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Juggled rings of iambic pentameter, anything is possible when the lights go down for No Shame Theater. Sophomore Bradley Harris says he juggles clubs, balls, cigar boxes, and, of course, books. Photo by Meghan Nichols.

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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 fun?

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 evening’s 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 friend’s 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 City weekend.

“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.

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“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 didn’t 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 point—hands-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 Shame’s 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 City’s 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 Iowa’s 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 doesn’t matter whether the performers are theater majors or not. They’re people with an urge to create, and here’s an outlet for them,” he says.

“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).

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