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Theater beyond imagine

BY ELENA BRUESS | JULY 24, 2014 5:00 AM

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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?”

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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.”


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