In late summer 2017, a building on the Ped Mall owned by the Swisher Trust, home to Union Bar and Revival, went up for auction. Little Village got access to the top floor of the building, derelict and covered in haunting graffiti: demons, clowns, skeletons, and even a bit of apocalyptic street poetry.
“No ghosts in our fair state,” one vandal had finger-painted on a wall. “Get lost you aren’t welcome.”
The Tailwind Development Group won the auction for the historic building. Four years later, as the College Street side of the Ped Mall prepares for a massive new development, Riverside Theatre is set to breathe new life into the space — though the nonprofit may bring a few of Shakespeare’s ghosts with them.
In January 2021, the Iowa City Council approved more than $12 million in TIF funding for a $56 million development proposed by Tailwind: a housing and commercial building designed to nest into the historic façade of 117 and 119 E College Street, also known as the Dooley, Crescent and College blocks.
The project opened up an opportunity for Riverside Theatre, which left its 30-year home on N Gilbert Street in 2020, due in large part to pandemic-related financial strains. Their 2020-21 season carried on with virtual and outdoor performances, as the nonprofit professional theater company scouted out a new home.
This week, Riverside announced plans for the future, and launched a capital campaign to fund those plans. They’re hoping to raise $1.82 million to build out a first-floor entrance complete with a patron elevator and stairway to the third floor; there, they want to turn the rundown (but undeniably fascinating) upper level into a 150-seat black box theater, capable of adapting to various staging configurations. The lighting will also be versatile and energy efficient, Riverside promises. Backstage, there will be makeup and dressing stations, a fully furnished green room and kitchenette, video and sound monitors, a close-circuit call system and an ADA-accessible dressing room and restroom.
Then there’s the new lobby, which will be three times the size of their former Gilbert Street lobby and boast a killer view of the Ped Mall from floor-to-ceiling windows. The lobby will double as a space for intimate gallery shows, readings and performances.
“We want the entire experience to reflect the quality of work on stage,” Riverside Artistic Director Adam Knight said in a video released Thursday. “From the moment you walk into the space, it’s a journey. You following these lights up the stairs, taking the elevator that’s going to open you up into this wide space, a lobby that is more than just a passthrough — a lobby that is a gathering place, a lobby that holds stories, a lobby that can have an opera on tap, or cabaret performances, or readings of new plays or new musicals. It’s all right here now.”
Knight emphasized just how central the new theater will be in the landscape of Iowa City’s art scene: it’s “down the street from the Englert; FilmScene’s across the street and down the street; the Voxman [Music Building] is over here; UNESCO City of Literature; the library; across the river, the Hancher. There is this critical mass happening in parts in Iowa City, and now Riverside is that kind of final piece. Right in the heart of the Ped Mall is going to be living great theater.”
As of this article’s publication, Riverside said they were 53 percent of the way towards their $1.82 million goal. $1.43 million of the total goal will go towards the build-out of the Crescent Street space; $295,000 towards increased staffing, production costs, artist fees and storage space; and $99,166 for the campaign itself, including a new website and branding.
Among the strategic goals of the nonprofit is to “increase plays by and for women, LGBTQ+, and BIPOC artists” and “increase gender-inclusive and color-conscious casting.” They also hope to make their work more accessible, and expand their summer Free Shakespeare program.
In Riverside’s video launching their Next Stage capital campaign, actor Ray Vanek (acclaimed by Little Village reviewer Jessica Abdoney for his portrayal of Dromio of Ephesus in the company’s August production of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors) said there’s a “moment of magic” that happens in the theater: “All those people in a room together, having an experience that can help them understand themselves and others and help them grow and change and understand more about the human condition.”
Another arts-focused Iowa City capital campaign, Strengthen • Grow • Evolve, launched in April 2019 with a $6.5 million goal. These funds would support the opening of FilmScene’s second location in the Chauncey, the renovation of FilmScene’s original Ped Mall location, restoration of the Englert Theatre and the creation of a Community Engagement Director to engage K-12 students in the arts and foster collaborations between organizations, among other expenses designed to make Iowa City “the greatest small city for the arts” in America.
Despite setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, that campaign has counted nearly $5.4 million in pledges, grants and anticipated tax credits to date.