Riverside Theatre has gone through many changes since founders Ron Clark and Jody Hovland staged its inaugural production in the early ‘80s. Now it is about to experience what is perhaps its biggest change yet: Clark and Hovland are taking a step back on managerial duties and bringing in a new artistic director.
While the news feels like a tectonic shift in the Iowa City theatre scene, Hovland explains that this is part of a “five-year plan,” which began when she and Clark first approached the board about finding new management. “With a founder-driven organization, you have to be careful to plan the transition,” she said.
Though Clark and Hovland will no longer be involved with the day-to-day operations of the theatre, they will continue to be involved as “founding artists” and work in selected production roles for the next three years. “After that, who knows?” said Clark.
“Theatres are like grapes — they do well in bunches.”
— Ron Clark
“Who knows?” is an apt summary for how Riverside began in the first place. Clark and Hovland first met in graduate school at the University of Iowa, where they quickly became friends and maintained a close connection, even as Clark spent a year in Seattle. When Clark returned, they decided to put on a play together and see what happened. “It sounds so ‘Mickey and Judy!’” explained Hovland. “We decided to found the company, but we had no long-range vision for it.”
Their first play was Lewis John Carlino’s The Exercise, which they performed at the Old Armory Theatre in 1982. (They salvaged the lights from that building for use in their Gilbert Street stage in 1990.) At the time, the theatre scene in Iowa City consisted of the University Theatre and Iowa City Community Theatre (ICCT). Without a professional theatre in town, the pair felt that there was an unmet need for working artists.
“We didn’t see ourselves as students or community theatre actors,” Clark said. “We wanted to do the kind of work that was essential to us.”
Long-time supporters Julie and Carl Schweser learned about Riverside during its early years. They moved to the area in 1976 and quickly became avid theatre-goers. Even when they were attending almost a play a week at the University Theatre and ICCT, they developed a strong interest in Riverside.
“Riverside Theatre really got me into ‘real’ theatre, more serious theatre,” Julie said. “I just fell in love with it.”
Compared with existing theatres that performed classic plays, Carl was impressed by the newer and edgier works that Riverside offered. “It was the same kind of shows that were being shown in New York,” said Carl. “It pulled you in, getting you deeper into theatre life.” They attended Riverside Theatre’s first fundraiser, an auction with around 10-15 attendees. Eventually, Julie served on Riverside’s board and several fundraising committees.
Today, Riverside Theatre remains Iowa City’s only resident theatre company, but its impact is evident on the flourishing arts scene that has grown around it. The area now boasts about a half-dozen theatre companies, which seem to increase each year. Clark and Hovland feel that these numerous groups help the theatre community grow stronger as a whole. As Clark said, “Theatres are like grapes — they do well in bunches.”
Both of them believe that this growth is, in part, attributable to Riverside’s presence as a professional theatre. “It’s allowed theatre artists to see Iowa City as an artistic home, a place they could actually live and work,” explained Hovland.
Even artists who come here temporarily see its value. New York-based actress Kelly Gibson will return to Riverside for her sixth show, this time as Roxane in Cyrano. She feels that Clark and Hovland have created an “artistic haven” for actors.
“I love their motto, ‘Big drama in a small place,” said Gibson. “For actors who live in cities, it’s amazing to come into a place where you can be in an artistic bubble, with no distractions of a big city.”
The impact of the theatre extends beyond those directly involved, Clark says. When theatres thrive, surrounding restaurants and other establishments receive more business as a result. Indeed, Riverside has arguably made Iowa City a more attractive place for those skeptical about moving to the Midwest.
“When the University recruits new faculty, the potential recruits never ask about garbage pickup or how efficiently the local government works,” said Clark. “No — they ask about the amenities, what the community has to offer when they are not at work.”
“Between the creative energy and the entrepreneurial spirit,” Clark continued, “I think we are poised to be an important cultural base on a national level.”
Clark and Hovland see this trend continuing under tutelage of the theatre’s new artistic director, Sam Osheroff. They were looking for someone with both a strong track record of producing theatre and eclectic tastes.
“This theatre produces classics and brand new material, so we needed someone with that breadth of curiosity,” Clark said. “We weren’t looking to clone ourselves, but we needed somebody who seemed like they could grow to understand this community.”
Osheroff says he’s excited to lead an established professional theatre outside of New York or Los Angeles.
“I grew up in Vermont, and Iowa City reminds me a lot of that area, so I immediately felt at home,” he said. “It’s a really vibrant town with a lot of smart, educated people, which is the perfect place to do smart, provocative theater.”
Ultimately, what keeps people involved with Riverside Theatre after 34 years are the strong bonds formed both onstage and off. Schweser said, “You walk into the lobby at the beginning, and it’s like family.”
Gibson echoed this sentiment when describing her experience with last year’s production of Othello, which was relocated from the Festival Stage in Iowa City’s City Park due to flooding. To provide closure, they performed a version of the play indoors without costumes and props. “The audience didn’t feel like an audience. It felt like an extension of our circle,” said Gibson. “It’s not the theatre and theatre-goers — just one community.”
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 179