Des Moines Brings Theatre

When most people think of professional theater, their minds drift to The Big Apple, The Queen’s Country and even the Windy City. No one would think of a 90-square-mile city in the middle of the Midwest as a premiere place for theater. 

They’d be wrong. 

Des Moines Performing Arts (DMPA) is changing the Midwest theater game in a big way. They’re a not-for-profit art organization that focuses on immersing the Midwest in world-class entertainment, education and cultural activities. In layman’s terms, they’re bringing big-stage theater to Des Moines.

The organization is housed under the roof of the Des Moines Civic Center, one of the largest professional theaters in Iowa. Home to four individual theaters, the Civic Center sees thousands upon thousands of patrons and hundreds of performances annually. 

An empty black box theater with a piano center stage is being lit by different colors.
Credit: Des Moines Performing Arts | The Civic Center houses three indoor theaters with an outdoor venue just outside the hulking building. Pictured here is the DMPA’s black box, otherwise known as the Temple Theatre.

The Impact of Theater

Mia Alaimo was born and raised in Des Moines. This year, she will finish her degree in acting for the stage. If it wasn’t for the Civic Center, she wouldn’t know what she would be doing right now. 

“My very first true Broadway show I saw was at the Civic Center. That was Wicked. And just like every theater kid, I will never forget that feeling after your first, when the curtain goes down,” Alaimo said. “It’s magic.”

This is a shared experience across the city. 

DMPA’s longtime goal is to become “a national leader in the presentation of performing arts.” Ever since the organization started in 2013, they have been the heart and soul of the Des Moines theater community. 

Through the Willis Broadway Series, Des Moines’ premiere season of Broadway shows, the community has the opportunity to be one of the first cities visited by national touring companies. Past shows have included Hamilton, The Lion King and Les Misérables. Last month, their 2023-’24 season was announced with multiple shows all on their first leg of tour, including the revivals of Company, Funny Girl and the newly touring show, Moulin Rouge

Being able to see shows that have come right off of Broadway is truly a magical experience. Especially being in a city that already doesn’t get a lot of touring things like concerts and comedians,” Alaimo said. 

With all of these highly-anticipated national tours, many wonder how Des Moines has become one of the first cities to see these amazing productions. 

The answer? By playing the long game. 

A large outdoor space at night just outside the Des Moines Civic Center. The park holds a large umbrella like sculpture and a fountain of water.
Credit: Des Moines Performing Arts | The Nollen Plaza, otherwise known as the Cowles Commons, was a space designed to host community events. The park is built around a sculpture, Crusoe Umbrella by Claes Oldenburg.

The Strategy

When productions are first making their bid to load-in at a Broadway theater, they need a tremendous amount of dough. According to Playbill, one of the leading all theater magazines, it is estimated to cost around $13.5 million to produce a full Broadway musical. 

DMPA became an investor, giving money to the future Broadway productions with the hope of becoming one of the first cities on their national tour list. And it seems to be working. 

In an interview with dsm magazine, President and CEO of DMPA Jeff Chelesvig explained how the strategy worked with this season’s productions. This season, DMPA was able to book Company, Girl From the North Country, Moulin Rouge! and The Wiz early in their national tours, thanks to early investments. 

These investments also go as far as the Tony Awards. 

Just last week, DMPA announced that three shows they invested in received Tony nominations. These include & Juliet, Life of Pi and Some Like It Hot. This is due to DMPA’s participation with the Independent Presenters Network (IPN). The IPN is a group of 40 leading Broadway presenters, theater and performing arts centers. Its members’ investments help bring Broadway productions to more than 110 cities throughout North America and Japan. 

Des Moines is one of those cities. 

Theater for All

While ticket prices at the Civic Center may be similar to New York prices, DMPA does everything they can to still make theater accessible to all. Their biggest success has been the student rush tickets. Any student with a valid student ID is granted discounted tickets the day of the performance for any show at the Civic Center. 

“I cannot tell you how many times the student rush tickets have allowed me and my friends to see a Broadway show,” Alaimo said. 

Student rush tickets aren’t a common occurrence in the industry. While many theaters try to provide opportunities for students to see the occasional student matinee for cheap, few of them are giving students opportunities to see Broadway shows. One of the things that made Alaimo stay in Des Moines for college was the opportunities the Civic Center offers students. 

On top of student rush tickets, schools like Drake University and Grandview often hold workshops with actors from the touring companies while they’re in town. Just last year while Come From Away was performing in the city, Drake students got to work with two members of the ensemble. 

“We even got to learn a song from Come From Away with them,” Alaimo said “They talked us through what they learned about the song and we were able to perform it with them. I mean, when do you ever get to learn a song with the company who is performing it that night?” 

Des Moines Performing Arts and the Civic Center bring theater to a city typically unconsidered by most. They’re making Des Moines a destination on the map for more and more national touring companies. 

“I hope one day I’m in a touring show and we stop in my hometown,” Alaimo said. 

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