Isaac Hamlet Iowa City Press-Citizen
Published 12:40 PM EDT Mar 8, 2020
Mary Ellen Chudacek fell into her 50-year liaison with the theater by accident. A trip to the Iowa City Community Theatre meeting in 1967 with her friend Mary Fowler pulled her into a career of volunteering.
"She’s been involved in so many aspects of the theater," said Alan Swanson, president of Iowa City's Community Theatre board, a role held by Chudacek herself in the past. "She’s kind of the perfect representation of a volunteer at a community theater.”
So perfect that Swanson and his fellow board member created an award for her.
Iowa City Community Theatre (ICCT) opened its production of Stephen Sondheim's "Company" on March 6, which will run through March 15. At the start of Friday night's show, Chudacek was recognized with the ICCT Lifetime Achievement Award.
Chudacek has been involved with Iowa City Community Theater for the majority of its 64-years and most of her own; long enough that she could write a comprehensive book about it, though she already did that about 20 years ago.
“The daughter of one of our original members had a publishing business in California, so she was the one who coordinated it all," recalled Chudacek, who also penned the preface and introduction for "Onstage/Offstage: The Iowa City Community Theatre's First Forty Years."
"I’d be at her house and type forever and she’d feed me and I’d go home and that’s what we did that year," she continued.
Her services to the community theater have piled up over the years, but what she's perhaps loved most is directing.
Her credits include Rodger and Hammerstein's adaptation of "Cinderella" in 1991, "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown" in 2001 and "Try to Remember," an original piece produced in 1996, celebrating 40 years, at the time, of the theater's existence.
Her total list of directed works numbers a dozen, with the last one having been in 2007 with "The Wayside Motor Inn." This is to say nothing of productions she's performed in, stage-managed, or assisted in other capacities.
More recently, as she's entered retirement age, she's taken to sponsoring a musical production each year with funds left to her by the estate of her late brother Bill Chudacek as well as other family money and her own funds.
“I had so much family stuff to do and I’m the only (member of my family left)," Chudacek said. "I’m it, so I started contributing money since I couldn’t give them time right then."
Because musical productions were a favorite among her and her family, she's always put her donation toward the musical. This year, that musical is "Company."
"There's just something about them," she said of the genre. "Somebody bursts into song and everything gets better or it gets worse. They were fun to direct and there's just something about them that makes you happy."
Despite, the fact that she's given dozens of years and countless hours to the theater, Chudacek was still shocked when Swanson told her that the board was going to present her with this inaugural award.
“They told me at this lunch and I just burst into tears, I just couldn’t believe it," she said. “I’ve had a wonderful time all this time, so now to get recognition like this is just… I couldn't have been more surprised. More flattered. More humbled."
She doesn't know whether or not she'll have the opportunity to return to the theater in a more hands-on capacity, but she would certainly like to as her love for the local stage remains unwavering.
"It is as both a community and volunteer organization, then, that ICCT finds its true identity," she wrote more than 20 years ago in the opening pages of "Onstage/Offstage." "Local volunteers are the life-blood of every aspect of the program, onstage and off."
Things are different now, Chudacek noted. The people, the productions, other theaters, the city itself — all have changed over the years. Yet in the face of all of it, Iowa City Community Theatre and those involved have remained stalwart.
"It's a nice place for friendship, we've had people date, get married, get divorced, be friends," she reflected, smiling. "We all have other jobs, so this is what you do with your free time… This is what you do because it's special to you."
Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at the Press-Citizen. Reach him at email@example.com or (319)-688-4247, follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet