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Iowa Theatre Artists Company readying final season in renovated space

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By Diana Nollen, The Gazette  ::   UPDATED: 22 July 2014 | 10:33 am   ::  

Tom Johnson of South Amana has built theaters "out of dust" in an old creamery and a school in Garrison and an empty new building, a train depot and a restaurant in Amana.

It's been a good run for Johnson and his wife, actress Meg Merckens, but now the curtain is rising July 26 and 27 on their final season of concerts and plays at the renovated Barn Restaurant at 4709 220th Trl. in Amana.

It's not the end of their Iowa Theatre Artists Company, a not-for-profit small professional theater. They will be returning to their roots as a "rent-to-present" troupe, seeking out area venues for one or two plays each year.

Unlike her husband, Merckens had never started a theater company until taking the plunge in 2008. They spent the first season on the road, then opened the Amana venue in '09.

"This whole experience has been everything and more than what I could possibly have dreamed," said Merckens, 61, an Ohio native who has spent 40 years working in professional theater.

"You think, oh, you get older and it's not as exciting. It actually became even more exciting and more fulfilling. Some of my favorite experiences have been in the past seven years. It's great to push on and try some things that might be a little frightening, but boy, once you conquer it," she said, her voice trailing off.

"And now it's time for someone else to use that wonderful, wonderful space."

The couple, who met during their years with the Old Creamery in Garrison and Amana, are hoping to get $450,000 for the 15,000 square-foot building. If buyers wanted to keep the 99-seat theater on the first floor, they would love to rent it. They just want to kick loose of the day-to-day ownership operations.

"We're not able as two people to manage a big building like that - as well as to write and produce, and do the box office," said Johnson, 73.

Even with faithful volunteer help, he said, "We're a mom-and-pop operation. It just got to the point where it's a shame the building hasn't been turned into a community center, and we're not able to do it. It isn't just lack of funds, it's lack of people to actually do it. ...

"We've always so loved to do theater. What we don't love to do is to be the janitor, to be the electrician, to be the scene builder, the publicity manager, the building manager. I think it's beyond us at this point in our lives," he said.

"Our hope is that we can sell the building, and that somebody will move into it and make it into a fantastic space, utilizing all of it," Merckens said. "That would be beneficial to Amana and the people that live here."

2014 SEASON

- "The Old Guy," by Thomas Johnson, Aug. 22 to 31 in Amana: A broke and out-of-work mechanic learns that he is "only as old as he feels" once he puts the problems of others ahead of his own. Also, 7 p.m. Sept. 6 and 2 p.m. Sept. 7 in Dysart as fundraisers for the Garrison and Dysart Lions Clubs.

- "Lost Boy Found," adapted by Thomas Johnson, Sept. 12 to 28. A chamber theater production that revisits a century-old Iowa County kidnapping. Johnson solved this real-life crime story using modern technology, but recently discovered information that adds another shocking twist to this true story.

- "Toby's Corntussle News," by Neil Schaffner, Oct. 10 to 19: The best of the "Toby and Susie" sketches from the Schaffner Players' archives.

- "Morning's at Seven," by Paul Osborn, Oct. 24 to Nov. 9: The four aging Gibb sisters find their lives turned upside down when an oddball nephew brings home his fiancee of 12 years.

- "Assorted Nuts!" original show, Nov. 21 to Dec. 7: A mix of music and comedy, featuring singer Kerry Christensen and actresses Merckens and Deborah Kennedy. (Celtic Christmas performs Dec. 6.)

- Show times: 7:30 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays; $22.50 adults, $20 seniors, $10 students, (319) 622-3222; Info: Iowatheatreartists.org

MUSICAL EVENTS

- "Music of our Family - Stories of our Times," 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. July 26 and 2:30 p.m. July 27: Music from the 1920s to 1970s performed by The Mockingbyrds: Joe and Deb Byrd, Carlis Faurot and Michael Crist.

- Celtic Christmas by IrishJam, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 6: Celtic music and storytelling.

- The Great Bluegrass Herons Christmas Concert, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 12, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 13: Acoustic classics and bluegrass favorites.

- Tickets: $15 adults, $10 students, (319) 622-3222; Information: Iowatheatreartists.org

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