Unexpected Company is the the second partnership project for Brian Lynner and Lisa Norris-Lynner.  The company owes much of its genesis to an earlier project: The Iowa Shakespeare Project.

The Iowa Shakespeare Project

Oberon & PuckLisa Norris and Brian Lynner met in the spring of 1992, as Brian was launching the first Iowa Shakespeare Conservatory training program for high school students. They became partners in the Iowa Shakespeare Project, founding a non-profit organization and annual summer Shakespeare Festival that employed professional theatre artists from around the country.  Many of these artists had Iowa roots, having been born and/or educated in Iowa.

In its few short years, the Shakespeare Project served over 30,000 Iowans with free outdoor productions of full-length Shakespeare plays in more than a dozen Iowa communities. The Shakespeare Project’s education programs served thousands of students in K-12 schools throughout the state and provided training for dozens of high school students and college interns, providing them with opportunities to learn from and work alongside seasoned professionals.

The Project’s long-term vision was ambitious: to build a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in Iowa.  The Globe replica  in London was in its early planning stages.  Brian and a local architect were excited by the research from the excavation of the original site of the Globe, and began envisioning how to create an American sister site that would serve as a home base for the Shakespeare Project’s productions and education programs.

The first Iowa Shakespeare Festival was launched in the summer of 1993 – just as a catastrophic flood caused major damage that cut off the water supply in the city of Des Moines for several weeks.  Many of planned outdoor locations for performances were under water.  With a full company already in rehearsals for two productions, the Shakespeare Project soldiered on, finding alternative locations and backup rain sites local school auditoriums, so that not one scheduled performance was ever cancelled.

Despite rave reviews and audiences of more than 1,000 a night in some venues, The Iowa Shakespeare Project was forced to shut down in 1996, due to a lack of funding support. The recovery from the statewide devastation caused by the ’93 floods left scant funding for the arts, and  the board felt that it would be impossible to raise enough money to support a company of full-time professional artists, much less embark on a capital campaign to build a theatre.  Alas, Brian’s wild, crazy dream of an Iowa Globe  was not to be. (Brian and Lisa still have the drawings by architect Ben Allers, and if they ever win the lottery they might still build it!)

Although ending the Shakespeare Project was a difficult decision, Lisa and Brian are proud of the Project’s accomplishments, and have fond memories of the many excellent artists who came to Iowa to share their talents. Iowa Shakespeare Project company members have gone on to find great success in Chicago, New York, regional theatres, and other Shakespeare Festivals all over the country. Actor Deborah Staples is a member of the resident acting company at Milwaukee Rep and continues to work at regional theaters around the nation. Actor Tara Mallen founded her own award-winning company in Chicago – the Rivendell Theatre Ensemble. Actor David Alan Basche pops up often on television in guest spots and on series including The Starter Wife and Lipstick Jungle, and in films including United 93, War of the Worlds, and Sex & the City II. Graduates from the Shakespeare Conservatory and intern programs went onto study acting at some of America’s leading theatre training programs, including the acting program at Julliard.

After closing down the Shakespeare Project, Lynner and Norris took a break from theatre (and each other) to focus on other creative projects and on family. They re-connected in 1999, and began framing the idea for a new venture that became Unexpected Company.

Unexpected Company

Unexpected Company’s first project was to create a stage adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic Civil War poem John Brown’s Body. Brian had written some music for a previous production of the piece for the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival some years earlier, and he was keen to tackle his own adaptation. The project was launched in the winter of 2000 with help from a grant from the Iowa Arts Council.
Lynner and Norris dived into research on the Civil War, collecting hundreds of songs, artwork and excerpts from speeches, letters, diaries, newspaper articles and poems from the period. They were side-tracked by a request to put together an evening of Shakespeare scenes and song for a Valentine’s evening event at Salisbury House, which had hosted some of the Iowa Shakespeare Festival productions. The show they developed, first entitled A Shakespeare Valentine, was later rechristened Shakespeare On Love and remains part of Unexpected Company’s touring repertory.

When some issGraphic from Unexpected Company's production of Voices of the Civil Warues arose with obtaining the rights for a stage adaptation, they abandoned the Benet project, and created instead a new performance piece – Voices of the Civil War – a compilation material drawn from their research. The work, which includes music and is accompanied by video projections of photographs and artwork from the era., became a second offering in company’s touring repertory.After creating Voices, the company embarked on another ambitious project in 2001 – the New Voices Iowa Playwrights Competition. After wading through more than 60 submissions of full-length plays by authors around state, a reading committee chose 9 plays, which the company produced as free staged readings. Three of these plays were chosen as finalists, with the winning work – Kin by Orange City author Jeff Barker – was mounted as a full production in the summer of 2002.

Hearts_FrameLynner and Norris were in the middle of the New Voices project when they became joint Artistic Directors of the Drama Workshop, a community theatre group, where they remained for two years, making creative contributions and supervising the organization’s 50th Anniversary Season. There was no time to perpetuate the New Voices project, as they were also busy developing their own original play – a full-length musical – inspired by their Civil War research. An early version of the work – Hearts of Freedom – was performed as a staged reading for the Drama Workshop’s informal workshop series in 2003.

For the next three years, Lynner and Norris took a break from Des Moines theatre to focus on writing projects and build the education and service segments of the company business to generate income. In 2006, they were invited to create a production for the Westminster Fine Arts Series. They chose J.B. – Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer Prize-winning re-telling of the Book of Job – with Norris directing and Lynner playing the title role. Following that production, the company returned to touring, re-mounting Shakespeare On Love in 2006, and Voices of the Civil War in 2007.

Thursday's Children graphicIn the spring of 2007, with the help of grant funding from the Iowa Arts Council, the partners began a major overhaul of Hearts of Freedom, culminating in a concert workshop of the revised show in 2008. As they continued to fine tune that script and score, they were invited to create a new work for the Iowa State Historical Museum’s History Through The Arts program. The story was based on actual events in Iowa History: the “black armband protest” of the Vietnam War that lead to the landmark civil rights case of Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District.  Lynner and Norris developed a unique take on the story: Act One followed the events leading up to the student protest; and Act Two re-visits the same characters twenty-five years later as the students (now parents themselves) reflect on their choices.  This new show, a full- length musical entitled Thursday’s Children, premiered in October of 2010.

As the company continued to develop commissioned works and education programs, the consulting service side of the business took off, helping Iowa non-profits to raise millions of dollars in grants and other funding.  Brian and Lisa took a break from theatre, to get married, travel, and incubate some new writing projects, including The Shepherd’s Tale – a re-invention of the Oedipus Rex story, told from the point of view of a minor character in the original Sophocles drama, and a new Shakespeare Celebration piece, which is scheduled to premiere in April as part of the 2015-2016 Westminster Fine Arts Series.

Unexpected Company has been listed on the Iowa Arts Council’s Roster of Performing Artists (sadly, the Arts Council no longer maintains this resource.) This has allowed presenting organizations, schools, and other non-profits to contract or commission work from our company and apply for funding from the Iowa Arts Council and Arts Midwest.  Nearly all of our company’s projects past projects have been supported in part by grants from the Iowa Arts Council (a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs) and the National Endowment for the Arts. This support has allowed us to create new work, promote our shows, and pay artists (including ourselves!) We are truly grateful to the Arts Council and the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs for supporting our work!