August 3, 2017
Challenging actors equally as a creed
By Madeleine Neal
UI Assistant Professor Meredith Saletta combines her passion for theater through Combined Efforts, a visual- and performing-arts company that brings together artists with and without disabilities. It will put on a performance Friday through Aug. 6 at City High.
In her latest theatrical role, Meredith Saletta shines her spotlight on the issue of inclusion.
Saletta, an assistant professor in the University of Iowa Communication Sciences and Disorders Department, combines her passion for theater and skills as an instructor through her involvement in Combined Efforts Theater Company, a visual- and performing-arts company that focuses on purposeful collaboration between artists with and without disabilities.
One of the reasons Saletta said she enjoys her role in Combined Efforts is because of her brother, who has Down Syndrome, also shares a passion for performing arts.
The company will put on an original production Friday through Aug. 6 at City High, 1900 Morningside Drive. The production Two Seasons is a comedy about a family that tries to keep its hotel operating. Saletta, who serves as the company’s grant-writing director and who also plays one of the production’s lead roles, said the cast, which comprises about a dozen actors, is a good group that focuses on working together.
“No one looks down on anyone else,” she said. “When people come together, people with disabilities, people without disabilities, we don’t say, ‘You have a disability; we’re not going to challenge you — we’re only going to put you in a small role.’ Everyone is equally challenged.”
Production director Emma Genesen said the cast is not only inclusive of people with disabilities but also of members with varying ages.
“We have a huge age range — our youngest cast member, I believe, is 8 years old, and our oldest is in her 80s,” she said.
Genesen, a UI student majoring in theater, said she appreciates the diverse and inclusive environment.
“I think what’s really special about this group is the way everyone helps each other out, and I have always been sort of a collaborative team leader when it comes to theater,” she said. “… When you’re in an environment when everyone has different needs and different challenges, the way you work to help each other out often creates something different and better than you would have created on your own.”
Although she thinks that is true of all theaters, Genesen said the creativity is particularly noticeable at Combined Efforts.
Janet Schlapkohl, a programs manager who played a role in founding Combined Efforts, said the company has an opportunity to change perceptions of people with disabilities.
The theater company, which does not yet have what Schlapkohl calls a home base, wants people of all ages, abilities, careers, and interests to know that there is a place for them at Combined Efforts.
“People may have a preconceived conception of what [the company] might be like, but we are inclusive, which means anyone at any level of experience can participate,” she said.
Combined Efforts Theatre a local gem
Area residents have an opportunity to enjoy a unique theater experience this month. Come see Combined Efforts Theatre’s outdoor summer production of “A Midsummer Nights’ Dream,” by William Shakespeare, creatively adapted by local playwright Janet Schlapkohl.
Combined Efforts Theatre’s performances bring out the best in the actors and the audience. There is a special kind of magic that is felt throughout each performance. That feeling comes from an understanding and appreciation of the efforts of all performers, a result of the underlying philosophy and vision of Janet Schlapkohl. That vision reflects the goal of Combined Efforts; performances in which disability drops from all considerations as a result of the inclusivity and respect and appreciation of what all actors bring to the production. Each actor, whether old or young, whether dealing with a disability or not, whether shy or out-going, gives their time and many talents with a full heart and a true sense of joy and pride in the professionalism of each production. The audience reaps the rewards many times over.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, will be performed at 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. General admission $15, seniors/students $10, children under 10 are $5. Reservations, directions and more information about the performance can be found at www.combinedefforts.org.
Combined Efforts Theatre yields some of the most creative, inclusive productions in the state of Iowa
In a place that prides itself on its variety of cultural offerings—especially when it comes to theatre—there is one company in Iowa City that stands out both for the ways that it is extraordinary and for the ways that it is just like any other theatre company. Combined Efforts Theatre (CET) has some of the most varied creative output in town, and yet it remains under the radar of most Corridor residents looking for entertainment.
CET began while founder Janet Schlapkohl worked as a special education teacher at City High School. “I saw so much untapped talent in the classroom,” Schlapkohl recalls.
After serving as an assistant director for drama production, she decided to stage her own play in 2002 in which students in both mainstream and special education could perform together. That play was the beginning of a theatre company that would expand beyond City High School, eventually becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 2009.
Today, CET remains the only theatre company in Iowa that is purposely inclusive of people with disabilities. It has as many as 60 members at any given time. The acting company performs several times throughout the year in its own shows, at city events and at fundraisers for other organizations. The performances vary between longer plays and short one-acts, but all of the material is original and written by company members. The company has also expanded beyond acting to form a dance company and a men’s choir. They receive all of their funding from tickets and individual donations.
While the mission of the company is inclusivity, members are quick to point out that their productions don’t focus on disabilities. Board president Mary Vasey explained, “I like the fact that we are inclusive, but when we are into doing a play we don’t think about disabilities.”
They draw from a variety of subjects to produce plays that are relaxing, fun and creative. For example, their upcoming Trubblesume Tymes at the Faire is a farce set in Elizabethan times. Co-writer Kalvin Goodlaxon said that he likes writing for the company because, “I can [put] my knowledge to use for the plays in order to make my area of interest … what I like to do.”
Board member Rip Russell acts in CET productions in addition to his work at other theatre companies (most recently The Price at Old Creamery Theatre). “CET is no different than other theatres in the fact that we are telling a story through action, spoken word and movement,” explained Russell. “However, CET utilizes actors who may or may not have all of those traditional tools at their disposal, so the means by which they communicate the story can be wildly inventive and wonderful!”
It is this discovery of personal expression that members often cite as their favorite part of being involved with CET.
“I really like seeing people start to blossom as they perform, and feel good about their performance,” said Vasey.
Shulman Hillel director Jerry Sorokin has been performing in CET with his teen daughter Phoebe for several years and offers the Hillel building for use as rehearsal space.
“I think [CET is] one of the real points of pride that this community ought to show off,” said Sorokin. “That people coming from all these different backgrounds are working together to create art in a way that is entertaining, meaningful and from the heart in a sense that nobody has anything great to gain from this. This is genuinely art for art’s sake.”
The opportunity to create art is so meaningful for its members that one actor and his family moved from Vermont to Iowa City to participate in the company.
Like other Iowa City theatres, CET does not have a permanent rehearsal or performance space. They rehearse in a variety of places around town, including Shulman Hillel and Uptown Bill’s. Shlapkohl feels that this can make it hard for the community to identify the theatre as its own entity. “You feel like a raven borrowing someone’s nest all the time,” he said. But their space issues might be resolved in the near future: Recently, CET and Dreamwell Theatre announced that they are working together to find a permanent space.
CET faces additional challenges. Transportation, in particular, is difficult when members have a variety of driving abilities and living situations.
“Group homes have shifting staff, so the person who used to transport a cast member to rehearsals might no longer be there,” explained Schlapkohl. “Cast members might not be able to advocate for themselves to say they are in our group.”
Schlapkohl would like to see CET continue to grow in new areas. She wants to start a puppetry workshop, as well as a mime company for nonverbal members.
Ultimately, Schlapkohl’s dream is that CET will become a professional company, one where they can pay members for their time creating a show and hire local actors as job coaches. She realizes that this is a lot to ask in a town where paid opportunities are limited for actors, but she believes in the legitimacy of acting as a profession.
“Why not pay someone to do something as a community service, and pay them like they do at Goodwill?” she asked. “Why not pay someone to be an actor? Why can’t that be valid?”
Other theatre companies, like Interact in Minneapolis, have successfully achieved a model that allows actors with disabilities to be paid for their work. As CET grows, Schlapkohl hopes there will come a day when company members will respond to the question, “What do you do?” with the answer, “I am an artist.”
Theater Beyond Imagine
Just south of downtown Iowa City, a local café bustles with action and excitement. Mostly looking over scripts and reading lines, around 10 men and women sit in a circle of chairs surrounding a small stage toward the front. Every so often, the place erupts in laughter and chatter as two take center stage. “Mayor Scene. Let’s start from the top,” calls director Janet Schlapkohl, and a rehearsal for Trubblesume Tymes at the Faire begins.
Trubblesume Tymes at the Faire, the latest performance from Combined Efforts Theater, will première at 7 p.m. at the Movable Theater on Osage Road [WHERE?]. Admission ranges from $5-10.
Close to 12 years ago, a drama director and special-education teacher at City High had an idea.
“I’d sit in my special ed classes and just realize how absolutely hilarious and great these kids are,” Schlapkohl said. “They’d come up with best things, and I was continually amazed. I wanted to showcase the talents, you know?”
From this, a new school program was created, with Schlapkohl at the helm. The theater program was designed to incorporate those with disabilities into productions. It did so well at the high school that in 2009, the group became an Iowa City nonprofit organization called Combined Efforts Theater.
“The mission, at the time and now, too, was to give the same opportunities to anyone who wanted to act, including people with disabilities,” Schlapkohl said.
The players in Combined Efforts Theater range from children to students to college professors. All are welcome as long as they make it to rehearsal and put in the hours. Nicholas Johnson, an adjunct law lecturer at the University of Iowa, has worked with the organization for some time.
“My wife is good friends with [Schlapkohl], and she sort of dragged me in,” Johnson said. “I just wish I was better at learning those lines.”
Johnson, who plays Lord Mayor in Trubblesume Tymes at the Faire, noted that the program recently got a grant from the Kennedy Center of Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., to go to schools around the area and teach students about not only theater but the inclusion of people with disabilities.
“It was a great initiative,” he said. “We keep trying to work more with the community and spread our mission.”
Since its founding as a nonprofit, Combined Efforts has incorporated not only theater but has a dance group and all-male choir as well.
“I love to act and dance; that’s why I do it,” said Sheri Breedlove, who has performed and danced for Combined Efforts for several years. “I play Waterwoman in this play, but sometimes I dance, too. It’s fun to do all of it.”
The organization is working to create an all-female choir, too, as well as a painting program.
Combined Efforts does not have its own location in which to practice, so rehearsals generally move around. The main stage at the Country Camp, or “the Farm,” as the cast calls it, just southwest of Iowa City, is its go-to location. Otherwise, the organization’s rehearsals tend to work at local cafés, such as Uptown Bill’s or the Johnson County Fairgrounds, as well as Hillel House.
“It’s extraordinary really, a great program. I love watching rehearsals,” said Tom Gilsenan, an employee at Uptown Bill’s who has seen numerous rehearsals over the last two years. “There are no limits to anyone who wants to perform. For example, one of the actors is in a wheelchair and instead of this being a sort of problem, he plays an old, retired Batman in one of the sketches, and it’s hilarious.”
Big supporters of the group, Uptown Bill’s has no intention of stopping Combined Efforts from practicing in its coffeehouse.
“It’d be great if the program got its own space, but for now, it can rehearse here as long as it wants,” Gilsenan said.
As for the plays and sketches, Schlapkohl writes as well as directs. The organization leader garnered an M.F.A. in playwriting at the University of Iowa and has been writing and putting on plays ever since.
“Writing our own plays really tailors into our strengths as a group,” she said. “I always write the play first and then give out parts. There is always a role for whoever wants to perform.”
There are not auditions held. The actors sign on to the project and, once given their roles, must attend every rehearsal, learn lines, and work to get the performance up and running.
“It’s perfect for my daughter,” said Britte Garrett, an actor in the program. “She’s 11 and gets nervous during auditions and casting. Combined Efforts Theater is great, though; she can act and practice without those worries. We love it here.”
by Matthew Falduto
CET – As we’ve noted many times in the past, there are a lot of community theatre options in the greater Iowa City area. But the most pure version may be one of you have never heard of: Combined Efforts Theater. Community theatre is about involving the community to create live theatre. Combined Efforts demonstrated that wonderfully last weekend with their production Love at the County Fair written and directed by Janet Schlapkohl. Unfortunately, the show only ran one weekend. Hopefully, future shows will have longer runs.
The show was performed at Country Camp, a farm that holds different youth camps over the summer months. A couple of months ago, I had the chance to see Working Group Theatre perform an original show, Odysseus, Iowa, at Country Camp. Like that show, Love at the County Fair is promenade theatre, where the audience moves from one location to another to see the various scenes of the show. If I have one criticism of this show, it’s that the audience was asked to move too often. I wish the scenes had been longer and there was always a clear reason why a scene was being performed in a particular location. However, one wonderful aspect of this type of theatre is how involved the audience feels in the production. We do not sit back statically and watch the show. We move, directed by two of the actors, to each location. As we move, we have the opportunity to make comments to our fellow audience members, chuckle together at a moment in the last scene or perhaps predict what might happen next. This creates an audience community and truly enriches the show and the experience. I strongly recommend all of the local theaters place a call to Ms. Schlapkohl and inquire about producing a show in this unique venue.
The actors of this show come from all corners of our community. Rip Russell starred as a Gulf War vet returning to his hometown to find the girl he left behind so many years before. Kathy Maxey played the object of his affection, a woman who was trying to move on with her life after a divorce. Both brought honest and touching performances. And they sang, too! I knew of Ms. Maxey’s singing talents, but Mr. Russell was a welcome surprise. Another interesting surprise was the rooster who decided to perform a duet with Mr. Russell. Such are the possibilities of live theatre… on a farm. Evelyn Stanske and Mary Haaf Wedemeyer, two veteran ICCT actors, portrayed Hog Callers to hilarious effect. Nicholas Johnson and real life wife Mary Vasey were hosts of the fair. They kept the action (and the audience) moving. Johnson’s funny and touching ode to his wife’s fallen pie was a highlight of the evening. We were also treated to dueling mother-daughter dancing duos hilariously performed by Katherine Smith, Taryn Hansen, Ryann Sirois, and Olivia Moss. And of course, because this is Combined Efforts, there were various actors who have special needs.
I am going to admit to something very publicly that I hope you will forgive. I had real concerns about how a show with actors who have special needs would come off. I feared I wouldn’t be able to see past the issues of the actors and let myself get into the story. What I came to realize in watching this show is that issue is one of my making. From scene one, I was completely into the mischief and machinations of these fair goers. The entire cast threw themselves into this show and thoroughly entertained the audience, including me. So often in theatre or TV or movies, if we see a character with a special need, that’s what the story is all about. How utterly refreshing to see a show where those issues are just part of the person, rather than taking over the person. We need more theatres like Combined Efforts who are willing to be so accepting and welcoming in their casting. What a wonderful opportunity to teach our children to open their minds and hearts to all people no matter what issues they have which may make them different.
And speaking of kids, there were also many talented youthful performers in the cast. The Mall Girls – Anna Sheffield, Monica Moss, Tayvia Hansen, Emily Merritt and Alannah Walterhouse – and the Renaissance Warriors – Phil Buatti, Cole Hotek, Peter Lynch, Wyatt Bettis, and Avery Mossman – certainly embodied their generation well. The goth girl poetess (Hayley Musser) had me laughing with her poem about a rooster and an axe. The talented Lark Christensen-Szalanski made the most of her stage time as the Lemonade Stand Worker. Particularly outstanding was Jessica Sheffield, who played the daughter of Kathy Maxey’s character. Miss Sheffield has a wonderful stage presence and a liveliness that keeps your attention. Here’s hoping she does more shows in the future.
Combined Efforts Theater is such an important part of our community. We are lucky to have individuals like Janet Schlapkohl who are willing to do what too many of us are not – be completely inclusive. The next time Combined Efforts puts on a show, I urge you to check it out. They are the purest community theatre – of the entire community, by the entire community and for the entire community.