The Playhouse Releases 2022-2023 Season Plans
It is probably a surprise to many that Greater Des Moines (DSM) is home to one of the oldest and largest community theatres in the United States: The Des Moines Community Playhouse. Our theatre just announced our 104th season of shows. How did Des Moines and The Playhouse achieve this milestone?
Ordinary People, Extraordinary Theatre
The Playhouse was founded in 1919 by members of the Iowa Press and Authors Club. We are unique in that The Playhouse has operated continuously, under various names and in various homes, since our founding. Even during the past two years we developed creative ways to produce shows including a Live Theatre Drive-In with audience members in their cars in summer 2020 and Tent Theatre with performances under a big top in the parking lot in summer 2021.
The Playhouse is ordinary people creating extraordinary theatre. Each year more than 750 volunteers produce 11 shows that include hit Broadway musicals, comedies, dramas and shows for families, the later often based on books children are reading. Our 13 full-time staff help these volunteers act, build and paint scenery, collect and build props, create costumes, run lights and sound, shift and fly scenery and greet more than 45,000 guests annually. The results are extraordinary! Just look at the photos from “Cabaret,” Disney's “Newsies” and “Les Misérables” and imagine being in the audience.
Some of our volunteers may be familiar faces, such as We Are Iowa Local 5 news anchor Jackie Schmillen. Most are your friends, neighbors, co-workers, child's teacher, doctor's receptionist and more. Longtime supporter Harry Goldman once remarked that The Playhouse is the one place where people from every walk of life come together, and an eight-year-old student is as important as a 55-year-old lawyer.
It's About Community
From its early days, when names like Hubbell and Weitz met in homes to plan shows and rehearsed in churches and schools, to the present day, with the theatre's home on 42nd Street, The Playhouse exists to serve the community.
The shows are a communal experience, whether you're sitting in the audience, performing or working backstage or front-of-house. We strive to tell stories that are important to our community as well as stories that do nothing but entertain. Sometimes, the stories are World Premieres, such as our adaptation of Bill Bryson's story of growing up in Des Moines, “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” or “Escaping the Labyrinth,” a collaboration with the American Association of Community Theatre. We have also presented original works by local playwrights Karen Schaeffer and Cynthia Mercati, as well as lending a stage for readings of new shows by Robert John Ford and this spring, Beaufield Berry. Theatre is where stories come to life.
Community also means the whole community. For many years The Playhouse has worked to make the theatre accessible to everyone. This has included renovations that make the building — built in the 1930s as the Roosevelt Movie Theatre with Red's Barbecue in the basement — easier to move through as well as partnerships with the IRIS Sensation Team, a group that describes theatre for visually impaired guests, and Deaf Services Unlimited. Various funds, including the Jeanne Hopson Angel Fund, ensure that class registrations, ticket prices and transportation are no longer barriers for those who want to be involved.
Since 1928, The Playhouse has provided theatre classes year-round for those in pre-kindergarten through senior adult. Our most extensive offerings, including the popular Harry Potter Camp, are in the summer. All our classes are taught by local theatre educators and sometimes by visiting professionals.
To serve the community, The Playhouse also provided a class for students on the spectrum. This has evolved into the theatre's involvement with The Penguin Project, a national program that provides a supportive environment for children with disabilities to explore their creative talents. The first Penguin Project performance will be “Annie Jr.” in October 2023.
Other initiatives include:
- Spotlight Literacy: Schools with large percentages of students in the free and reduced program partner with a show. The actors visit the school, talking about the show and giving every student a copy of the book on which the show is based. The actors and students exchange letters after the students have attended a free matinee.
- Friday Funday: This interactive program dramatizes fairy tales to introduce 4–6-year-olds to theatre.
- Final Act Ensemble: FAE is a group of senior adults, ages 60-95, who recreate live radio shows, complete with sound effects. They perform in area schools, retirement communities, churches, and even at the Iowa State Fair.
- HOPE! Drama Troupe: For more than 30 years, middle and high school students have written and performed powerful, 25-minute plays dedicated to ending child abuse and strengthening families in Polk County.
- Internships: The Playhouse works with college interns throughout the year in its marketing and philanthropy departments, and in the summer in theatre camps. PIPs, pre-intern program middle and high school students, help in classes during the school year.
Common Questions + Misconceptions About Community Theatre
Why do people spend all this time volunteering at the theatre?
For most, it's fun and a great way to meet new people. The opportunity to share experiences and create something that makes others laugh and applaud can’t be duplicated. Some participants use community theatre to explore a career in the arts. There are many different jobs that are available beyond performing. Admittedly, it’s the actors that we like to brag about Our alum include Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress Cloris Leachman; playwright, screenwriter, and director Peter Hedges; and, currently on Broadway in “The Music Man” with Hugh Jackman, actor Drew Minard. Just up the road, our friends at the Omaha Playhouse started the careers of Marlon Brando and Henry Fonda. Many other alum are behind-the-scenes, backstage and in administrative offices, continuing the tradition of bringing stories to life.
Isn't community theatre amateurish?
In brief, there is paid and unpaid, which involves renumeration. There is amateur and professional, which is based on attitude and work ethic. Although The Playhouse performers and backstage technicians do not make a living wage, they are still committed to the work, giving up time and energy to create something special for the audience. Our directors and designers are often professionals in the field, who work at universities or high schools or other elements of the artistic industry and are contracted to work at The Playhouse too.
When you choose a show, do the costumes, scenery, and props get delivered?
When The Playhouse chooses to do a show like “Singin' in the Rain,” for example, we are given the rights by the creators who provide a script. That's it. The Playhouse may borrow an item or two from another community theatre, but 96% of what is on the stage is designed and created by Playhouse staff and subcontractors.
Can anyone get involved?
Yes. Each year we are excited to see actors new to us. Often these may be first time performers who have finally decided, "Enough talk, let’s go do a show." Everyone will spend six to eight weeks working on the show to make it look so easy! Again, they do that because they have a commitment to having fun and telling a story. But even if performing is not something you want to do, there is still a place for you at The Playhouse. Volunteers work in all aspects of the theatre including building and painting of sets, sewing costumes and ushering. If you have an interest, we have the training system to help you fulfill your dream.
Where does the money come from?
Ticket prices are kept intentionally low — you can buy a whole Playhouse season for the cost of one Broadway show ticket — so the theatre relies on donations from individuals and corporations as well as grants from state and national organizations.
Why don't you do (insert your favorite show name here)?
We would love to do “Hamilton,” for example, but the rights are not available to us. That's because it is still playing on Broadway and touring the country, including a stop at Des Moines Performing Arts later this year. Some shows, especially non-musicals, are available to us soon after their Broadway debut. Others can take years. We were finally able to produce “Les Misérables” 25 years after its Broadway debut!
Your Challenge: Experience The Playhouse + Other Area Arts
In the late 1980s, John Frohnmayer, the then-head of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), said in a speech in Des Moines that our community had, per capita (the key phrase), more cultural organizations than even Chicago or Minneapolis. Think about it. The Playhouse is just one of DSM’s many theatres that include our colleagues at Pyramid Theatre Company, Iowa Stage Theatre Company, Tallgrass Theatre, Des Moines Young Artists' Theatre, Theatre Midwest, Urbandale Community Theatre and Ankeny Community Theatre, to name a few. Des Moines Performing Arts welcomes touring Broadway shows. DSM is also home to the Des Moines Symphony, Ballet Des Moines and Des Moines Art Center as well as many instrumental, vocal and dance organizations that are community-based, just like The Playhouse.
Challenge yourself to attend — or volunteer for — just four events this year. You'll be amazed at the breadth of what DSM has to offer. We hope that The Playhouse is one of your choices. Regardless, you will be amazed at the stories you see and the art you experience.
The Playhouse Season
“Charlotte's Web” — now through Mar. 20, 2022
- “Singin' in the Rain” — Mar. 25-Apr. 10, 2022
- “Pippi Longstocking” — Apr. 22-May 8, 2022
- “Calendar Girls” — June 3-19, 2022
- “Buffalo Women,” a co-production with Pyramid Theatre Company — June 19-25, 2022
- Roald Dahl's “Matilda The Musical” — July 8-31, 2022
- “Guys and Dolls” — Sept. 9-25, 2022
- “The Penguin Project Presents Annie Jr.” — Oct. 14-16, 2022
- “Harriet the Spy” — Oct. 28-Nov. 13, 2022
- Family Holiday Classic TBA — Dec. 2-19, 2022
- “Go, Dog. Go!” — Jan. 6-22, 2023
- “The Piano Lesson,” a co-production with Pyramid Theatre Company — Feb. 3-19, 2023
- “The Hundred Dresses” — Feb. 24-Mar. 12, 2023
- “Kinky Boots” — Mar. 17-Apr. 2, 2023
- “How I Became a Pirate” — Apr. 21-May 7, 2023
- “Native Gardens — June 2-19, 2023
- “Little Shop of Horrors” — July 14-Aug. 6, 2023
Visit DMPlayhouse.com for more information on The Playhouse, our shows, volunteer opportunities, and classes. Visit CatchDesMoines.com for an exhaustive calendar of the arts in DSM. Visit UnitedWayDM.org for ways to volunteer with the arts.
The Greater Des Moines Partnership calendar of events is a one-stop resource for activities taking place throughout the region. Find networking information for Greater Des Moines (DSM) businesses or events specific to Downtown DSM.