Newsies rehearsal

Performers from the American Gothic Performing Arts Festival rehearse a scene from “Newsies” Wednesday afternoon at Premier Dance Center.

OTTUMWA — One year after being shut down because of COVID-19, the American Gothic Performing Arts Festival is back to a full schedule — and has even added to its slate of events.

“It’s just a little startling to be back in full swing,” said Executive Artistic Director Dennis Willhoit. “It’s like being in a fog.”

AGPAF Board President Kyle Roemerman agreed, saying this year’s return had come with a learning curve. “Apparently, it only takes a year to wipe out” the routine of preparing the event, now in its ninth year.

However, the one-year hiatus has not diverted the festival from its mission. “We want to provide southeast Iowa — and eventually more — with a high-quality arts festival that celebrates all the arts,” Roemerman said. “It’s to celebrate the arts and create a rich and vibrant arts community in southeast Iowa so people don’t feel like they have to go far away for a high-quality art experience.”

“It’s significant that it’s such a strong return,” Willhoit said, as as early as the beginning of the year they were still taking a look at what the festival, if it was even held, would look like.

“As we approach 10 years, I think we’re finding our groove,” he said.”I think it continues to grow and impact the visibility of the performing arts and art in general. We’re seeing more and more people coming from a further distance to enjoy what we’re doing.”

The festival got underway Friday night with a dedication and donor event at the Temple of Creative Arts. The former synagogue was donated to the organization in 2019, and Friday’s event was held to welcome donors to the dedication of the rehabilitated performance and event space. The evening included hors d’oeuvres, drinks and dedicatory performances by the festival’s guest artists. Additionally, local artist Chris Abigt and area high school students worked on a mural for the temple’s terrace garden as patrons were able to look on. The mural will celebrate the joy of the performing arts and the role that visual arts play in interpreting sound, movement and expression, according to the festival’s brochure.

The festival continues at 7 p.m. Saturday with a Gothic Gala on the lawn of the American Gothic House in Eldon. The five-course dinner presented by Appanoose Rapids will also feature performances from local and festival artists. Tickets are available by contacting 641-777-0894 or visiting www.americangothicfest.org.

Opera on Tap is slated for 8 p.m. Thursday, June 17, at Pallister Brothers Brewing Company with guest artists singing a variety of selections throughout the evening.

Saturday, June 19, will bring something new to the festival in the form of a Juneteenth celebration from 2-7 p.m. in the sculpture park at Bridge View Center. Willhoit said the event seemed like a natural fit for the festival.

“Our festival encompasses the date in its second weekend, and we have struggled in the past to keep the momentum of the festival that second weekend,” he said. “It seemed fitting to celebrate the arts and culture of the Black and African communities. I really am excited about it.”

In addition, he said the event helps meet the festival’s objective of making the arts accessible and welcoming to all in the community and creating an open and friendly atmosphere for all.

A pamphlet for the festival says the free event will feature music, dance, art and history of the African and African-American communities. A variety of food and shopping vendors will be set up, and the celebration also includes African face painting, braiding and more.

“It’s a step to ensure we continue to make connections to bring it all together,” Willhoit said. “It was a good time to bring them in.”

The following day, Sunday, June 20, will feature a children’s operetta of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at 7:30 p.m. on the steps of the Ottumwa Public Library. The classic opera has been adapted by Willhoit with English texts by Andrew Porter and Shawn Marie Jeffrey.

Thursday, June 24, brings another new aspect to the festival in the form of an awards luncheon at noon at TOCA. The festival’s board of directors has established an honorary award to recognize outstanding contributions to the humanities in Ottumwa and beyond. The awards luncheon will become an annual event, and will also include performances by guest artists. For reservations, contact 641-777-0894 or visit www.americangothicfest.org.

The festival then concludes with two performances of the musical “Newsies” at 7:30 p.m. June 25-26 at Bridge View Center. A reshow lecture/discussion presented by attorney John Mckerley will be held at 6:45 p.m. each evening and will focus on the early 20th century labor movement. Following Saturday’s performance, a celebratory afterglow on the plaza will be held.

The two-day show is an expansion of previous festivals. Willhoit said a second performance was scheduled in order to ensure social distancing. However, he said, it also works out well for the performers, who have often commented in the past that they wished they could do it again. “We’ll see how that goes. I think it will go well,” he said.

“We were planning to do ‘Newsies’ in 2020, and when the festival got canceled, we rolled over the rental to the 2021 season,” Roemerman said. He is also serving as the assistant director and stage manager for the show.

“It is a beloved show,” he said, and is bringing back familiar faces. Directory Grant Carrier grew up in Oskaloosa and currently lives in Chicago. He was with the festival in its first year, performing in “Peter Pan.” Musical Director Michale Gookin, who will be teaching at Grinnell High School this fall, sang in the chorus years ago. A couple of cast members were actually cast in the show last year and are returning for it this year.

“People are excited to have the festival back,” Roemerman said. “Guest artists from Wisconsin that have been with us before are excited to be back and have been instrumental in the Juneteenth celebration.

“I didn’t realize how much I had missed the festival until it was canceled,” he added. “To have the arts back is huge. You can really tell [the performers] have missed it. I think we all missed it.”

— Features Editor Tracy Goldizen can be reached via email at tgoldizen@ottumwacourier.com or followed on Twitter @CourierTracy.

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Tracy Goldizen is the Courier's features and magazine editor, leading production of the award-winning "Ottumwa Life" and the Courier's other magazine offerings. She began work with the Courier on the copy desk.

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