Mission & History
Sustain a world class theatre arts program where we develop new work and new artists through a creative, collaborative process. With respect for the great global traditions, we push the boundaries of theatre, using sophisticated tools and technologies.
Provide space for diversity and to foster social responsibility and change.
Nurture student artists and their work, prepare graduates for professional opportunities, support faculty as professional artists and scholars, and engage, delight, and challenge audiences.
Revised: April 2017.
We imagine it. We create it.
Iowa’s Department of Theatre Arts is (we believe) the third oldest in the country, and its history mirrors the development of dramatic art in America. Founded as a Department of Speech, it expanded to include theatre, radio, film, television, communication studies, and speech and hearing disorders. Always committed to new, socially conscious work, its faculty pioneered the community theatre movement, the living newspaper, and the transfer of plays from university theatres to Broadway.
For nearly 100 years our mission has been the same: to train the artist of the future
—a visionary who understands and promotes the development of new theatre.
2019: Theatre B was renamed the Alan MacVey Theatre in April 2019.
2016: The Costume Shop and Costume Collection moves from its Studio Arts home since 2008 to the South End of the Old Museum (right next door!).
2015: The basement renovations were completed - with classrooms, offices, costume crafts classroom and properties storage. Extensive renovations to the patio/sidewalks/landscaping completed.
2013: The Theatre Building was closed on May 31 – with the threat of rising flood waters – HESCO barriers were stacked 8' high. Flood waters crested 6' below the 2008 flood. In early August, the Theatre Building reopened. In the fall, construction/renovations began to repair the damage from the 2008 flood. The Theatre Building closed from December 21 to January 20 for major reconstruction work from the 2008 floods, including rebuilding the entire basement and moving all of the HVAC system from the basement to a new third floor location.
2012: A new interdisciplinary partnership is established with Film. A new undergraduate program enabling students to double major in Music and Theatre is prepared to begin in 2013.
2010: Rinde Eckert's Eye Piece, a collaboration between the Department of Theatre Arts, Hancher Auditorium, and the Center for Macular Degeneration, opens in February. In October, director/choreographer Martha Clarke creates the world premier of her dream play, In the Night.
2008: Major flooding destroys the theatre basement and damages shop areas. After spending the fall semester in Brewery Square, classes resume in the Theatre Building for the Spring semester 2009.
2007: Composer/Director/Actor Rinde Eckert begins a 2-year project using students from theatre, dance, and music to create a new piece in collaboration with the University Hospitals and Clinics.
2004: The department broadens its international reach by hosting artists from the Middle East, Africa, and the Philippines.
2000: The Division of Performing Arts is established, providing close ties between Theatre, Dance, and Music, and deepening the technical resources available to all three units. The MFA Program in Stage Management is enlarged and strengthened.
1999: Iowa Summer Rep celebrates its 16th anniversary by becoming an URTA/Equity Theatre, offering students a chance to work with professionals and earn points toward their Actor's Equity membership cards.
1995: The MFA Program in Dramaturgy is established; it is one of the nation’s first to specialize in new play dramaturgy.
1992-94: The new Partnership in the Arts program premiers work by Ann Bogart, Theodora Skipitares, and Maria Irene Fornes. The program continues to bring outstanding artists to campus to create new work.
1991: Alan MacVey is appointed Chair and renews the department’s commitment to bringing cutting edge theatre artists to campus.
1984-85: The Department of Theatre Arts becomes an autonomous department. The new Theatre Building opens and the Old Armory is demolished. This is the first time all theatre offices, classrooms, performance spaces, and shops have been under one roof.
1980-81: The annual Hancher musical is abandoned. The Department is renamed the Department of Communication and Theatre Arts, reflecting the gradual shift in focus of the last 50 years. The University Theatre is re-named the University Theatres (adding the ‘s’) to reflect the fact that it produces performances in several spaces. Emphasis on the MFA program and the Playwrights Workshop develops under the leadership of Robert Hedley.
1976: The University Office of Facilities Planning recommends that two new buildings be built to house the dividing department of Speech and Dramatic Arts: one on the east campus for broadcasting and film, and one in addition to the existing building on the arts campus (the west side of the river) for theatre.
1971-73: The Playwrights Workshop is founded under the leadership of Oscar Brownstein. Hancher Auditorium opens, and annual musicals become a tradition of cooperation between the Departments of Music, Theatre, and Dance. The 477-seat theatre in the original Dramatic Arts Building is renamed the E.C. Mabie Theatre.
1968-69: Black Action Theatre is founded (now the Darwin Turner Action Theatre). The Art Museum is completed. The Department of Speech and Dramatic Art Chair, Samuel Becker, pushes for a new theatre space. The Old Armory is overrun with problems, including rats, bats, and fire code violations.
1958: The first performance in the Old Armory Theatre, a 190-seat performance space in the Old Armory (north of the University Library) is Frank Mosier’s Christine Fonnegra. The new space expands production possibilities for the Department.
1956-57: E. C. Mabie dies of a stroke. H. Clay Harshbarger is named chair. The Bachelor of Fine Arts degree is eliminated.
1950: E.C. Mabie suffers a series of strokes which, through determination and perseverance, he is able to overcome. Mabie channels Department energy into the new field of television and broadcasting, feeling strongly that Iowa must be a pioneer in the modern era. He never ceases reminding the administration that his building is not finished, and that the Department must have funding from outside sources to complete this essential structure.
1942-43: The north scene shop is completed, and the Studio Theatre in Old North Hall is given of to other departments. At the start of World War II “A Community Theatre for Victory Program” is begun by the University Theatre. Many men (and a few women) are leaving campus for the front, and non-traditional casting is explored in several productions, including casting women in male roles in All’s Well That Ends Well. The University Theatre produces a Living Newspaper production of It’s Up To You for the Department of Agriculture, in which the goal is to educate the public about the role of food in the war effort.
1939: Scenery turntables are motorized. The first MFA is conferred by the School of Fine Arts upon Henderson Forsythe, whose thesis was “An Actor’s Preparation and Interpretation of Three Widely Different Roles in the Theatre.” Eric Forsythe, current professor of acting and directing, is Henderson's son. The final issue of the Archives of Speech is published.
1935-36: The Dramatic Arts Building opens to an invited audience on November 7. The production is E.P. Conkle’s Two Hundred Were Chosen, which is in simultaneous rehearsal in New York and opens on Broadway just two weeks after its Iowa premiere. The main building is finished over the next several years.
1934-35: Mabie travels to New York to obtain a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for the new scene shop. Ground is broken in February for the theatre, and a second trip to the Rockefeller Foundation wins Mabie an even more ambitious and elegant building. The department launches a scholarly publication called the Archives of Speech, to provide graduate students with a place to publish.
1933: A new studio space is created in Old North Hall, on the Pentacrest, and the Union Studio Theatre is given up. Over the next few years the University acquires land on the West Bank of the Iowa River, and E.C. Mabie, Music chair Philip Greeley Clapp, President Walter Jessup, and Union Director Rufus Fitzgerald, have the inspiration for a “riverside campus for the arts”.
1931: A new lighting control system, designed by faculty member Hunton Sellman, is installed in the Natural Science Auditorium. Cramped quarters and lack of shop space curtail some creative efforts. Arnie Gillette, a graduate of Yale drama school with a degree in design, joins the faculty.
1930: The University Theatre is now the only play-producing body on campus, under the rubric of the new Department of Speech and Dramatic Art, of which E.C. Mabie is chair. The first two doctorates in speech are bestowed. The department begins instruction in radio broadcasting.
1929: The School of Fine Arts is established. It is comprised of the Graphic and Plastic Arts and History and Appreciation of Art. The department is re-named the Department of Speech and Dramatic Art. Baird takes a debating team to England to debate eighteen British colleges and Universities.
1928: Under Baird’s guidance, Iowa becomes a member of the newly formed Western Conference (the Big Ten, minus Chicago) and participates in many debate tournaments.
1927: The Sueppel Studio Theatre is abandoned in favor of a new theatre in the basement of the Union. Plans are made for an addition to the Union to include a 775-seat theatre. The Depression forces the University to postpone the project.
1925: The first of a series of small performance spaces is christened the Sueppel Studio Theatre. (Frances Sueppel was a prominent Iowa City actor.) A former classroom in the Liberal Arts Annex (known as the southern wing of the Engineering Building), it seats 60 and has a small stage. Sueppel Studio Theatre initiates the tradition of presenting new plays, and Mabie begins to premiere work that transfers to Broadway. Mabie appoints A. Craig Baird, from Bates College. Baird is a specialist in forensics.
1923: Dean Carl Seashore tells Glenn Merry that his Department of Speech is “an art department that never should be allowed a doctoral degree in its own right.” Mr. Merry resigns. E.C. Mabie becomes acting head of the department and remains its leader until his death in 1956.
1921-24: Mabie and Walter Prichard Eaton of New York establish the Little Theatre Circuit, which allows University Theatre productions to tour cities throughout Iowa. The purpose of the organization in (in Eaton’s words) is to “take the spoken drama to places where the professional theatre never reached, and to call out the creative energies of the people themselves.”
1920-21: Assistant Professor Edward Charles Mabie arrives in Iowa. The Englert Theatre (then a legitimate stage) announces to the University clubs who produce plays that it is raising rental rates. Eight clubs gather to become the “University Theatre.” Mabie is appointed its first director and immediately strikes a deal with the administration: the University will provide lights and curtains for the Natural Science Auditorium (now Macbride) and he will hold all future productions in that space. University Theatre is born. The Department is renamed the Department of Speech. Mabie initiates a new graduate MA program Mabie founds the “Out-of-Door Players”, who perform several plays every summer across campus until 1925.