After the most successful nine-month run that Iowa City's Dreamwell Theatre has ever seen, this sm
all company - which has long performed on borrowed stages and only recently secured a space of its own - is homeless once more.
As of March 9, Dreamwell - known for performing scripts that other theatres overlook, or simply don't want to take a chance on - had to give up its second-floor space of the Old Capitol Town Center in downtown Iowa City. The company produced six plays since it moved to the mall in May 2005, but now, with the University of Iowa moving in and converting nearly all of that second level into offices, the company had to postpone the rest of its season and start looking for a new stage.
The Old Capital Town Center first told Dreamwell organizers in December that they would have to leave, giving the theatre until early March to move out of the space; according to a clause in the lease, Old Capitol could give the company 90 days' notice at any time, and Dreamwell's co-founder and president, Matthew Falduto, said they were aware of this possibility all along.
"We signed the lease with the 90-day thing in there," he said. "We always knew that could happen. The mall was always up-front with us. We really can't complain about the way the mall handled it at all. In fact, they gave us a really good deal on the space."
In the company's nine-year history, this was the first time Dreamwell actually had a space of its own. Until these last months, Dreamwell shows were performed in the basements of Iowa City churches, drawing audiences of around 35 people - on a good night.
Artistic Director Matthew Brewbaker acknowledged that this borrowed performance space wasn't the most conducive for staging plays, or for attracting audiences.
"As great as our reviews [were] and as great as the word of mouth [was] of people who come, to be honest, there's only so much convincing you do when you say, 'We're the theatre that performs in the church basement,'" the New York University theatre graduate said. "There are only so many people who are going to give you a chance."
After moving to the mall nine months ago, audiences doubled and several performances even sold out, with 70 people often packed into the theatre space.
This success has boosted the company's current search for a new home.
"Once we got this space, the people started pouring in," Falduto said. "They really validated what I always believed, that the work we do is something people do want to see, and that it would work. We just needed that space."
Despite its small size and relatively low profile, Dreamwell Theatre has long made a name for itself as the company that goes where others won't.
"We've never called ourselves a community theatre but that's basically what we are," Falduto said. "Everyone's a volunteer. Nobody is getting paid, we're all amateur actors, but the shows that we do are more risky, not typical community theatre fare. That's what sets us apart. ... We kind of re-define what community theatre could be, or at least we try to."
Performances this past year included The Book of Liz by Amy and David Sedaris and obscure works such as Baal by Bertolt Brecht and David's Red Haired Death by Sherry Kramer. Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot was the company's final full-length performance in the mall space, and on March 24 and 25, Dreamwell will take the play to Cedar Rapids, with 8 p.m. performances at the city's Scottish Rite.
Dreamwell draws crowds with its reputation for presenting riskier theatre, and as a small company, it has the freedom to take more chances, even if organizers can't ever guarantee which shows will sell out, or even do well.
"The problem in the contemporary theatre situation is that if you can't fill whatever your house holds, you can't stay around," Brewbaker said. "Your overhead is so high that you have to be able to guarantee you're going to get 200 people in the theatre every night or lose this money. The blessing and the curse of being small and having stayed smaller is that ... we just don't have to worry about it as much."
This focus is the reason Brewbaker was first drawn to Dreamwell and has stayed with the company. "It shows when the people involved love what they're doing and love the pieces that they're doing," he said. "It's often said that within the volunteer- and amateur-theatre community there are a lot of people who go out and audition for every show because they want to be in a show. Most of the time people come and audition for a Dreamwell show because they want to be in this show. There's something about it, they feel something for it, and it shows. It shows on stage."
With the success of this last year, Dreamwell had already outgrown the store-turned-theatre space. Except for the timing of this move, which interrupted the company's season and forced it to postpone two plays indefinitely, Dreamwell's leaders expect it will be a good one for the company.
From the start, the location was difficult to work, with its strict fire codes and the problem of squeezing big casts and the audience into the narrow, rectangular space.
"There were just different challenges to work around because of the place that we're in, being inside a mall space," Executive Director Brian Tanner said. "We had to stay aware of different fire code and safety regulations that maybe we wouldn't have had if we were in a different location."
They were forced to cancel their opening performances of The Book of Liz in May 2005 and turn away sell-out crowds when they didn't meet regulations. These same fire codes restricted them from hanging curtains, and Dreamwell had to use sheet metal to cover the large, glass storefront windows.
Even though this move would have soon been necessary, those involved with the company say it came too quickly.
"We kind of felt like we were just getting started," Tanner said. "I don't think we really have any grudges or anything like that. The timing's just unfortunate. When we moved in it didn't seem like there was a whole lot going on in the mall. Since we moved in, there's been a number of new stores coming in, and we like to think that we're part of that draw."
And although it took a lot of time - and money - to transform the store space into a theatre, Dreamwell's leaders said it was a good investment.
"Now we're a lot more visible," Tanner said. "We've been able to hold on to the audience that had already been coming out to see us, and we've been able to capture new people, too. So we really appreciate being out in the mall. We think it was a really great move for us because it has gotten us that public attention."
As for Dreamwell's future plans, performances have been tentatively scheduled to begin in September. Falduto said they want to find this next space - one that will seat an audience of 100 - soon, because transforming it into a theatre will probably take several months.
"That's kind of the hope, and we'll see how that plays out," Falduto said. "We want to take our time. We rushed into this space and that was part of the problem, with the opening [for The Book of Liz] that didn't happen. We're going to take our time this time and make sure everything is set."
Brewbaker says the company wants to work with other area not-for-profit groups to find a permanent home for Dreamwell.
"We'd really love to see some kind of incubator happen for our space, where we would not necessarily share the same theatre space with other groups, but share a community space or community feeling that's arts-related," Brewbaker said. "Right now, Iowa City is the place where it's going to happen."
Dreamwell Theatre's production of Waiting for Godot will be performed at the Scottish Rite of Cedar Rapids - 616 A Avenue NE - at 8 p.m. on March 24 and 25. For tickets, call (319)364-2904 or visit (http://www.dreamwell.com).