Richie and Heather Akers of Cedar Rapids fell in love with theater, then with each other through theater.
They're taking both loves to the next stage, turning a one-time movie theater in Uptown Marion into a live venue for their new Giving Tree Theater troupe - one that will give back to the community by donating a portion of proceeds to local human services organizations.
The public can get a sneak peek at the newly gutted space from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday during an informal open house.
Built as the Garden Theatre in 1985, the building at 752 10th St. has housed several ventures over the years, most recently being offices for Iowa Realty. This week, the 9-foot interior office walls came down, and over the next two months, a stage will go up. Comfy cabaret, traditional and living room seating will be added on the main floor and on raised "box seat" platforms, and the lobby will be reclaimed for audience and actors' convenience.
The couple are leasing the space and doors officially open Jan. 30 through Feb. 15 with Tennessee Williams' classic drama, "The Glass Menagerie." Next up is the dark comedy "Arsenic and Old Lace" from March 6 to 22, followed by the drama of "The Miracle Worker" from April 10 to 26 and the hilarity of Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park" from May 15 to 31.
It's a venture 15 years in the making.
"Since early on in our relationship, Heather and I wanted to open a business of some sort," Richie Akers said. "In the last couple two or three years, we realized that at some point, we'd love to open a theater."
They kicked around the idea of opening a bed-and-breakfast, then a coffee shop. Now, with careers established and two kids rounding out their family, they decided to invest a chunk of their savings into this venture.
"We both have had such great experiences in the theater, and after having been working in a theater several years now, it just seems like the right time for us and for the community," he said.
At the end of December, Richie Akers, 37, will step down from his "dream job" in sales and marketing at Theatre Cedar Rapids to manage the new dream. Heather Akers, 39, will retain her day job in organizational development at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids and serve as Giving Tree's "not-so-silent partner."
"She's hands-down the smartest person I know," Richie Akers said. "I can't think of anyone better to bounce ideas off of. I always look at her as someone who's so opened-minded that she can see from the perspective of the people we're hoping to either volunteer and participate or to come and see a show."
The theater will operate as a for-profit organization, with assistance from Fractured Atlas, a national organization that advises artists on everything from fundraising and managing risk to building audiences and beefing up business skills.
"Since we're investing our own personal seed money in this, we're approaching it as a for-profit. That's really going to allow us to dictate just how much we give back to the community through donations," Richie Akers said.
He will be the sole paid staff person. Directors and designers from Eastern Iowa's talent pool will work under a paid contract, but initially, the theater is seeking volunteer actors and technicians. Open auditions will be held for all or part of each show's cast, at the director's discretion.
Since announcing the venture on social media this week, Akers said the response has been "overwhelming."
"The response has been so positive and supportive," he said. "Having been so closely tied to the theater scene in Cedar Rapids, we're looking closely at ways to complement the good work they're doing downtown. We want to be collaborative and as transparent as possible."
Akers said they chose Marion, based on the success of Theatre Cedar Rapids' post-flood site at Lindale Mall, which now houses Planet X Fun Center.
"It seems like there's a need in that area - and more specifically Marion - for more arts, for theater, for other things, so we were looking in that area," he said.
It was love at first sight at the Uptown site.
"It was an 'aha' moment of, 'Of course this is going to work here.'"
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
WHAT: Giving Tree Theater Open House
WHEN: 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: 752 10th St., Marion
FIRST PLAY: "The Glass Menagerie," Friday to Sunday, Jan. 30 to Feb. 15; auditions 7 p.m. Dec. 14 and 15