Five questions with Mirrorbox Theatre founder Cavan Hallman ahead of their first season in a new space


Mirrorbox Theatre, Cedar Rapids, Nov. 3-20, $20

'Batman Returns Returns'

Mirrorbox Theatre, Dec. 14-18, $20

Cavan Hallman, Mirrorbox Theatre founder and artistic director, stands at the threshold of their new space. — Malcolm MacDougall/Little Village

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, one of the first and most enduring adaptations allowing Iowans to continue experiencing the arts was young Cedar Rapids company Mirrorbox Theatre’s Out the Box series. Founder and artistic director Cavan Hallman brought together local and national performers for Zoom readings, creating community and comfort while hewing to the theater’s mission to present Iowa premieres. Now, that community is giving back to them, in support of their first physical space, a building in the Time Check neighborhood renovated into an intimate black box theater. They’ve got an outdoor seating permit for the space, are applying for their liquor license and are excited to partner with area food trucks to establish a true destination for an evening out, when weather permits.

Hallman spoke to Little Village about their exciting path forward.

OK, so your first season in this new space, yes? What are you most excited about?

You know, what I’m really excited about is that we are able to extend the runs of our shows, to really let the work flow in the way that these new plays deserve. And that also lets the audience grow along with it. I think one of the great parts about what our mission allows us to do or demands of us to do, you know, in creating new works, you know, necessarily means that sometimes it takes a minute for the audience to understand, like, what it is we’re getting into, and why it’s a value. And I think that having that extra bit of time is really going to be important for letting the work breathe and be introduced to new people.

I think we have for 2023 — so that would be the first full season in the new space — I think we have four full-length plays already contracted for the season, and a variety of things that are making their debut and, of course, all of them making their Iowa premieres. And I’m just really excited that we’re able to find these plays that are absolutely speaking to contemporary culture. But they’re also finding ways to make sure that it’s still entertainment … This is not, you know, some kind of bully pulpit. It’s an opportunity to spark conversations about important things going on in our culture.

So what can you tell me about Drive? What can folks expect? And why did you choose that for your first new play in the space?

The number one factor in choosing a play is, do I love it? You know? And I love this play. Drive primarily takes place in a bar, in a small, generalized town in the shadow of the I-80 World’s Largest Truck Stop. And it is about a cross section of the Iowa population, a variety of people who are all working in the trucking industry, and who have almost all just lost their jobs to automation. … It’s a near-future play, that is close enough to our future and is dealing with something that is close enough to the reality of Iowans that it just feels very of the moment. And I didn’t know until I started diving a little further into the world of this play, that the truckers make up the largest segment of the American workforce, and the largest segment of the Iowa Workforce. And if and when automation takes over this industry, it’s going to displace a huge number of people; it’s going to have a huge impact on our state and our country.

It felt just very, very appropriate to be dealing with this subject matter that that is so just on the nose relevant to our community’s concerns, especially with our new building in the Time Check neighborhood, a neighborhood that was really built and sustained by the Cedar Rapids labor class, you know. It just it just felt right. And then just from an artistic standpoint, … it reminded me a lot of another beautiful play, by Lanford Wilson, called Balm in Gilead, that shows kind of a cross section of the population coming in and out of this Greenwich Village bar in the ’60s, in kind of this tradition of American bar plays that gives you this window into specific populations.

As a company that focuses on these new plays, how many plays do you personally read in a month? Or in a week?

Oh, gosh, you know, there are seasons of work, right? Currently, I’m the only staff member at Mirrorbox. So there’s the programming part. But of course, there’s development, and just all the different parts that go along with executing this final stage of construction. But I will say that in a given year, I probably read about 200 plays in total, like actually read the full play. And let’s say at least 100 or 200 more where, you know, you get 10 pages in and it’s just not going to be.

And is that typically, just in terms of spatial fit, casting fit? Or is there a trigger that you look for, that tells you that, you know, it’s just not a piece for you?

I think it’s less of a thing that I see that says no; it’s more of the absence of surprise. I generally need something, you know, within whatever excerpt or beginning that I’m reading — I’m looking for something that’s surprising. And of course, I only have my own perspective to go on with this. But you know, whether it is a character whose perspective I’ve never heard before, whether it’s an environment that I’ve never seen staged before, you know, fill in the blank there, there are a million ways for it to occur. But I’m looking for something that has that element of surprise.

Are you planning to use the theater space for anything besides these productions? In downtime?

Yeah, so in addition to our main productions — which, moving forward into 2023, the plan is to have six main productions that each have a three weekend run — in addition to those we are also working with some folks in the community. We’re developing a unique improv format, that’ll be something you can just catch at Mirrorbox. We’re also planning on reintroducing in some form our Out the Box readings. We’re also going to be introducing a senior readers theater program. And along with that we’ve also already actually contracted with an artist who has Iowa City ties, recently got their MFA and we’re going to work with that artist to do a workshop production of a one person show that they’ve been developing. So we’re really looking to have a full slate of programming that is produced by Mirrorbox, at Mirrorbox.

And then, you know, we’re going to continue to see what opportunities present themselves in terms of other community partnerships or if it makes sense for us to partner with other organizations even. But I think especially in the beginning, as we’re grounding ourselves in this reality of having our own home, I think it’s really important to make sure that the work that we’re doing is being filtered through the lens of our mission and making sure that that always takes priority over other opportunities.

A shorter version of this article was originally published in Little Village issue 310.

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