Mark and Leslie Nolte creating community arts center in former Riverside Theatre site

When one stage door closes, another one opens.

Mark and Leslie Nolte of Iowa City are transforming the former home of Riverside Theatre, at 213 N. Gilbert St., into The James Theater. By the start of the next school year, they hope to throw open the doors to new a community performing arts center, as well as a performance and workshop site for the Iowa Conservatory, a performing arts high school being incubated at Nolte Academy in Coralville.

The theater is a separate entity from Nolte Academy, said Leslie Nolte, 44, who will serve as the theater’s artistic director, deeming her husband, 45, the executive director, since he’ll handle the business aspects.

In announcing their plans, they said they “intend to operate the venue as a benefit corporation — a hybrid between a business and a nonprofit — if the Iowa Legislature formally approves recognizing this legal structure.”

According to bcorporation.net, “Certified B Corporations are a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit. They are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment.”

The couple will be renting the building from the Gilpin family, which previously rented it to Riverside Theatre from 1990 to 2020, when Riverside moved to virtual programming during the COVID-19 pandemic. That professional troupe, formed in 1981, is developing a new home in the Pedestrian Mall District’s Crescent Block downtown.

All of these changes are happening in stages. The Noltes received the building keys last week, and are talking with architects about ways to enlarge and enhance the stage, dressing rooms, restrooms, lobby and seating, as well as increase accessibility for audiences and performers with disabilities, and install a new HVAC system. Permission to renovate is part of the lease, Leslie Nolte said.

“It’s a pretty big overhaul,” she noted. “We’re bringing it into 2021. ... I’m excited.”

The initial renovation budget is $250,000, and the couple will be rolling out a fundraising 10-show countdown this summer, leading to a gala opening in the early fall. They’re also exploring some other fundraising streams.

“Business advertising with selling the seats is on the table,” Leslie Nolte said. ”We’re looking at a couple different models. Nothing is 100 percent right now. We’re in the creation phase — we just know we’re doing it.

“We will probably spend the next 30 days in the space finalizing the plans and Build to Suit is doing our remodel, and they’ll get started as soon as we sign off on everything.”

Community space

The theater is named for Leslie Nolte’s father, James Bartnick of Arlington Heights, Ill.

“He’s still alive,” she quickly added. “I want to honor him while he’s still here. He has been a huge supporter from the very beginning of Nolte Academy, when we first started into the arts scene here in Johnson County. He was financially a support for me to make it a go, and he’s been my shoulder for business advice through all the ups and downs through the last 20 years.

“I think the name is cool,” she added. “I did not name any of my children after him, (and) that’s always been a little point of contention. So he gets a theater.”

While “theater” is part of the venue’s name, she anticipates just calling it The James.

“I’d like the boundaries of ‘theater’ to stay a little loose, in regard to workshop space,” she said, “and (so) artists or creators or innovators think this is a place for them. We hope it’s for everybody.”

It will provide space for Nolte Academy students and teachers who want to create work outside of their recitals and annual “Nutcracker” performances. Right now, the studios at the Coralville instructional facility are filled all the time, so The James will allow them to branch out.

But that will take up just a portion of the theater’s calendar, leaving plenty of dates to offer rental space for small groups, singer/songwriters, dancers and other performers who have a hard time finding such sites.

“We all know the theater companies that get volunteer space from church basements, and dance companies that never get off the ground because real estate is expensive,” Leslie Nolte said.

“If you’re a brand-new creator of any kind, you have to create the work before you can make the money to pay for the work, and it’s such a backward model. Having a theater space that’s supported by what we’ve done here already for 20 years — I just want to see incubation of work being made. Incubate it, workshop it. I feel like it could be anything from a teenager’s book of poetry, to installation arts, to a full day of performance art, to a two- or three-person modern (dance) company.”

Seating capacity will be about 130.

“With a house our size, I think our niche is just really the creation of new work, and then also a home theater for the homework that we want to create as our performing arts high school and dance academy and theater arts school.”

She’s currently using Nolte Academy to incubate Iowa Conservatory, an in-person intensive arts education for students ages 11 to 19. “A positive from the pandemic has been the Iowa City School District’s online program. What that now allows us to do is to have a day program for our arts, while still staying with the Iowa City School District for the academics,” she said.

Her goal is to offer the kind of arts educational programming that high school students aiming for a professional career typically have to leave Iowa to find.

She also sees The James as a new option for some of the acts that played at The Mill before it closed last summer, and she’s working with her 16-year-old daughter, Zoe, about hosting Tuesday Teen Night, offering an arts open-mic type of experience.

“I remember being an artist in high school, and unless it was an event that my high school put on, there was nowhere for me to really create and perform,” Leslie Nolte said.

“The James Theater will act a little bit like a community center for the arts, if I reach my goal.”

The stage size will be “perfect” for dance performances and singer/songwriter shows, she noted.

“What’s lovely is that you can outgrow us. You can start in a rented or borrowed basement or garage, and when you outgrow us, there’s the Coralville Center (for the Performing Arts) with just over 400 seats. When you outgrow them, you’ve got the Englert, with just over 700 (seats), and when you outgrow them, you’ve got Hancher,” she said. “We feel happily in the little creation phase, at the bottom of the pool.”

They’re also exploring the possibility of expanding the downtown event footprint, by serving as a satellite performance space for festivals like Mission Creek.

“I’m super excited for the conversations and possibilities,” she said.

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

Mark and Leslie Nolte creating community arts center in former Riverside Theatre site