by Matthew Falduto
Cedar Rapids – A few years ago, Matt Ford started RHCR Theatre in Cedar Rapids. They produced an eclectic group of shows – Rocky Horror Picture Show, Clue, Disney’s Cinderella Kids, and Iowa Stories. Recently they adopted a new name – Rich Heritage of Cedar Rapids Theatre Company – and a new mission. I took some time to ask Ford about the new direction for his company.
So your name is now Rich Heritage of Cedar Rapids Theatre Company… why did you choose it? What does it mean to you?
Initially, RHCR didn’t really stand for or mean anything. It was a homage to our first show but that’s it. I thought it would be cool not to have it mean anything like “SPT Theatre.” Boy was I wrong! People could not get over the fact that they didn’t know what it meant. I was asked all the time, “What does it mean?”… “What does it stand for?” I felt it was getting in the way of what we are trying to do, make great theater, so Rich Heritage of Cedar Rapids Theatre – RHCR came to be. On our “About” tab on our website I had written a little blurb back in 2012 that mentioned the rich heritage that Cedar Rapids has in the performing arts so when our choreographer, Erin Thorson, suggested Rich Heritage of Cedar Rapids Theatre…it seemed like a natural fit. I will admit I am not 100% sold on the name. I feel we are evolving as a theatre company and as to what we offer the community so who knows if another name change might happen down the road!
Your vision statement is to be a community theatre company that brings movies to the stage. Why did you choose that mission?
I have always loved movies. I surround myself with people that love movies. I often quote random movie lines throughout my daily life. Sometimes people get me, sometimes they think I am having a stroke…anyway I love movies. I love watching live theater also. Live theater is so much more challenging in many ways that motion pictures. So many movies have become great stage plays or musicals and vice versa. The translation is not always AWESOME or faithful but more often than not that transition presents creative challenges whether it is lighting, staging, or exposition. I like that challenge and I also love as a director, trying to keep the spirit of the movie intact when translating it to the stage and yet making it a new or different. Plus, when RHCR started, there weren’t as many theater groups as there are now. I wanted us to have a niche.
A Few Good Men, which opens in May, will be in the Artisan’s Sanctuary. Is that going to be a regular home for you or is this a one time thing?
The Artisan’s Sanctuary appealed to me for many reasons. One, there are not many medium sized theater venues in Cedar Rapids. I felt The Artisan’s was the appropriate space for both A Few Good Men & our other straight play, The House of Yes. Secondly, I love the concept of what Jim Jacobmeyer is doing at Artisan’s. A communal space to bring local artists of all mediums together under one roof. Anything I can do to support local art, I want to do what I can. By having two productions there, I hope we can introduce more people to The Artisan’s Sanctuary and to what they offer there. We have so many talented local men and women, I love a person and a facility that focuses on that rather than bringing in outside talent. I am all about supporting Corridor artists first before outside talent. If we don’t support each other, who will?
What excites you about doing A Few Good Men?
I love the story of AFGM. Funny and serious. Range of ages for different actor experience levels and great writing by Aaron Sorkin. My only issue with the script I easily remedied by changing the gender of a few roles. The script is written for 14 men and ONE woman. Besides the fact I don’t think that is representative of today’s military, I also am not interested in directing or producing a production that is so male centered. The corridor has such a deep pool of talented female performers, I would never do a show that had so many male only roles. The actresses that I have cast are extremely talented and I think the audience will be impressed with what they have to offer and how it changes the dichotomy of the show.
I noticed that you’re doing kids shows, too, which isn’t something you mentioned in our first interview. Can you talk a little bit about that and why you’ve gone that route?
RHCR decided to branch out into children’s theater when we recognized a lack of on stage opportunities for young performers in the area. Many theaters have recognized children as a great audience to play to or to include as parts of a cast but no one was doing shows ACTED by children, geared towards a children’s audience. There is always one or two boys and girls in every community that are talented performers and are cast as the son or daughter in every community theater show that needs such a performer. I wanted to offer a larger ensemble opportunity for many, many kids to get exposure to theater. In each of our kid shows, there might be one or two adults in the cast but I have instructed the directors I hire to keep the focus on the children performers.
My parents did not take me to live theater performances when I was young. My 1st exposure to live theater was when one of my babysitters took me to a middle school play that she & her friends were in (thanks Anna B!). Who knows, maybe I would have been involved with theater at an earlier age if I had been exposed to it more regularly when I was younger.
I truly believe there is more to extra curricular activities than just sports. Sports teach kids cooperation, goal setting, caring about a “team” more than just yourself, and challenging your personal abilities. Theater teaches all of those things also, just in a different way. My father was very disappointed that I just did not excel in physical sports (football, basketball, track). The only sport I was involved in was the swim team. In my home town, back in the 1980s and 90s, if you didn’t play football, basketball or wrestle; you might as well be wearing a dress. Guys who didn’t play any of those sports were treated as less of a man. At least I was. Luckily, things have changed. Sports isn’t the only way for a child to get involved with something and participate. I want to be a part of something that offers a chance for many kids to excel at something that is not necessarily a sport but teaches the same principles.
When we spoke in 2014, you only mentioned your wife Jennifer and Deidre Benser as part of your team, but now I look at your production team page and there’s a bunch of people listed. Can you talk a little bit about the team?
The CORE of the team is still my wife Jennifer and Deidra Benser. My wife and I are considered the owners of the theatre company. Deidra is the Production Manager. She along with everyone else on the Team are independent contractors. We needed a team if we were to ever hope to pull off a five show season. Plus, there are PLENTY of things that I know nothing about like lighting and sound design, set design and construction. I know enough to know I need people who are experienced in those fields to help me pull off a show. RHCR has never been a “one man show”. Yes, I own the company. Yes, I make all of the decisions both artistically and management. But I can’t do it alone. My wife Jennifer, is a great sounding board. She has great ideas of her own about shows, casting, and direction certain shows should take. We don’t always agree but I value her opinion as a performer and as a financial partner. Deidra has more heart than anyone I know. She works tirelessly for RHCR efforts both behind the scenes and with the performers on stage. She coordinates all of the scheduling, organizes auditions, spearheads fundraising and advertising, and many other things that are too numerous to mention. She is my minder and keeper, she keeps me on task (not easy) and keeps RHCR moving forward.
There are many others involved that make RHCR work. Erin Thorson is our Choreographer for any show that needs it. She is a full-time dance instructor and knows her stuff. Stephanie Adams is our Children’s Theatre Music Director. Stephanie has a BA in Music Education from Wartburg College. Her past experience teaching kids and leading her church choir has been invaluable to us. Callie Welsh is Deidra’s Production Assistant. She has been working tirelessly with our sponsorship efforts and advertising. Her passion for theater, especially children’s theater is a great asset. Kyle Kettelsen is an amazing set and lighting designer. I have requested of him to produce grandiose sets and lighting schemes with a very small budget and he never disappoints. His assistant, Abigail Wenman, is a talented painter, artist and set constructor. Her assistance with almost any project is always greatly appreciated and yields fantastic results. Sound Engineer Evan Harney is a new addition to the team but has already proven himself to be a great new member of the team. Another new team member this year is Jeremy Eble as our Production Stage Manager. Jeremy has years of theater experience and I am looking forward to working with him. We have a new costumer, Stephanie Shaffer-Martinez. Stephanie has grown up in the Cedar Rapids theater community. She has been on stage, in the director’s chair and worked in almost every role backstage. We feel fortunate that Stephanie has agreed to join us this year. Besides Deidra Benser, Kristin Brooks our Graphics Designer is the only other person who has been with RHCR since the beginning. She is an AMAZING artist and her attention to detail is unparalleled by anyone. She is a wonderful asset to me, as well as to the rest of the team.
What else do you want the readers to know about RHCR?
The only other thing I would want people to know about us is that we exist! There are still lots of people in the community who have never heard of us. I have put together a talented group of people that work very hard to bring insightful, quality live theater to life in the corridor. Our ticket prices are affordable. Our shows are entertaining. We travel around and perform shows in different venues so you MIGHT have to search for us but we are definitely worth the effort!