Alumni Action: Tallgrass Theatre Company Has Roots at UNI

TTC - Einstein and the Polar BearJim Stephenson (B.A. '99) and Jessie (Wilson) Phillips (B.A. '00), graduates from the Department of Theatre, co-founded the Tallgrass Theatre Company in Des Moines in 2003. According to the company’s website, after arriving in Des Moines they “found themselves without a venue for their collective artistic vision. The two had discussed the idea of a local theatre company that, like the tallgrass prairie, had deep roots within the state. Another appealing metaphor that the thespians agreed fit their ideals was the rebirth of the prairie from year to year, which allows them to stay fresh with constant change, yet with firm and steady bases from which to spring.”

The mission of the theatre company is to enrich the greater Des Moines community by providing a venue for new and unique performance work that is both entertaining and evocative. Stephenson and Phillips produced the first show in 2004 and have been going strong since those beginning days, when they rented small performance venues, built sets for the shows in Stephenson’s garage and rehearsed in people’s homes. Their goal was and still is to be different from the mainstream. Phillips describes their work as “evocative and a little bit different; what someone wouldn’t necessarily think is theatre. I don’t think you’ll ever see Shakespeare on our stage.” Since Tallgrass opened, several other small theatres have also popped up. The company now uses the Rex Mathes School in Des Moines as their performance home.

Both Phillips and Stephenson attribute their success with TTC in part to their experiences with the Department of Theatre at UNI. Phillips compared her training in the department to boot camp: “You can’t just say you want to be an actor and acting is all you do. You get exposure to every aspect of the theatre.” They agree that the program makes its graduates “very marketable.” While at UNI, Phillips was active in many productions and in various capacities, including director, stage manager, costume designer and technical assistant. Stephenson‘s experience was similarly broad. They still maintain close ties to UNI, and the Theatre faculty remain very helpful. “It speaks to the quality of the program.”

The company, for which Phillips currently serves as artistic director and Stephenson as technical director, is growing in popularity all the time. The marketing budget is limited, but they are able to use word-of-mouth and social media to get information out. Many people who went to the very first show still attend and now donate.  “To have people say, ‘This was great—I’m going to come back’ is really exciting for us,” Phillips said.  “Working on a production together and creating something is magical to me,” she continued.  “It’s wonderful to realize how much it bonds people and creates an end product that everyone can be proud of.”