With all the diversions that Iowa City can offer
on a Friday night, where does a man who juggles batons while riding a unicycle go to have
If he wants to show off his talent to an
appreciative and supportive audience, he goes to Theatre B in the UI Theatre Building and puts
his name on the list to appear in No Shame Theatre, where ingenuity and energy are more
important than polish.
Every Friday night at 11, No Shame Theatre
offers its audiences a kind of immediate creativity that often is buried under lavish production
values and shopworn theatrical conventions in more conservative venues.
The motto at No Shame Theatre is
Cheap, Raw, and Unpredictable, and the only rules are that no performance may
run longer than five minutes nor damage the space or its occupants. Within these broad
guidelines, an evenings program may include comic sketches, dramatic monologues,
original songs accompanied on guitar or piano, a man searching for his lost pet cucumber named
Foo-Foo, and a variety of acts that defy easy description.
No Shame Theatre promises no guarantees, no
censors, and no discrimination. There are no programs, no ushers, no overtures, and no $1
cookies on sale in the lobby. What No Shame has in spades are enthusiastic performers who are
almost always entertaining, sometimes enlightening, and occasionally brilliant.
In spite of the lack of prohibitions, and
inhibitions, most performances are relatively tame. There is the occasional adolescent rebel who
will try to shock the audience with profanity, but within the context of No Shame Theatre, even
these performers have a certain charm, like precocious but naughty little four-year-olds.
No Shame Theatre began in October 1986,
when an undergraduate participant in the Iowa Playwrights Workshop named Todd Ristau (MFA
91) decided that the cargo bed of his pickup truck would make a nice performance space.
In the middle of the E.C. Mabie Theatre parking lot, lit by the headlight of a friends
motorcycle, Ristau and fellow students Jeff Goode (BA 88) and Stan Ruth (BA
87) began performing their work to passers-by. They quickly became a fixture of the Iowa
We were allowed to come inside when
the snow started to fall and they realized we were not going to stop, Ristau says.
Ristau now teaches theater indoors at Mary
Baldwin College in Staunton, Va.
No Shame was always most important
for new voices and talents to experiment in a way that would not have a negative impact on the
participants if things didnt go well, he says, so that fear of failure would
not be the first obstacle to success.
I think that over the years, No Shame
has given a lot of people a good launching pointhands-on experience in every aspect of
production from writing through arts administration. We helped a lot of people find their feet, and
I hope those people pay off that debt by giving assistance to the next group of artists. The goal
was always to build a community.
This goal has evidently been met, judging by the
amount of support that current performers give each other, and by the way past performers have
sown the seeds of shamelessness as they ventured out from Iowa City. No Shame Theatre
franchises have been launched in Cleveland, New York City, South Carolina, Alaska, Miami, and
Chicago. New chapters will be launched this year in Oregon and Virginia.
Almost all of these offspring were engendered
by former participants in the original Iowa model, and almost all follow the original formula. Just
last year Iowa alum Todd McNerney (MFA 88), together with colleague Matthew
Kennedy, launched No Shame Theatre at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. Like the
original, their venue is outside in the courtyard of the theater building, where they perform under
two halogen floodlights using picnic tables as their stage.
While the audience at No Shame Theatre may
not know what to expect on any Friday night, participating performers can expect to gain
priceless experience and confidence that they can take with them into future endeavors. Carolyn
Space Jacobson was a regular writer, performer, and board member for No Shame Theatre from
1987 to 1997, and she is currently teaching at the University of Pennsylvania.
No Shame Theatre was the best
preparation for the classroom that I ever had, she says. No Shame was the one
place at Iowa where I met actors, writers, and dancers who wanted to show me bits of what they
were doing and who were interested in what I was writing.
Cofounder Jeff Goode, now a professional
playwright living in California, is more succinct.
Everything I know about playwriting I
learned at No Shame, he says.
Considering No Shames lack of
pretensions, it can count a number of success stories among its veterans. Erin Quinn and Gregory
Jackson (BA 90), developed a piece called Duet during their days at No Shame Theatre.
Twelve years later, Duet is a full-length one-act play, which has just closed after a healthy run
off-Broadway in The Actors Playhouse in New York Citys Greenwich Village.
Former UI student Toby Huss developed a
character at No Shame called Artie, the Strongest Man in the World. After graduating, Huss took
Artie to New York, where he was discovered at a performance of the No Shame franchise there,
and Artie, the Strongest Man in the World, has since become a recurring character on the
Nickelodeon cable channel.
No Shame has received perhaps its widest exposure
from the late playwright Jonathan Larson, who wrote several pieces for the New York No Shame
Theatre, and who mentioned No Shame fondly in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Rent.
Although Iowas Department of Theatre
Arts sponsors No Shame Theatre, one advantage to the open stage is that not all performers are
theater students. Aprille Clarke, a 1998 graduate in Spanish linguistics, is a regular performer at
No Shame Theatre and credits the experience for helping her be selected as the College of Liberal
Arts commencement speaker.
Christopher Okiishi (MD 97), current
No Shame board member and a staff physician at the UIHC Department of Psychiatry, says,
My time commitments at the University do not afford me the luxury of being in a proper
show. No Shame provides a quick-and-dirty performance fix, immediate gratification for precious
little preparation and time investment.
More than a decade after its inception, No
Shame continues to thrive, and it may be more popular than ever. The annual Best of No Shame
Theatre shows regularly fill all 477 seats at E.C. Mabie Theatre, and the Friday night shows
almost always fill the 148-seat Theatre B to capacity.
According to Professor Alan MacVey, chair of
the Department of Theatre Arts, The most important thing No Shame Theatre does is to
encourage personal creativity. It doesnt matter whether the performers are theater majors
or not. Theyre people with an urge to create, and heres an outlet for them,
No Shame also brings audiences to the
theater who might not attend a regular play. Indeed, it attracts lots of people who have never
attended a play in their lives. For those of us who love the theater and who want more people to
try it, what could be better?
Story by Steve Rosse
Photos by Meghan Nichols
Featured in photos are theater
majors Kyle Lange, Mary Fons, (title image) and Chris Stangl (inset).