Five questions with: Cavan Hallman of Mirrorbox Theatre

Mirrorbox Theatre Presents: Exit Strategy

Legion Arts CSPS Hall — opens Thursday, April 5

Tierra Plowden (foreground) and Steve Rezabek in “Exit Strategy.” — photo by Greg Billman

The newest addition to the Eastern Iowa theatre scene, Mirrorbox Theatre, opens its inaugural production this weekend. The play, Ike Holter’s Exit Strategy, runs Thursday, April 5 through Saturday, April 7 in the C Space at CSPS Hall in Cedar Rapids’ NewBo District. Tickets are $15 (tickets can also be purchased through the box office, either in person or over the phone: (319) 364-1580, hours 10-6 daily, 12-4 Sun). The action centers on a Chicago school facing impending closure.

Director and company founder Cavan Hallman, who describes himself as a “relative newcomer” to Eastern Iowa, said in an email that he has been “impressed from the beginning by the amount of support that arts organizations are receiving from the community.” He said he feels “very fortunate” in the welcome that he has received, both for himself as an artist and for Mirrorbox as a new theater.

Mirrorbox recently announced their full 2018 season. In addition to Exit Strategy, they will be producing Red Speedo, by Lucas Hnath (May 24-26), Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale (Aug. 5-7) and There Is A Happiness That Morning Is, by Mickle Maher (Nov. 1-3).

If few (or none) of those titles sound familiar, that’s by design — Mirrorbox is dedicated to producing only plays having their Iowa premiere. Hallman, who also teaches a play analysis class at Theatre Cedar Rapids (a new session starts April 11), answered some questions for us about this theater concept, his collaborations with area businesses and Exit Strategy.

Brett Borden (front) and Craig Byers in “Exit Strategy.” — photo by Greg Billman

What was your impetus for starting a new company in this theater-rich community? What are your goals and ideals?

Every great theater city deserves a company devoted to new plays, and Cedar Rapids is without a doubt a great theater city. As a resident artist with the CRY HAVOC Company in New York I assisted in the development of over 100 new plays through our weekly workshops, and as a playwright I obviously have a vested interest in fostering a passion for new plays.

There are wonderful companies doing truly admirable work in the Corridor, and many of them are incorporating new work into their seasons, but for Mirrorbox this is our primary focus. Every play we present will be at least an Iowa premiere, with a goal of working towards regional and world premieres. The talent is here. The support is here. And regardless of the industry I am meeting people all the time with their eyes on innovation and growth. Mirrorbox wants to be part of that story.

Why did you choose Exit Strategy for your first production? What about the play resonates with you?

HBO was my favorite babysitter in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and that era really nailed the Save-Our-School genre. Only the Strong, Stand and Deliver, Lean On Me — these were movies that had a huge impact on me, even if they haven’t necessarily aged well. Exit Strategy uses powerful language and characterizations to elevate those tropes to a level of high art, without ever becoming pretentious or inaccessible. Ike Holter’s play masterfully rides that line between the populist and the deeply personal. I couldn’t admire it more.

Also, I truly believe in the power of theater to speak across demographic lines and that every play is an opportunity to present a vision of the world, whether that’s a vision of life as you see it or life as you hope to see it. The world of theater and the world as a whole can benefit from a commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion, and it excited me to present this spectacular work by a writer of color featuring four actors of color and two characters who are part of the LGBT community.

Caleb Rainey (foreground) and Tierra Plowden in “Exit Strategy.” — photo by Greg Billman

What is your role at Mirrorbox? Will you be directing, primarily, or are you hoping to move into the background and serve as producer only in the future?

I’m directing all four plays in our inaugural season. I’m a teacher in addition to being a practicing artist, with a special interest in helping other artists grow. It would be a great pleasure to identify up-and-coming talents and see them develop along with the company. I’d particularly relish the opportunity to build relationships with the local colleges and see how we can involve early-career artists both in front of and behind the scenes. That being said, I don’t see myself stepping away from involvement as a director. I love working with actors too much.

You’ve had ticket giveaways with a couple of different local businesses. How do you see the interaction between your company, or theater in general, and the business community?

I was lucky enough to perform a solo show at RAYGUN’s gallery space this fall, and their ability to find the fun in being progressive reflects a shared set of values. NewBo City Market has also partnered for a giveaway and their enthusiasm for supporting local artists and start-ups is undeniable. I consider myself very lucky that these established businesses were willing to lend a hand in getting the word out about Mirrorbox.

Our home base is in NewBo, and it’s important to me that Mirrorbox serves our community as a good neighbor. We want to support our surrounding businesses and hope that they’ll see the value in what we’re doing too. The same goes for the theater community. I don’t see Mirrorbox as competing with anyone. Our goal is to be a good neighbor as the community continues to grow: a rising tide floats all ships.

Why did you choose to partner with Legion Arts? How do you navigate the challenge of working in such a busy space, where you can only ever perform for a single weekend?

NewBo’s combination of history and revitalization makes it and CSPS an exciting place to be. As an ambitious maker of contemporary art, the goal was always to collaborate with Legion Arts. This is just the beginning for Mirrorbox, but as we look to present world premieres and push our artistic boundaries, Legion Arts is a partner that is uniquely equipped to give us the opportunity to grow our influence past Cedar Rapids and beyond the Corridor.

The space doesn’t feel like a challenge; it’s an opportunity. I’ve directed a lavish musical at the National WWII Museum and had access to all the bells and whistles, but much of my directing career has been spent creating touring shows for schoolchildren. Anything fancier than three actors and a station-wagon feels like I hit the big time. I’m very fortunate that Legion Arts showed faith in my vision for Mirrorbox, with the understanding that we want to start something in a sustainable way that is poised to grow in the future. As for the space being busy — that’s great! Art is alive and well in this community. And there hasn’t been a single occasion where Mirrorbox has been denied access to the space we need to do our work.

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