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Spotlight Iowa City: Theater that truly makes a difference

BY NICOLE KARLIS | NOVEMBER 18, 2009 7:21 AM

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Janet Schlapkohl is producing young starlets every day — growing pains included.

Monday’s life lesson: dancing the waltz.

Schlapkohl, 52, founded City High’s “Combined Efforts Community Drama,” a group that includes future superstars both with and without special needs.

“Am I going to have to teach you how to dance?” the director joked with an actor struggling with the waltz, jumping on stage shortly after and taking his hands to instruct.

Schlapkohl started the group around nine years ago, when she was a special-education teacher at City High, working with the school’s mainstage productions at the same time.

“I saw kids in my class who could sing and dance,” she said, sipping a drink at Teaspoons during some offstage time. “I said I’m just going to start my own group, and I did.”

Many young performers didn’t initially see theater as their forte. But she got them to come around — eventually.

“It took a little wheedling,” said Schlapkohl, who has electric-blue eyes and short, brown hair. She said she had to practically beg students to join at first. On Monday, roughly 30 students rehearsed.

So clearly, she’s got the directing and convincing down. But writing the shows? She does that, too.

Schlapkohl was recently admitted into the UI’s M.F.A. program in playwriting (she wonders if she’s the oldest person it has ever taken) and began this fall. She’s come a long way since writing her first play in seventh grade (“It was very dramatic,” she noted).

“It’s a great feeling to write for something and have people laugh or hold their breath for a second,” she said.

In addition to all her accomplishments, she also won the Isabel Turner Award last October.

The humble woman — who also performs monologues at Riverside Theatre when she’s not at the farm with the goats, ducks, and cows — was at first skeptical about why she should accept such prestigious human-rights recognition.

“It felt wrong,” she said. “Someone shouldn’t get an award for spending time with kids with special needs, but then I realized I’ve made an opportunity for kids to get to spend time with kids in classes they usually aren’t with.”

It’s an opportunity her young performers — who are staging an adaptation of *A Christmas Carol* to début Dec. 17 — are definitely thankful for.

“It’s nice that the students with disabilities can bond with the other students,” said shaggy-haired City High junior Wyatt Bettis, an actor in this season’s play, working on some homework between his scenes.

Says parent Carlyn Christensen-Szalanski: “It’s the combination of people working together and the transformation it makes to a play.” Her daughter is in her fourth year with the group.

It’s not only the opportunity to make new friends at City High that draws participants. Spending time with Schlapkohl is another perk. The West Union native is very hands-on, keeping the group under control but still leading a fun, lively rehearsal.

“My favorite part about being in the group is being with Janet,” said City High sophomore Sara Mildenstein, who’s working on costumes for the show. “She’s a really awesome person.”


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