Celebrating 51 years volunteering, directing with the Iowa City Community Theater

For 51 years, Mary Ellen Chudacek has shown leadership in both directing and volunteering with the Iowa City Community Theater, saying that the theater was meant for her.

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Rachel Schilke, News Reporter


Before Mary Ellen Chudacek became involved with the Iowa City Community Theater, she was a MidwestOne Bank secretary. Iowa City Community Theatre board member Alan Swanson said that she was someone that no one would expect to participate in theater — a very “regular” person who did not strike people as a theatre lover.

Fifty-one years later, Chucadek has directed over a dozen musicals and plays, and has spent her time volunteering in almost every aspect the theater has to offer, he said.

Chudacek said she became involved with the theater by luck of the draw when her friend Mary Fowler brought her to the theater for a meeting Fowler was attending. Though Chudacek became involved by chance, she said she knew that it was what she was meant to do.

“I was in a dozen Iowa City Community Theater musicals before I began directing them,” she said. “I’m not what you would call a ‘typical old person.’ I like cartoons and I love musicals.”

Swanson said Chudacek’s long service to the theater was something of an inspiration to those in the theater, because she’s worked 51 years during its 64 years of history.

“[Theater is] people telling the story and passing it through history,” Swanson said. “She helped with the continuity of how it all happens.”

He said Chudacek and other volunteers were essential to the theater’s success over the years, because the audience was more often than not a mix of family and friends of those in the theater, whether it was someone who was part of the stage crew or the lead performer.

“It’s the feeling of giving to others,” Swanson said. “Giving time, lots of time, but no money. Volunteers [help] make the theater an escape for the audience. Families come and it’s almost as though you are contributing something to the spirit of the community. Mary Ellen knows how to do it; she has a great spirit, she’s tireless. It’s amazing.”

RELATED: Company to premiere at Iowa City Community Theater

The theater presented the award to her on March 6, at the opening night of Company, the show Chudacek volunteered for 25 years prior. Chudacek said she was so shocked that she burst into tears.

Iowa City Community Theatre Board Director Elinor Levin said in an email to The Daily Iowan that because of the novel coronavirus, the theater canceled its second weekend of Company. The theater’s final production for the season, The Laramie Project, which had just begun rehearsals, was put on hold as well, Levin said.

Levin said the theater’s goal is to perform The Laramie Project, so once large gatherings are permissible, they will promote the show quickly and look for venues.

“The decision was tough,” she said. “We can certainly get through it, especially with the incredibly supportive community we have had for nearly 65 years.”

Chudacek said that of the years working with the theater, one of the most valuable moments was both directing its 40th anniversary show, Try to Remember, and writing a book on the theater’s best moments in its history. Swanson said he did not know where the theater would be without her “documenting history” and cataloging 50 years of theater achievements.

Chudacek said when she could not direct anymore because of personal reasons, her support for the theater did not stop — it just shifted. People in her life were getting sick or dying, she said, and she realized she needed to be there for them, so she stopped directing and volunteering.

“My life was changing, and I knew I had to take a step back,” Chudacek said. “I was the only one left. I said to myself, ‘I’ll do this, take care of this, and one day, I’ll go back.’ My friends still took me to all the shows, and I loved them all, but I just couldn’t work on them.”

Swanson said Chudacek provides funding for many musicals and tries to volunteer for every performance she can.

“There is always room for people [to come back],” Chudacek said. “Whether it is painting or creating sets, or helping with auditions, or the orchestra, there is always something you can do. I’ve done almost everything there is to do in the theater.”

Chudacek said living in Iowa City her entire life has influenced her time working with the theater.

“Growing up, it was a much smaller town,” she said.“ … And now that it’s grown, so many talented people have come through. This city is so different. People come through here, or grow up here, and they stay forever because they love it so much. That’s what happened to me. There has never been a reason to leave.”

Chudacek said if she could describe the theater in a phrase, she would say it is “a whole other world.”

“It’s artistic,” she said. “It lets you do things you would normally never do. You get a different kind of family, and I don’t think you would have met the kind of people you met here otherwise. It’s been a wonderful experience. This is what I know, and it’s special.”

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