The Demolition of Drama

iMAGE explores the demolition of the NWJH little theater and what it means for the drama programs in both middle and high school.


Evelyn Kraber

A group of NWJH students perform a skit in the little theater on May 1.


“The Crimson House Murder”

Act One, Scene One


AT RISE: Main room of Crimson House, evening. The lights flicker and dim, giving a shadowy look to establish a mysterious mood.

It’s April 29, 2022, the opening night of Northwest Junior High’s production of “The Crimson House Murder.”

It’s the first production the drama program has done since the pandemic, and after months of hard work, both the cast and crew are excited to put on the show. The small theater in the center of the school is full of people, its small stage decorated to look like a 20th-century home. 

But soon, the house will lie in shambles, taking the heart of the theater department with it.


The Demolition 

“I learned about [the demolition] moments before our play started for its Saturday night performance from custodial staff,” said Lauren Darby, last year’s director of “The Crimson House Murder” and the current director of the City High Theater program.  

It all started after the decision to move 6th grade into ICCSD Junior High schools to make room for a Pre-K program in the district’s elementary schools. The Junior High schools need to be larger to accommodate another grade, and decision-makers made plans to fit hundreds more students into the school. 

“Northwest isn’t big enough to hold another grade of students. As the contractors and architects walked through the building, they noticed that the Little Theater was a huge area in that building. So they were asking questions about how often it is used, what’s it used for. It’s a lot of space that just isn’t being used, [only] once a year for the play,” said Elizabeth Breuning, last year’s principal of NWJH and current assistant principal of West High School. She said that the space was also occasionally used for things like study halls and speakers during the day, but the school needed to use it more for it to be cost-effective to keep it.

It’s a lot of space that just isn’t being used, [only] once a year for the play.

— Elizabeth Breuning, WHS Assistant Principal

Choosing between the arts and saving money is always a difficult decision. Public schools are often underfunded, and due to recent legislation in Iowa giving money to families to send their kids to private schools, the issue of underfunding is not being solved. This means measures have to be taken to save money, and these decisions often lead to the arts receiving less money and resources, as seen in the case of NWJH theater. 

Another reason for the demolition was that the other Junior Highs in the district don’t have a theater. “I was told it was “not equitable” for NWJH to continue to have a theater when NCJH and SEJH did not have them, but building North Central without that space and getting rid of it at Southeast were intentional choices that were made, not a matter of inequitable resource allocation,” said Darby. Northwest was the only junior high school that would regularly put on productions. While the other schools occasionally have a drama club or elective, there isn’t an established theater program like NWJH has. 

Due to the demolition, which will likely occur over the summer, the drama program can no longer put on productions at the school. 


The Impact

Without the theater, the drama department at NWJH will suffer a significant loss. “Theatre is a particularly important space for students who don’t necessarily have another “home” in the school. At a time when there is a reported mental health crisis and need for investment in social-emotional learning, it is upsetting to feel that decision-makers in the district do not see (or even inquire about) the value of these programs,” said Darby, and she isn’t the only one noticing the lack of investment in theater at NWJH. “I’m sure they wouldn’t tear down a football field, but they would tear down a theater, and we’re the only junior high that has a theater like that,” said Luke Reimer ’27, a NWJH student.

It is upsetting to feel that decision-makers in the district do not see (or even inquire about) the value of these programs.

— Lauren Darby, City High School Drama Director

Tearing down the theater extensively affects all students who participate in the program. Theater allows students to meet new people and spend time with one another doing something they enjoy. It provides a safe place for them to be themselves and try new things. “Theater, for me, is a space to make new friends and have new experiences. Watching a play is such an amazing opportunity to see how all these talented actors and singers and dancers perform, and a glimpse of the hard work they put into amazing sets and songs they sing, the directors and stage managers, just to have this little preview of all the effort that went on to make it possible. Being inside the production is even more amazing because you get to see all this first hand, and be a part of it, you meet these great people, and just really have a good time,” said Etta Graber, a seventh-grader at NWJH. 

Outside of play season, the drama club meets biweekly at the school. Brooke Freund, a literacy teacher at the school, runs the club. It provides a stress-free environment for students to learn about and participate in theater. Club meetings can consist of drama games, mini-performances, and more. The theater is also used for the club, meaning they must relocate their meetings elsewhere in the school.


The Productions

The last play done at the school was “The Crimson House Murder.” The play was about a hotel where its eccentric inhabitants pay incredibly high rent for lackluster service. And, of course, someone gets murdered.

Participating in the play allowed students to dip their toes in the theater pool, seeing what doing a production is like in a low-pressure environment. Most of those that participated had little to no experience with theater, and participating in the show let them experience drama while still having a lot of fun. “[Crimson House Murder] kind of became like a second home, at least for a little bit, so it’s kind of like they’re tearing down a home,” said Reimer. Reimer played a lead role in the show, a young detective named Hercules Porridge. Aahand Gupta ’27, who played a journalism student, also had a positive experience doing the show. “[Crimson House Murder] was extremely fun; I really liked it. I made a lot of friends and so many memories.”

[Crimson House Murder] kind of became like a second home, at least for a little bit, so it’s kind of like they’re tearing down a home.

— Luke Reimer '27

Participating in school theater isn’t the only way to participate in drama. The Iowa City area is very diverse and offers many opportunities, such as community theater. Organizations such as Young Footliters offer camps as well as put on productions for young people. Some recent shows done by Young Footlighters include “Wings,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reigndeer Jr.” and “Jack and the Giant Beanstalk.” 

Community theater is a great way to get exposed to the world of drama and be involved. There are roles for all ages, allowing young children to participate in theater along with adults who are passionate about the arts. 

While it is a great opportunity, doing camps and productions can take time and money. Only some have access to the transportation and money necessary to participate in community theater, which makes having drama offered at schools so important. 

Also, unlike school theater, not everyone can participate in a production. “It’s extremely difficult for kids to join the theater community from an older age like me, because we have no experience with previous productions, and are often not let in. Drama club, on the other hand, is inclusive to everyone, and gives you a chance to be in a production regardless of skill and experience,” said Graber.

Drama club, on the other hand, is inclusive to everyone, and gives you a chance to be in a production regardless of skill and experience.

— Etta Graber '28

Those that can’t participate in community theater will likely have to wait until high school to be a part of a production, which can be a completely different experience than just participating in a club. There are late nights and lots of hard work from both the cast and crew, but it all pays off on opening night to know you had an impact on creating something incredible.


The Future

While no replacement plans for the theater are in place, the drama class and club will likely still exist. 

But not having a theater does complicate some things. 

“We have to move all of our theater equipment to the janitor’s closets, so we’re gonna be losing some things and we also just don’t have a space to do theatre things anymore,” said Gupta. Along with the theater, the costume closet and backstage area will no longer be accessible to drama students.

The lack of a theater at NWJH could also impact West High’s theater program. West High has a diverse theater program, with hundreds of students participating in each production. Those numbers rely on NWJH students’ exposure through the drama program there. Being able to put on shows at the junior high level exposes many of those students to drama and can ignite a passion for it. “If you’re doing it early on, and you’re being encouraged to be creative in that way, that is so helpful. We think that Northwest has done just a fabulous job and Freund has done an amazing job with setting students up to be confident and feel like they can come here and audition or sign up to be part of our crew, and she’s given them all her students a place to create something together,” said Katy Nahra, an English and theater teacher at West High. 

“There’s no one that really seems to care enough about it growing, or how can we add on to other schools to have a space, or how can we replace this space?” said Freund. She’s been doing what she can to keep the program alive as she has for the past ten years, working to figure out alternative ways to still put on productions.

There’s no one that really seems to care enough about it growing, or how can we add on to other schools to have a space, or how can we replace this space?

— Brooke Freund, NWJH Literacy and Drama teacher

Considerable options include putting on plays at the Coralville Center for Performing Arts or in the gym. Doing productions at the CCPA would be a great option; it’s an amazing space. But, students can’t drive themselves, and not everyone can access transportation.

“They say they’re going to put stuff on in the gym, but I doubt that they’re going to be able to do that. The gym doesn’t have a podium or backstage area,” said Reimer. A crucial part of theater is everything that happens backstage. Without a backstage area, it’s hard to do set or costume changes or have a place for actors to be when not performing. It wrecks the magic of it. While the little theater was small, the drama program made it work, hanging up curtains to create wings and making the best use of their space. It was better than nothing. 

And now that space has been taken away, leaving the future of the drama program uncertain. Without a theater, the program lacks an area designated for creating theater. The future now lies in decision-maker’s hands to give the students the space they deserve, allowing them to create and explore the performing arts.