Writer: Kelly Roberson
Photographer: Duane Tinkey
Growing up in Wabash, Indiana, Katy Merriman did anything she could to plug into the arts and culture scene: perform in community theater, help tear down for traveling shows, sing in choirs, even intern at the Wagon Wheel Theatre in nearby Warsaw.
It was a patchwork approach to her passions that would serve her well and will undoubtedly benefit Merriman in her new role as artistic director at Des Moines Community Playhouse. In June, the 30-year-old Merriman took over from John Viars, the longtime artistic director who is gradually winding down his career as Merriman revs hers up.
After earning a degree in vocal performance from Butler University in Indianapolis, Merriman started and then abandoned a graduate program in opera. Romance brought her to Iowa’s capital city in 2013, and in 2015 she married Des Moines native and well-known jazz vocalist Max Wellman. Merriman dove into local artistic opportunities: auditioning, freelancing, mixing part-time gigs with teaching and other creative pursuits. But what she always loved most was theater. “I didn’t know what to expect in Des Moines, and I was surprised by what I could do in a city this size,” she says. “The theater is my home—I’d rather be singing show tunes and performing in plays.”
With so much front- and back-of-house experience, it seemed natural that Merriman would eventually try her hand at directing. “Actors sometimes think they can do both, but I did a lot of reading and observing and didn’t say yes to directing until I felt like I could do it well,” she says. “I can have conversations about lighting and sets, and I like getting everyone on the team around the table.”
As she took on more creative work offstage, Merriman transitioned to a formal role with the Playhouse as an administrative assistant. But before she took the job, she spoke with Viars. “I said, ‘I know there’s a lot of change going on, and I feel like I can do something for the Playhouse. I feel like I can give something to this place,’ ” she says.
Viars believed it too. “I met Katy at auditions for ‘Completeness’ in late 2012,” he says. “It was clear at our first meeting that Katy was a powerful force that combined talent, drive and intelligence with warmth, accessibility and openness—just the kind of leader that organizations like ours need. Katy has a clear vision for the future of the Playhouse.”
The Playhouse is at a historic moment, with a 100-year anniversary and an expanding outreach for children and young adults as well as a commitment to both standard shows and new plays. Inclusion and diversity are two principles that Merriman says will guide her, and her career thus far has primed her for understanding what it takes to cast a wider net both behind and in front of the curtain.
Merriman is already noodling what that future looks like. “We have a well-established education department, and there are so many other opportunities if we can support that growth,” she says. “We have a lot of room for technical teaching, either through internships or meetings for people who want to learn how to hang a light or run a soundboard. It’s what I did when I was learning.”
Mostly, Merriman intends to build on the Playhouse’s century-old legacy. “It’s important to observe and listen to people who have been here longer than I have, but to know that there are so many places where we can grow,” she says. “It’s really important to me that that every single person who hears about us or needs a place to go knows they can [come here]. We are facilitators, but it is the community’s building. There’s plenty of room for everyone.”