People to Watch: Meet the Iowan helping shape the future of theater in Des Moines
Hear from Tiffany Johnson, artistic director and one of the founders of Pyramid Theatre Company. Kelsey Kremer, firstname.lastname@example.org
For years, Tiffany Johnson stepped on local stages and embraced characters that never felt right.
Peers described her as “brilliant” and “captivating,” but behind the curtain she struggled to find roles that weren't stereotypical — maids and butlers weren’t cutting it. A 40-year-old local activist and single mother of four, Johnson wasn’t seeing her story represented in Des Moines theater.
Artistically stifled, she could’ve left Iowa’s capital city in search of bigger and richer opportunities.
But if Johnson abandoned the city she’s called home since childhood, who would push for change?
“Running away is the wrong answer,” Johnson said. “If you want something to change, commit yourself to being part of that change.”
Joining a handful of like-minded artisans, Johnson embraced the change she wanted to see and co-founded in 2015 Pyramid Theatre Company, an Iowa group dedicated to showcasing the depth and diversity of local talent by bringing to life stories written by black playwrights. Producing two shows a season, Pyramid teams Des Moines talent with nationally-recognized writers and actors in offering productions never-before seen in Iowa.
And it’s working. In 2018, Pyramid earned the Bravo of Greater Des Moines “Standing Ovation” award for community impact and brought home two Cloris Awards for excellence in local theater. Hosted in the Stoner Theater, Pyramid brings about 3,500 theatergoers each season to downtown, selling out most weekend performances in the roughly 200-person venue.
Johnson, one of the Des Moines Register’s 15 People to Watch in 2019, takes the day-to-day reins of the organization in 2019, an opportunity to continue growing the city’s cultural tapestry.
“I want to leave Des Moines a little bit better than when I got here,” Johnson said. “To make it a little bit more culturally accepting than it is.”
'The same type of struggle'
Johnson first saw in 2014 the impact black storytelling can have on central Iowa when she and Ken-Matt Martin, Pyramid co-founder and executive director, produced the August Wilson classic, “Fences," with the Des Moines Social Club. The show played for a week to sold-out audiences at the Kum & Go Theater.
Johnson embraced Rose (the same role that three years later would earn Viola Davis an Academy Award), delivering the leading depth she longed for during her nights playing tertiary roles.
“(‘Fences’ says) we’re black but we’re human,” Johnson, who won a Broadway World award for her role, said. “We’re black but we experience the same amount of struggle — the same type of struggle — as any other American.”
The "Fences" success led a production of “A Soldier's Play” in 2015, a performance that brought the Cloris Award for Best Play in 2016. Pyramid took the momentum and launched a two-show summer season that challenged audiences with a racial satire in 2016's “Hooded: Or Being Black For Dummies” and again in 2017 with civil rights drama “Mississippi Goddamn."
The nonprofit company debuted work from blossoming writers, producing shows on a trajectory for theaters in Washington D.C. and New York City.
“We are always interested in finding the plays that maybe most people don’t wanna touch,” Martin said.
Teaming local with national talent
With a production, Pyramid hopes to achieve two goals: Offer a space for black writers to debut new work and team national talent with community members.
Organizers achieved each in 2017 by working with Dallas playwright Jonathan Norton on “Mississippi Goddamn” and shepherding local actress Andrea Haynes to a Cloris Award for her supporting role in “The Amen Corner.”
Johnson, Pyramid’s artistic director, hoped to showcase underutilized talent in the black community, but in working with burgeoning actors such as Haynes, she also set an example to be followed after the curtain closes.
Columnist Rekha Basu discussing launch of Pyramid Theater Co. on CW Iowa Live.
“Seeing strong African-American women is not new,” Haynes said. “Seeing strong African-American women who know also how to be vulnerable at the same time is a different (experience). We were taught you had to do the whole super hero thing and that’s all.
“Tiffany, in art, allows herself to be vulnerable so she can create something that is strong, artistically.”
And some say Pyramid raised expectations for casting in other local productions. Matt McIver, artistic director of Iowa Stage, said Pyramid “threw the gauntlet down” in showing theater companies that talent exists beyond local acting circles.
“Pyramid was a valuable wake-up call for a lot of folks in terms of how we can be better as a community,” he said. “There’s a whole sector of talent in terms of writers, performers … that we maybe haven’t tapped.”
Looking at 2019
Pyramid plans to continue a two-show summer season until demand for the year’s 20-or-so performances reaches near capacity. Two shows makes sense, Martin said. Funded by public and private donors — Bravo of Greater Des Moines, Principal and Equitrust being top contributors — it costs about about $70,000 to put on a show.
Under her watch, Johnson hopes to expand educational opportunities through talk-back sessions and lectures at Drake University.
She plans to also grow statewide reach, collaborating with Riverside Theatre for a production of August's Wilson play “How I Learned What I Learn” in Iowa City. But Johnson doesn’t want to move too fast; each Pyramid co-founder works a full-time job, filling lunch breaks and evening hours with theater work.
“Our idea is not to be competitive but to be collaborative, Johnson said. “(To help) people stop thinking about black and white so much and think about we live together. We breathe together. We’re humans together.”
2019 also plans to bring Johnson back to the director’s chair, a feat she first achieved in 2016 for the Des Moines debut of “Too Heavy For Your Pocket” — another chapter toward the change she wants to see.
“We don’t want to just hear about our culture,” Johnson said. “We want to live it. We want to see it when we walk outside of our houses every day.”
About ‘People to Watch’
The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2019" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by Register news staff from scores of reader nominations. Their stories will run in the newspaper through Jan. 6. To read about past People to Watch, visit desmoinesregister.com/peopletowatch.
Tiffany A. Johnson
NAME: Tiffany A. Johnson
BORN: In 1978 in East St. Louis, Illinois, but has lived in Des Moines the majority of her life.
RESIDENCE: Des Moines
EDUCATION: East High School
OCCUPATION: Accounts payable accountant at BH Management Services, LLC and artistic director at Pyramid Theatre Company
CLAIM TO FAME: Utilizing my gift in the arts to serve its purpose as a catalyst for social change and cultural understanding.
TITLES OR POSITIONS OF NOTE: Chair of Iowa African American Caucus 2008-2012 and local actor, director and keynote speaker.
FAMILY: Single mother of 4 children and grandmother to 3 grandchildren
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