How Stew and Heidi took on Iowa City

Stew & Heidi Rodewald at Joe's Pub in New York City. (Photos © 2012, Steven P. Marsh)

Remember Stew & Heidi Rodewald of The Negro Problem‘s theatrical show, Brooklyn Omnibus at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2010? It made a lot of sense. Both of these creative people had spent time living in the County of Kings and knew it pretty well. And the songs reflected their experiences there.

Jacob Yarrow (Photo by Tom Jorgensen)

It was a bit of a surprise when Stew, in the middle of a Jan. 23 CD-release show at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan, asked the audience: “Remember Brooklyn Omnibus? We’re doing an Iowa City Omnibus.”

The Englert Theater, one of the University of Iowa's performing arts venues in Iowa City. (Photo courtesy Jacob Yarrow, Unversity of Iowa)

Thanks to the magic of Twitter, we quickly found out who was behind this Iowa City venture, and took some time to get the lowdown for you.

It turns out that Jacob Yarrow, programming director of the University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City, saw the Spike Lee film version of Stew and Heidi’s Broadway show, Passing Strange. That was enough to give him a real hankering to bring some of Stew and Heidi’s music in the Midwest, tailored to the flood-ravaged city. So he got in touch and commissioned the duo to do an Omnibus for them.

It takes the stage on Thursday, Feb. 2. As of last week, Yarrow hadn’t heard a note of Stew and Heidi’s work, but was looking forward to hearing it. As he explains after the jump, the Iowa City commission pretty much gave the duo free rein.

My guess is that Iowa City and the University of Iowa will never be quite the same again after Stew and Heidi’s visit.

Yarrow agreed to take questions by email and give Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? readers some insights into how this came about.  He used our questions as a jumping off point, so we’re presenting his response here, edited only slightly for length.

I first became aware of Stew and Heidi through Passing Strange. I never saw the play, but heard and read about it. I first saw Spike Lee’s movie when PBS ran it as part of Great Performances about 3 years ago. I’ve watched it many times and it’s still on my DVR. I also noticed Stew & the Negro Problem was starting to tour to some of our peer organizations like UMS in Ann Arbor, MI and the Mondavi Center in Davis, CA, as well as the Brooklyn Omnibus at BAM. The idea of presenting Stew in Iowa City started to take hold.

I asked Bill Bragin [formerly executive director of  Joe’s Pub and longtime friend and fan of Stew and Heidi] about working with Stew and Heidi when we happened to sit across from each other at a big group dinner at a conference. He was full of information and encouraged us to do a project with them. He’s been a great resource throughout. A few weeks later I drove to Chicago with our marketing director to see the band perform at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and then took our executive director to see a show at Joe’s Pub.

All of these experiences and conversations with colleagues led to developing a good understanding of Stew and Heidi’s work and a decent scheme for how we could engage our community around their artistry.

The idea for commissioning a set of songs about Iowa City came about because that’s what Stew said he was interested in doing. We often ask artists what sort of project interests them in an effort to support their work and find points of intersection with our community. He said it from the stage in Chicago and his agent expressed the same thing.

I think that Stew and Heidi strike a chord here in the Midwest. Iowa City is one of 5 UNESCO World Cities of Literature and has a remarkable literary tradition. Stew’s lyrics and poetry are an important point of connection for us. They fit with our vibrant literary scene.

It is modeled on the Brooklyn Omnibus, but on a smaller scale.

Hancher is the performing arts presenter at the University of Iowa. Our mission is to support the UI’s mission of teaching, research, and service by presenting the world’s finest performing artists; initiating and supporting the creation of new works; and providing artistic, educational, technical, human, and physical resources to the University and the people of Iowa.

Founded in 1972, we have a rich history of commissioning works with a total of about 100 commissions including commissions for Bill T. Jones, The Joffrey Ballet, Kronos Quartet, and many others. We have 3 other commissions in this season.

Hancher Auditorium was designed by architect Max Abramovitz, who also designed Avery Fisher Hall. It was destroyed in the flood of June 2008, which devastated our region. We are working with Caesar Pelli and his firm to build a new performing arts center, scheduled to open in 2015. In the meantime, we are presenting in about 15 different venues and finding new ways to energize the cultural life of our community and to connect artists and audiences. The Englert Theatre is in an historic building in downtown Iowa City. It’s a great place to hear live music and seats 750 people or so.

We asked Stew and Heidi to write a set of songs about Iowa City that will be 20-30 minutes of music. They visited Iowa City for 3 busy days in October. They soaked up local flavor at landmarks, parks, restaurants, pubs, book stores, presidential campaign stops, and more. They did a talk back after a screening of Passing Strange at the student-run cinema; and met with a group of faculty members from across campus who are working to integrate the performing arts into their classes. They also met with Iowa City-based Working Group Theatre to see a work-in-progress showing of the play Mayberry (a Hancher commission, premiering in April), and had an exchange about the themes of the piece, which focuses on demographic changes in Iowa City and what builds community.

We’re very happy with the academic connections that we’ve been able to make as we continue to be a part of the Creative Campus movement. A number of university classes are going to attend the show together and use it as fodder for class discussions. We know theatre students will be there, but there are also classes about International Perspectives (prepares students for a service project in Mexico), Global Nutrition Policy (its about setting public health policies – the professor hopes to offer students insight into formulating arguments and telling stories), and College Transitions (helps students transition into college life).

We haven’t heard any of the new music yet, nor do I have any hints of what it might contain.


One response to “How Stew and Heidi took on Iowa City

  1. Jacob described how excited we are here about this great event tomorrow night and all the things we do here in Iowa City. Thanks for posting it.

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