University of Iowa Celebrating 100 Years of Shaping the Face of Theatre

October 2, 2020

For the past century, stories written by University of Iowa students, faculty, and alumni have captivated audiences around the world. Playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, Lee Blessing, Kirsten Greenidge, Samuel D. Hunter, and Jen Silverman have re-imagined what theatre, television, and film can be, experimenting and bringing ideas together in new and unexpected ways.

Since its founding as the Department of Speech when eight dramatic clubs joined forces in 1920, the Iowa Department of Theatre Arts has committed itself to the development of new plays. Productions born on campus have been produced on stages around the world. Each year, at least 15 new works by graduate and undergraduate students are produced and another 25 new plays are presented as readings.

“The MFA Playwriting Program, which came to be known as the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, was one of the first of its kind in the country,” says Art Borreca, Iowa associate professor, co-head of the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, and co-head of dramaturgy. “It pioneered the idea that playwriting, like theatre itself, is a discipline that can be studied and taught. It has always moved with the times, creating one of the first new play festivals, adapting to professional methods of new play development, and supporting young writers in the early phase of their careers.”

Hundreds of playwrights have gotten their start at Iowa, as have thousands of actors, directors, dramaturgs, designers, stage managers, and technicians. The Iowa Playwrights Workshop is a part of a rich culture of writing at the University of Iowa, joining world-renowned programs such as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, International Writing Program, and Nonfiction Writing Program.

Iowa-educated playwrights are Obie, Emmy, and Writers Guild award winners, Tony award nominees, Pulitzer Prize finalists, MacArthur Fellows, and winners of playwriting awards across the nation. Their works have been developed and produced on Broadway, off-Broadway, in regional theatres, and internationally.

While a Centennial Celebration Weekend in October has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Iowa Department of Theatre Arts is honoring its long tradition of supporting and nurturing young playwrights during its 2020-21 centennial year.

To kick off its mainstage season, the university commissioned five Black alumni playwrights to write 10-minute works. Other plays and readings throughout the season will include those by alumni such as Keith Josef Adkins and new works written and produced by current graduate and undergraduate students.

To limit the potential exposure to COVID-19, productions will be recorded and screened online instead of in front of a live audience. Plans are subject to change based on health and safety concerns.

As the 20th century progressed and film and television gained traction as people’s everyday entertainment, Hollywood found a hotbed for talent in the heart of the Midwest in Iowa alumni such as Norman Felton, Nicholas Meyer, and Barry Kemp.

The Iowa Department of Theatre Arts evolved to prepare its students to succeed within multiple performance avenues and graduates of the Iowa Playwrights Workshop and Iowa Writers' Workshop have helped usher in a new golden age of television in recent years with groundbreaking hits such as The West WingThe SopranosSix Feet UnderMad MenGirlsHouse of Cards, and Game of Thrones.

Every semester, faculty and distinguished visiting guests—such as UI alumni Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess, the Emmy Award-winning duo behind Northern ExposureThe Sopranos, and Blue Bloods—teach workshops and courses related to screenwriting for film and television.

Students have long found multiple opportunities at Iowa to work with professional artists to develop and finesse new work, including the Partnership in the Arts Program and the Iowa New Play Festival.

As it celebrates its centennial, the Iowa Department of Theatre Arts reaffirms its commitment to support and nurture the next generation of artists who will change the face of theatre, film, and television.

“As we look to the future, we will continue the legacy of those who came before, while we embrace new digital technologies and explore the ever-changing way stories are told,” says Mary Beth Easley, Iowa associate professor, head of directing, and chair of the Department of Theatre Arts. “As we build bridges to the future, our focus will also be on nurturing new voices, expanding community outreach, and making systemic changes to become a more equitable organization, and a model for the theatre arts profession.”

“Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to get to know scores of theatre departments,” says Alan MacVey, Iowa professor, director of the Division of Performing Arts, and former chair of the Department of Theatre Arts for almost three decades. “Every one of them is deeply dedicated to their students, and I consider it a privilege to be in the company of such a national treasure. It’s an even greater privilege to know that our department is a leader in this group. From the beginning a century ago, we committed ourselves to the creation of new plays, then to radio, television, communication studies, and more. As those fields grew, faculty and students stepped out to make their own contributions to our national culture. Now we have added the digital arts to our repertoire, collaborating with dance, music, computer science, engineering, and other disciplines to lead in this expanding field. Now, as before, it remains our goal to find what comes next and build it ourselves. I’m confident that our next hundred years will be as rich as the last.”

For more information about the history of the University of Iowa Department of Theatre Arts, a list of notable alumni, and photos, please visit the centennial media information page.

If you are interested in speaking to faculty or alumni, please contact Kristan Hellige.