Riverside Theatre announces upcoming season, pays tribute to longtime location in virtual gala

Riverside Theatre Artistic Director Adam Knight, Managing Director Irena Sarić and Development Director Kate Markham cheers to their old building and a bright future next to the theater’s backstage light. — video still/Riverside Theatre

In years past, Riverside Theatre held a spring gala called Diamonds and Denim to raise funds and preview their upcoming season. This year, social distancing guidelines didn’t allow for an event quite so glamorous, so Riverside took their 2020 fundraiser virtual, rebranding it the Sweatpants and Slippers Gala.

“There’s a lot of nostalgia about this event and we’ve been looking for ways to bring it back in some form,” Adam Knight, Riverside’s producing artistic director, told Little Village.

Diamonds and Denim, last held in 2017, featured auctions and entertainment. This was also true of the virtual event on June 14, with attendants bidding for items on and performers singing in their respective homes, side by side only on screen. Admission was free, but the audience was encouraged to make donations.

The Sweatpants and Slippers Gala Sunday evening began by addressing the Black Lives Matter movement and how Riverside will further contribute to conversations about race.

“As the last three weeks have shown, it’s up to each individual and organization to do more to combat systemic racism within ourselves, our communities and our country,” Knight said in the video. “Black lives matter. Riverside stands in solidarity with the protests happening around eastern Iowa and around the country, to create positive changes. We pledge to you, I pledge to you, that Riverside will look more intently at our practices, systems and of course our programming to address inequalities, address biases and create the kind of meaningful, serious-minded dialogue that is Riverside’s mission. The season we’ll announce tonight is an attempt at first steps. But it’s only the beginning.”

Knight and Riverside performers went on to announce the fall 2020 and spring 2021 season line-ups. The fall season will consist of comedy Buyer and Cellar in September; comedy-drama No Child… and drama Grounded in October; and the one-woman show Midnight Your Time in November, formatted as Skype calls from a mother to her daughter overseas. All of these shows will be performed remotely.

“Just because we can’t gather in the fall, does not mean that our mission stops. The centerpiece of our fall programming will be a series of virtual stories … There will still be a performance at a set time, you’ll still be watching with others, but it will be viewed on your computer at your home,” Knight explained to the gala viewers.

Riverside is hoping to host an in-person solo performance of A Christmas Carol in December.

The spring season shows will be performed in various locations as part of an on-location series. The January/February show is the Detroit-set drama Skeleton Crew, which was originally scheduled for this July.

Standing in front of the Iowa City Marketplace (previously called the Sycamore Mall), Knight said, “We’re scouting out spaces like these, spaces that tell a story of an economy undergoing changes, and what the human soul of that is.”

A Doll’s House, Part 2, another postponed production, is the theatre’s February/March production. Knight announced it in front of the former Iowa Writers’ House, explaining Riverside is looking at historic homes like the Writer’s House to host this 2017 sequel to Ibsen’s 1879 play A Doll’s House.

Riverside partnered with FilmScene for their March/April show, The Flick. The play’s main characters are ushers, so the local cinema was a fitting location, Knight said. They plan to sell popcorn at the show, too.

The Riverside Theatre team, November 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Knight also announced Riverside’s partnership with Mirrorbox Theatre in Cedar Rapids. Mirrorbox has offered free readings of new plays each Friday night over Zoom. In the fall, Riverside and Mirrorbox will collaborate to bring free virtual readings of three new plays that have never been performed in Iowa.

“One advantage of social distancing is that it makes actual distance mean less, and so Riverside in Iowa City and Mirrorbox in Cedar Rapids can host a combined event for our audiences in a way in a way that is safe and achieves a high level of theatre,” Knight said in an email to Little Village. “Yay, technology!”

The announcements of the gala were broken up by cabaret songs performed by Riverside partners, including an ensemble performance of “Together Wherever We Go” to finish the virtual event.

The program also included a tribute to the Gilbert Street location, which Riverside Theatre has occupied since 1990. Their lease on the building will expire this month, and Riverside will spend the next year searching for a new space, performing virtually and at their planned off-site locations until then.

Founders Ron Clark and Jody Hovland shared memories from their 30 years in Northside Neighborhood building, including an anecdote about the inviting, creative energy of the space.

“One evening we were coming back to the theater … and we noticed the back door ajar — horror. There’s been a break in. Someone left it open, something. We went into the back of the theater and came up onto the back of the stage, and there was a lone woman dancing in the space,” Hovland said. “And she had found the door open, mistakenly, and had come in to investigate and saw that space and said, ‘I just had to move on this space. And it was really kind of a beautiful moment that somehow this stage invited her to make something on it.”

Aaron Smith as playwright August Wilson in ‘How I Learned What I Learned,’ staged at Riverside Theatre in February and March 2019. — S. Benjamin Farrar/Riverside Theatre
Cast members of Riverside Theatre’s ‘Men on Boats,’ produced in the summer of 2019. — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

Through Facebook and Riverside’s website, 275 households have already watched the Gala, exceeding the 2019 fundraiser Sunday on the Stage, with roughly 50 attendants, and the Diamonds and Denim Galas of 2016 and 2017, each having about 175 attendants. Sweatpants and Slippers also reached its $10,000 goal, exceeding the $8,000 Sunday on the Stage raised last year, but falling short of the in-person Diamonds and Denim Galas which raised between $30,000 and $35,000.

“The ability to reach so many viewers virtually was huge; 275 households (and counting) attending the event is a reach we never could have had at Gilbert Street, and it allows donors at any level to attend,” Knight said. “The virtual format also allowed us to include an interview with our founders Ron Clark and Jody Hovland and include appearances from artists around the country. Most importantly, it was a way to continue to prepare our audience to engage with Riverside virtually, since virtual programming is going to be a keystone of our fall. But we miss the ability to toast, to mingle, to create those communal bonds that only being in the same place can achieve.”

Watch the full virtual gala:

Sweatpants and Slippers 2020 from Riverside Theatre on Vimeo.

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