Thursday, June 18, 2009

News from The Des Moines Social Club

Fans of the NYC indie theater scene and longtime readers of this blog will remember Zachary Mannheimer. He founded Subjective Theatre Company and the Community Dish and conceived what sounded to me like a wonderfully brave idea to bring the best of NYC's indie theater to the American Heartland. Well, Zach has made his dream come true, and what he's accomplished is an inspiration to us all. I did a cyberinterview with Zach recently. Here's the latest from this remarkable theatre visionary:

ME: Zach, I posted about your idea to move to Des Moines and open a theatre company there back when you first were planning it. But for folks who haven’t been following the blog for that long, or who may have forgotten, can you give us the short version of your fabulous quixotic idea –how you came up with it and what you intend to accomplish?

Z: I was in NYC for over 8 years producing theatre and working 3 jobs to pay the bills. So the first motivation to get out of Dodge was rather selfish (only wanted 1 job - making theatre - wouldn't that be nice!) The major motivation was the realization that the majority of the theatre I was interested in producing in NYC was either already being done in some respect, or the point I was trying to convey was falling on ears of like-minded audiences. There must be other places in the country where my work could be more vital.

Being indecisive, I drove to 22 cities in 8 weeks spending 3-4 days in each city in the summer of '07, researching. I interviewed over 40 theatre companies and was searching for the right city to lay my roots. Des Moines won. I moved here in September, 2007 not knowing a single person in the city, and a day after my 30th birthday.

The idea all along, as well as in NYC, is to create community amongst a diverse group of people and begin a discourse, get those who don't make art making it, and those who do make art understanding the lives of those who don't, and partaking in that world. And of course, the best way to do this is to give them a piece of art to look at and several strong drinks - so we opened a bar as well.

Des Moines is a city of almost half a million people and is growing. The downtown is seeing a revitalization, and we were able to secure a building in the heart of it (across the street from the largest outdoor public sculpture garden in the world - to be completed this summer). It's 50/50 in terms of political idealogy, religious backgrounds, and has a strong ethnic population - and it's Midwest - so people like each other - at least to their faces. The potential for exciting ideas is infinite.

Was my work vital in NYC? I didn't think so. Here in Des Moines I feel it is.

ME: So now you are opening your theatre in Des Moines, and I am so proud and thrilled that I feel like I will bust. Tell us about the theatre you’ve created, and the process you used to make it happen. Are the people you are working with theatre folks or people you’ve met in the community in Des Moines?

Z: Thanks so much Martin!

This is a long story, but the sum of it is that there is such a HUGE demand for art space here in DSM [Des Moines]. There was not a black box theatre or art gallery in town who focused mainly on local artists. And there are plenty of them!

I began by taking a job as the Maitre d' at The Embassy Club, a private club on top of the tallest building west of the Mississippi (at least until you hit Denver). There I met many of the people in DSM who make projects like mine become a reality. After work I spent my time in the bars and clubs meeting as many artists as possible.

When you spend so much time trying to get NYC press to notice you, it's much easier to do it in DSM. The idea spread quickly, and soon we were on the cover of the local papers and on TV talking about my trip and the plans to open the space. But it was all a very exciting idea then, nothing real.

A core group of us, about 12, met on a regular basis and we rented out an old building in the heart of DSM and threw the first annual Subjective Circus - over 25 different acts from fire eaters to acrobats to opera singers, hip-hop artists and belly dancers - in May of 2008, and over 700 people came and we raised close to $12,000. That got things moving. I was in talks with several prominent DSM patrons, and one wonderful woman, Liz Kruidenier and her foundation, agreed to donate $152,000 to get us started. That was enough for 1 year's rent in the building (30,000 sq. ft in the heart of downtown DSM) and salaries for two full time staff. I persuaded Matt McIver and his wife Julie Betts to move from Brooklyn to DSM, and off we went. This was last September.

We moved into the space this past January. It was a DUMP. It was last used as Obama's Iowa Headquarters, so lots of historic value, but they didn't clean up. We enlisted over 200 volunteers and we spent every weekend from the end of January to the beginning of March cleaning, painting, building. On our website - go to About Us and watch the 3 minute video - it shows us putting the space together over time.

The main thing was we put a call out to those who want space - and not just artists - everyone. Now we have every weekend booked up until the fall and we're close to having something every night in our two spaces - we've got performances ranging from monthly barn dances, professional wrestling, cat circuses, full scale theatre pieces, tons of concerts, trivia nights, open mikes, dance parties, belly dancing, 15 different classes in our education program, etc etc....its very overwhelming. The important part is that when you come down to Des Moines Social Club, it will be different every night. And the performance in the theatre will be for an opposite group than the performance in the bar, so both worlds mix over drinks.

The building houses an Art Gallery - The Instinct Gallery, whose shows change monthly; our bar - The Sideshow Lounge; the Classroom area; and The Black Box Theatre. It's not just theatre - its everything - it has to be to work. It's a community center and its beautiful.

The people are from all walks of life - some are professional theatre people, and some are volunteers who really enjoy using our ping-pong table, and everything in between. All in all we have a core, dedicated all-volunteer staff of 18 and a larger net of about 50 to help out on larger events. In our first month, March, we saw over 3,000 people come through, and every month since it as increased.

*** Part II of my interview with Zach Mannheimer (with a special guest star!) will be posted on the Good News Theater Blog on June 21st at 11pm. Check back for more then!

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