SPT - How often have you heard the term "cultural corridor"? We're one big happy family, right? Those in the Iowa City area should support those in the Cedar Rapids area and vice versa. And we do... in our hearts. What we don't do very well is support each other with our feet. Let's be honest - how often do Cedar Rapidians come down to Iowa City to see a show? About as often as Iowa Citians head up to Cedar Rapids, which is to say, not nearly often enough. We talk a good game about being on big happy corridor, but have you ever noticed how often Cedar Rapids theatres and Iowa City area theatres produce the same show within the same year? Off the top of my head, City Circle and TCR both did Full Monty and Seussical within a year of each other. Dreamwell and Urban Theatre Project both did The Pillowman last fall. And ICCT and TCR both had productions of Fiddler on the Roof within a year or so of each other. Why can they get away with it? Because the truth is the audiences don't travel. The trek up or down 380 is just too long, too inconvenient, too ... just too everything. Iowa Citians may ask, "What does Cedar Rapids have that Iowa City doesn't?"
The answer is SPT Theatre, a completely unique theater experience. I've been part of the theatre scene for a long time and I can tell you, SPT's blend of music, comedy, pathos and audience interaction just isn't done around here. Their most recent show was Love and Hate, a collection of short scenes about the primary subject of Valentine's Day weekend that is interspersed with music, some original and some old favorites (and some that are no one's favorite... Muskrat Love? In the words of Seth Myers, "Really?!"). Some of the scenes were more effective than others, but it was the easy camaraderie the performers created with the audience that made everything work so well.
After an added musical opening to give the performers time to work out who would cover for Jason Grubbe, who was stranded in Iowa City due to the snowstorm, we watched Bingo by Mary Sullivan, a short and bittersweet scene that succinctly captured the motto "live for today". One skit had three parts that were interspersed throughout the evening. Writers David Martino and Mary Sullivan gave us a hilarious poetry slam between two lovers (Ashley Boots and Alex Williams) whose affair we follow as their erotic poems turn vicious and then desperate. The performers were all top notch, with special kudos to Adam Witte as the coffee shop manager (among other roles) who brought an exciting energy to the stage.
But it was the music that truly made this a unique evening. Janelle Lauer has an amazingly soulful voice and Doug Elliott provided an excellent contrast. The band was top notch as well, lead by founding SPT member Gerard Estrella. If you've never seen Estrella create a full blown song from audience suggestions in front of your eyes, you're missing something truly special.
What I kept coming back to, however, was the welcoming atmosphere of the experience. Oftentimes, when you go to a show, you sit, you watch, perhaps you laugh, perhaps you cry, but it's often a solitary experience, even if you're with someone else. SPT provides an atmosphere of collaboration, engaging the audience from the first moment of the show to the last note of Love Shack. Each of the performers knows how to engage the audience. Perhaps that's due to the fact that the founding members are musicians, used to performing and engaging an audience in ways that actors are not often allowed to do.
While you cannot see Love and Hate as it only ran for one weekend, there is another excellent opportunity to check out SPT. Their next installment of Tales from the Writers' Room is Tales of Two Cities, which is focused on the relationship between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. It will run two weekends - April 10th and 11th as well April 24th and 25th. The first weekend of shows will be performed at Cedar Rapids Museum of Art and the second weekend will be at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City. Which means, of course, that you don't have to travel to Cedar Rapids to see this show. However, I am going to suggest something radical. Are you ready? All Cedar Rapidians should go to the Iowa City show and all Iowa Citians need to make the trek to the Cedar Rapids show. Let's show that we're willing to support each other not just in our hearts, but with our feet as well.
Matthew has a Bachelor's degree in English from the University of Iowa. He has directed, acted in, and produced theater in the Iowa City area for over ten years. He has worked with the Iowa City Community Theatre, City Circle and Dreamwell, of which he is a founder. Two of his plays have been produced in the Iowa City area. In another brief life, he also worked as a technical writer.