The Playhouse’s ambitious programming and success is the result of more than a century of community building. With an annual seven-figure budget, it’s able to finance a full- and part-time staff to provide the professional framework for its continued success.

Programming includes classes and productions aimed at everyone from preschoolers to adults. These include the Kate Goldman Children’s Theatre, the Playhouse’s mainstage shows in the John Viars Theatre and many additional projects, such as the recent Penguin Project. A welcoming environment for its volunteers is supported with excellent training so that each person who gives their time to the Playhouse is prepared to confidently contribute.

“We have more than 750 volunteers annually,” according to Lee Ann Bakros, the theater’s marketing and PR director. “I don’t know that we’ve tabulated hours, but my conservative estimate of the past 12 months is 25,700 hours.”

The elder statesman of Playhouse volunteers may be Al Downey. Named a Playhouse Legend in 2011, he’s been a part of more than 25 shows as a stage manager or other backstage crew role, and he’s worked with the Final Act Ensemble, the Playhouse’s radio troupe.

“I did my first show, The Madwoman of Chaillot, in 1961. I was hooked, I’ve been there ever since,” Downey shared.

When asked the core reason for giving his time at The Playhouse, he said, “It’s the people. Everyone is so friendly.”

While the Playhouse represents the largest community theater operation in Iowa, the passion and commitment of volunteers at other companies is no less impressive. Tom Perrine is the artistic director at Tallgrass Theatre Company, frequently alluded to as West Des Moines’ community theater.

“We often refer to our many volunteers as ‘family.’ Our volunteers help with every aspect of running the theater,” said Perrine. “We encourage our volunteers to find what interests them. Then we support and encourage each of them to get the most of their volunteer time.”

Tallgrass has retained a special intimacy with its relatively new performing space, opened in late 2021, seating less than a hundred. Except for Seedlings Children’s Theatre (Tallgrass’ youth programming) and some front-of-house staff who receive a small stipend, Tallgrass is an all-volunteer theater operation. With almost 20 years under its creative belt, Tallgrass has learned that volunteering builds strong bonds of personal support, growth, fulfillment and that feeling of belonging to a community.

Of course, those seeking to volunteer their time to local theater are not limited to Tallgrass and the Playhouse.

CAP Theatre often has parents of students in the productions as the core volunteer crew, many transitioning into continued roles with the company. ACT has more than four decades, Carousel more than five, as all-volunteer, full-season theater operations. All-volunteer UCT focuses its energy into a summer musical, often engaging entire families in the volunteer experience.

For those seeking short-term ways to get involved and contribute to the local theater scene in central Iowa, the opportunities are endless.

This article was originally published in Little Village Central Iowa issue 013.