Exploring the thriving local theater scene in Iowa City

Local theater is foundational to the rich arts community of Iowa City. Every theater is unique in different ways, but they all seek to support local artists and each other as they continue to grow.


Grace Kreber

Willow Creek Theater Co. presented Melancholy Play by Sarah Ruhl and directed by Regen Kuker. This play was preformed on Thursday the 9th through Sunday the 12th. The play follows a young woman Tilly who seems to attract everyone she meets until her melancholy goes away and her connections change.

Stella Shipman, Arts Reporter

Local theaters are booming in Iowa City through collaborations, new building openings, and an exciting season of shows.

Riverside Theatre, Willow Creek Theatre, Iowa City Community Theatre, and Run of the Mill Theatre Productions collaborated in Dreamwell’s “All in a Day” event on March 10. Members of the companies were randomly grouped and tasked with producing a play that they would perform the next morning.

This collaboration allowed companies to crossover and learn more about one another in a show of support.

“We share technical stuff a lot. We work really closely with [other theaters] and really collaborate pretty well to make sure that we’re not stepping on each other’s toes,” Dreamwell’s Artistic Director Matthew Brewbaker, said. “I think it’s fantastic that we’ve got so many opportunities, and there are enough variations on the types of live theater that we feel like we’re able to help each other without potentially hurting each other.”

Other local performance venues include the Englert Theatre, Hancher Auditorium, the Iowa City Community Theatre, the James Theatre, and Run of the Mill Theatre Productions.

Not only is theater a driver of engagement, but it also helps boosts the economy. Riverside Theatre, which opened its doors in a new space on the Pedestrian Mall in February 2022, is a vast economic booster because it has the budget to pay its performers more than other theaters.

The new building allows the theater to produce shows like “Fefu and Her Friends,” which required the settings of several areas besides the stage and facilitated the movement of the audience around the space.

Riverside also expands Iowa City’s influence as a town for the arts by bringing in regionally and nationally recognized actors for shows and local performers. Along with local productions, the theater organizes world and regional premieres during the year.

Since its founding in 1982, Riverside has valued itself as a theater that constantly pushes itself to pursue challenging works and expand its horizons.

“We aim to be doing work that’s not only Iowa City-good but also at a regional and national level,” Adam Knight, Riverside Theatre’s producing artistic director, said. “A place not only for local talent but also to bring in outside professionals to continue to challenge ourselves, to continue to widen that circle and that conversation, and to make a reputation for ourselves outside of the corridor.”

Riverside will continue to further its mission in the future and raise the bar for itself, Knight said.

“Now that we’re entering this new phase of operations after the worst of the pandemic, our challenge is to continue to fill the space and to fill a role in downtown Iowa City,” Knight said. “So, our aspirations are to continue to produce at a very high level and to be engaging more and more of the community in that process.”

Every theater company is unique. For example, while Riverside’s designated space is a defining factor of the theater, the Dreamwell Theatre Company’s productions premiere on various stages.

RELATED: Mission Creek Festival to bring flood of artistry to Iowa City

Founded in 1997 by a group of college students involved in theater, Dreamwell considers itself what Brewbaker calls a theater of exploration. Dreamwell is always exploring the production of shows that other theaters may be more hesitant to pursue, whether for financial reasons or the possibility of social controversy.

When producing an original show written by community members, Dreamwell is even more inspired to pursue them to recognize local talent. Dreamwell President Madonna Smith said she is grateful for the growth she has been able to encourage in local artists and herself.

“The other thing that’s really my biggest reward is providing opportunities for people to make art,” Smith said. “We had a woman that came back after she had taken a 25-year hiatus, and she came back and acted with us. And now she’s into directing, and she’s still acting and doing other things.”

Dreamwell’s primary performance space is the Artifactory on Dubuque Street, but it is currently searching for a designated theater. Despite this search, Dreamwell has been able to present powerful shows like “The fog comes on little cat feet” at the Artifactory and other temporary spaces.

The youngest of the local theater companies in Iowa City is Willow Creek Theatre on Gilbert Street, which became an officially recognized nonprofit organization in 2020.

Willow Creek is another theater that appreciates the importance of compensating local performers so they have enough money to afford groceries, according to their website. At the same time, the theater tries to produce every show on a limited budget.

“I would say that, artistically, something that really motivates me and something I get a lot of joy out of is producing shows in cheap but effective ways,” Luke Brooks, co-founder of Willow Creek, said. “I think that’s what really being an artist is. It’s taking the mundane and putting it together in interesting and creative ways to make the world better.”

Willow Creek sets itself apart from other theaters in several ways, including through devising theater, according to the company’s Executive Director Brigid Martin.

“Our sort of major focus right now that we began last year was devising theater, which means that we gather a group of people and then they write, develop and produce the show as a group,” said Martin. “It’s really magical because you get perspectives that never would have come up with something like that on their own.”

Along with devising theater, Willow Creek is proud of its mission to enlighten every production with joy and to enrich the community with improv.

“I personally love improv very, very much,” Brooks said. “It’s very dear to my heart. I’m getting to see that community starting to really blossom in a way that I feel like it has always been primed to do. It has really just been an honor to be a part of doing that work.”

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