Theatre Cedar Rapids uses shut down to create positive, lasting change

Theatre Cedar Rapids. — Jav Ducker/Little Village

Live performance venues were the first businesses to close when the coronavirus arrived in the United States, and they will likely be the last to reopen. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a clear path to a scenario where these important cultural spaces can reopen in the near future.

As Broadway announced its theaters will remain closed through May, the National Independent Venue Association warns that up to 90 percent of independent venues will close by the end of the year and Congress drags its feet on the crucial Save Our Stages Act that would deliver relief funds to the live entertainment industry, theaters across the country are having to find new ways to engage their audiences and stay afloat.

Theatre Cedar Rapids has been a cornerstone of Eastern Iowa’s theater scene for almost a century. Their beautiful theater in downtown Cedar Rapids has been a home to joyful and moving performances, but also a space for education and community.

While the theater has had to close its doors to the public, TCR’s Executive Director Katie Hallman and her team have embraced the opportunities that the pandemic has presented, finding new, safe ways to engage their audience.

Hallman answered some questions from Little Village via email to discuss the exciting, long-lasting changes at Theatre Cedar Rapids.

Theatre Cedar Rapids lobby. — Cindy Hadish

What do you consider to be the role of Theatre Cedar Rapids in the community?

TCR is the area’s largest independent producing theatre company, and as such we have a responsibility to champion our arts and culture community. Our 50,000 square foot downtown facility not only hosts two vibrant stages (our 550 seat auditorium and 100 seat Grandon Studio), but includes a host of rehearsal, classroom, meeting and event spaces. A typical day would normally enjoy hundreds of people throughout our spaces. As a community-based organization, we must always consider how we are in service to the cultural community, our volunteer artists, our patrons, our students, our staff and our professional collaborators. Our size creates a broad scope of impact.

In what ways has the pandemic impacted operations at Theatre Cedar Rapids and that relationship with the community?

The pandemic has been challenging for TCR just like any other sector. With the inability to gather large groups, the majority of our full- and part-time staff were placed on furlough, and in-person productions in process were suspended, impacting dozens of talented performers, our outstanding, professional theater artisans, and thousands of new and returning patrons. Even though the in-person pause has been heartbreaking, we have found new ways to stay connected with our community as we continue to produce live theater in a socially distanced time.

Conor McPherson’s ‘St. Nicholas.’ TCR at Brucemore. — Farrar Design/TCR

What interesting or creative changes have you made to the Theatre Cedar Rapids business model since the pandemic hit?

The pandemic has allowed TCR to imagine new ways to bring live theater and theater education to the community. We swiftly made a shift to virtual season offerings that allow patrons and students to engage with us from home. We are finding new ways for performers and professional artisans to engage with the TCR stages and continue to tell stories. We launched TCR Out of Doors in collaboration with Brucemore with our sell-out production of St. Nicholas, the first of what will be many collaborations in Brucemore’s historic outdoor spaces. The generous support of our sponsors has allowed us to bring forward live theater on a variety of pay-scale models, broadening access and reach.

What is the plan for the future of Theatre Cedar Rapids for the duration of the pandemic and beyond?

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The staff, board and I continue to reflect that the pandemic has given our near 100-year-old institution the gift of pause, the gift of evaluation. We have identified new modes of carrying forward our mission in the virtual and outdoor theater world, both of which have sustaining power beyond the pandemic. Capital needs which go to the back burner during our normal, busy production schedule can be prioritized. Partnerships with area social service organizations are deepening, with a shared commitment for increasing inclusivity and access. When it is safe to gather with 550 of your friends in TCR’s historic auditorium again, we look forward to the experience being both beautifully familiar and enhanced.

How can people help and support Theatre Cedar Rapids?

As ever, the support of individual donors and patrons is essential to our ongoing service. Please join us for a virtual show (we have three virtual mini-seasons slated now through March), and consider making a contribution. We are grateful to know you now, and can’t wait to see you in person again soon!