Making Big Time Theater in Small Town Iowa

When Robby Pedersen isn't making wood furniture by hand, he's doing something even harder: running a daring, professional, and profitable theater troupe in Jefferson, Iowa.

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Robby Pedersen is a man simultaneously steeped in history and living on the cutting edge.

By day he makes historic furniture, using only tools and methods authentic to the 19th century. By night he runs a professional theater that regularly does edgy world premieres in Jefferson, Iowa (population 4,257).

Now in its ninth season, History Boy Theatre is a destination for theater enthusiasts across the region, and a platform for cultivating talent and theatrical appreciation among its residents.

Robby talks about the theater’s runaway success and why he chose to live in Jefferson, despite generous offers to relocate his business from dozens of cities across the country. And why sometimes, to keep it real, you just have to go ahead and build a log cabin.

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When you started the theatre, you already had a successful furniture business and were one of Jefferson’s main tourist attractions. What possessed you to undertake such a big project on top of all that?

I was used to doing theater, but I didn’t want to be driving back and forth to the big cities all the time. One day I was just like, “I’m gonna put on a show and see if anybody comes.” I had never produced a show.

That first show, we averaged 30 or 40 [people] a night for 2 weeks. I announced we were gonna do another weekend and crowds doubled. And every year since we’ve doubled our audience. Now we have 140 seats but we average 150 people per event – standing room only. Recently we had 800 people in one week.

Those are big crowds for a town of 4,000. How are you managing that?

About two-thirds [of our audiences] are from outside the county. At a show, we were doing this poll and we say “who’s from 100 miles away?” “who’s from out of state?” and you still see hands up. That’s amazing.

What we’re really getting known for here is for premieres – having shows when you can only see it in Jefferson, Iowa. Sometimes locals don’t realize how big a deal it is to get a national premiere in town. And that’s ok.

I like that idea of big time theater being the norm for Jefferson residents, especially since there seems to be a common misperception that the Midwest is a few steps behind the coasts in terms of the arts.

Absolutely. We were the third theater in the country to do “Lizzie.” [There was] one [performance] on each coast and we were the Midwest premiere. We were going to do it on New Year’s Eve and then someone else scheduled for December, so we moved it up to Halloween.

Your size makes that flexibility possible?

Yes. Bigger [theaters] are planning everything 18 months out. I can change plans and nobody seems to mind. We were 3 weeks from auditions for another show, “Spelling Bee,” and then “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” came out and we said: this is too important, we need to do this.

Getting the rights to newer shows is expensive, and we pay our actors, so I can be in several thousand dollars before we even start. But as long as it doesn’t lose money, I can do another show. Even at $15 a ticket, if I can sell-out 6 nights of that we’re going to be making a profit.

Robby Petterson makes furniture the old-fashioned way, with hand tools.

So you’re a small theater that is making money? That in itself is pretty unusual.

It’s a miracle isn’t it? I was reaching out to other [theater] companies [when we first started]. I could tell they were all so buried in the bureaucracy. And one guy said to me: “You know what our secret has been? – we just fill up every night.”

One of my highest priorities was to keep our ticket prices really low. I never want to hear that “I can’t afford theater.” And I’d rather have a full house every night – it’s more fun for everybody.

Is it difficult to find enough performers in a small town?

We try to really cultivate [talent] – I have acting workshops, voice lessons. We build acting lessons into the rehearsals. And now we have 10 or 15 people in town that are professional level. That’s the way. We bring in people from out of town and mix in a local or two.

People ask our [out-of-town] talent: Why are you coming out to Jefferson? Well, in their words, “they’re doing all the cool stuff.”

We get creative. We were doing “Oklahoma” once, and during rehearsal I was running around playing several parts because people were out sick, and everyone was cracking up. So we made a version of [the play] that was 2-person show and we took it around the state. And that earned us patrons.

You grew up in Jefferson, but left for several years. What made you decide to come back?

I was looking for a place to locate my furniture business and got offers from all over the country – they would give me money and a space to move there and bring tourism. I spent 6 months traveling around the country looking at towns, and Jefferson wasn’t on the list. I came home [to Jefferson] to talk to my parents about where I was gonna end up, and I happened to look at the building [that is now the furniture studio and theater]. And I realized what I had. I figured if I was going to bring tourism money, I wanted it to be to my hometown.

It seems like you’ve been successful in that goal – I hear Jefferson is doing well.

It’s definitely thriving. We’ve got a progressive city leadership. We got a new [grocery store], a casino -which as a tourism draw, I think that’s great. We’re a Main Street community. They’re rebuilding 26 building facades. We’re on the national historic registry. Maybe 10 or 15 years ago it felt like this town [needed] an identity. And now we’re on our way.

I’m here to be an anchor. We recently received a tourism award for the furniture shop. I confidently say I give the best tour in the state. But those bus tours won’t come for one thing. They need 5 things. I find myself trying to work together with other [tourism attractions] around here. We’re within 25 miles of four 10,000 person towns. I keep saying if we’re gonna grow, we have to figure out a way to tap into those communities.

There’s an interesting contradiction here though – between your historic furniture-building philosophy and the theater. You are spending most of your day purposefully not being on the cutting edge, but then doing world premieres of theater at night.

Haha. That’s right. The only reason that works is that it turns out to be a cutting edge idea. Nobody is making quality furniture. It ends up feeling very cutting edge.

When we did a bluegrass musical the script called for a log cabin. I don’t do theater sets, I don’t paint canvas – so I just built a log cabin. We’re a low technology theater. There’s something realer about it to me.

Building log cabins, producing theater, attracting tourism – You are doing a lot, how are you keeping up?

It’s not just me doing [the theater]. We’ve got a group of people that are really the core. Every couple of years you get a new person to join the core group. That’s the only way to keep it going.

Yeah, in any town those people are out there, right? People willing to do the work. But you need someone to get it started so that people have something to come out and join.

Right. Not everybody will take the risk and say “let’s start a theater,” but they will come be part of it.

You’re stepping out on a limb – can we do this? Can we get people to come out? Can we get the talent?

And honestly the secret is work. We just out-work. We put a lot of hours in. There’s not a lot of drama here – to use the obvious pun. We all love each other. We get better every year.

Jefferson, population 4,257, is the county seat of Greene County in northwest Iowa, about 1 hour from Des Moines. The town is an employment hub for the county, offering more than 3,000 jobs, with its largest employers specializing in manufacturing, healthcare, and hospitality. Income and educational attainment in Jefferson are lower than the state average, while median age is significantly higher. Three of the County’s four schools are in Jefferson, including the high school. In addition to Robby’s furniture business and theater, Jefferson also claims distinction as home of the 14-story Mahanay Bell Tower and hometown of famed pollster George Gallup.

 

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