Theatre Under the Stars, as you will recall, hired Dan Knechtges as its new artistic director last summer. Six months into his tenure, the Tony-nominated artist is set to unleash his third production, Memphis, at the Hobby Center starting February 20.
Knechtges squeezed in a few moments between rehearsals to chat with Houstonia about how the new job is going and what he has in store for TUTS.
How's the season been, hurricane notwithstanding?
Pretty great! The hard thing is that with this first season, I didn’t choose. It’s been a challenge being handed a bunch of shows I’m responsible for without a say on the creative teams who design and cast and put it all together. At the same time, I get some practice producing and being on the other side of directing. It all requires me to balance the needs of other people with my own needs. Really, it’s like being a new parent where you get no sleep.
You've guest directed for TUTS in the past, but you're not from Houston. What drew you back for the full-time gig?
A big draw was the resources and the mission. A lot of times, organizations that tend to hire for these positions are small theaters, and you’re doing essentially the same amount of work for no payoff in the sense that there’s not much budget. And while we’re still a mom-and-pop operation, TUTS does have a few shekels to move around, and that’s great. I also like how it started as a community organization—and still is. The Humphreys School serves a lot of people, the River Performing and Visual Arts Center serves a lot of people, and I love that aspect. The other thing that brought me back is that I love Houston, especially the food scene.
In one of your first interviews with local media, you said you wanted to repair TUTS' reputation. Can you explain what you meant by that?
What I meant is that even beyond the Hands on a Hardbody issue, there were a few incidences of just not great moments that happened in regard to TUTS and the community. The company lost a little bit of its luster. For example, TUTS used to be a generator of musicals—Beauty and the Beast, Jekyll and Hyde. That sort of went by the wayside. We’re going to try to change that and raise the artistic level of the theater. That doesn’t happen in a year—it takes several years to achieve that. That involves a different way of thinking within our organization before we can get the community to think about raising the bar artistically and not be complacent where it was. We are already at a high level, but the industry changes so fast. Like, Rodgers and Hammerstein are great and we should be doing that stuff, but it should be happening alongside more modern and new work like Memphis.
As you mention, you're currently in rehearsal for Memphis. How is TUTS putting its own mark on the production?
We are staging it very fluidly. It’s going to play like a movie at a lot of spots in that there are no blackouts and it’s just going to transition and move really fast. The other thing is how we're playing with scale. We have one-person songs versus a whole full stage of about 50 people singing and dancing. The production goes from the micro to the macro, which is something I don’t think has been done with Memphis before. It’s also very timely. Even though it’s about race relations in the early '50s, it’s somehow scarily relevant again. I think shining a light on it is appropriate.
Another thing you've committed to is fostering local talent. Why is that so important for you?
That's right. For Memphis, it's a 50/50 local cast. As far as why, there’s something unique about living in the most diverse city in the country. That’s reflected in the artists. By having those artists in our shows, it changes the perspective of the show. Plus frankly, if we’re set to become the third largest city in the country, we should have a vibrant artistic community here. It would only make the city better, and to create that, we have to be committed to employing those artists—and not just once in a while. That’s part of what we’re doing, and that’s also the original mission of TUTS.
You happened to land in Houston on the eve of TUTS' 50th anniversary. How are you approaching that milestone as a newcomer?
It’s a big task. I wish I’d had a few seasons to run up to it, but, in some ways, it's a blessing to do a 50th because it sort of puts some restrictions. You have to honor the past but also look to the future. We came up with a great slate where it’s a mixture of some great classics that were seminal in TUTS' evolution but also shows—Ragtime in particular—that have not been done at TUTS and have now become great classics in the canon. For shows like Oklahoma!, we’re looking at them through modern eyes. You’ll look at the show created 75 years ago and marvel at how relevant it actually is and why it was revolutionary at the time. That’s the thing I find interesting and hope we can impart on all our audiences.
Looking ahead, is there any formula or balance you hope to strike in terms of new/old with TUTS programming?
The minute there’s a formula I’m going to want to break it. That’s also part of refreshing the brand—being attuned to national and international trends, with TUTS being ahead of the trends rather than following them. We have a bunch of pre-Broadway shows slated to come through, and I have a feeling after the 50th we’re going to be producing a lot more work.
Given everything happening at The Alley Theatre, I wonder if y'all have had any conversations about ensuring a positive workplace environment, particularly for women.
For sure. It’s almost a daily conversation here of how we conduct ourselves and how we deal with our patrons, our students, and we’ve been really scrupulous about how we’re doing that. Everybody needs to be on equal footing in terms of race, sex, gender—all those things. Using power—specifically sexual power—as a weapon isn’t good for business, and this all informs us daily now.
One last thing: The 2018–2019 season announcement declined to name your sixth and final production. Any word on what it'll be? We promise we won't tell...
Well, we have word, but we just can’t tell you. Let's put it this way: Just think of it as the perfect dessert for the entire meal of the season.