Theatre Under the Stars has faced some turbulent times in the last few years, but the first public appearance by their new artistic director Dan Knechtges at the Theater District Open House in late August was set to signal an exciting, yet stable, dawning era for the Houston theater institution. And then a certain uninvited guest named Harvey stormed into town before Knechtges could arrive, blowing away those carefully laid plans.
A week later, the Tony-nominated director and choreographer found himself diving right into a chaotic situation he certainly hadn't planned for when accepting the TUTS helm, aided by his new ally, executive director, Hillary Hart, who had just taken her position last December.
First, Best Impressions
When I recently sat down with the new AD and newish ED to hear about those first after-Harvey days and their visions for the future, Knechtges told me the view of the city’s worst times revealed to him the best qualities of Houstonians.
“It’s been a crazy introduction to Houston, but one of very first meetings here was with all of the arts leaders and it was really great seeing everyone come together and rallying around all of the institutions. That camaraderie was wonderful. It was a good thing to come in and witness the best of behavior.”
Though it stands on the banks of Buffalo Bayou, TUTS’s home, the Hobby Center, emerged from the hurricane with the least damage of the theaters in the district.
“From an infrastructure standpoint Hobby Center fared fairly well in comparison to our art collogues a few block away,” explained Hart, but did note, like the other performing institutions of the District, TUTS faces business continuity challenges. Hart and Knechtges recognize as people spend the next months and perhaps even years rebuilding their homes and lives, they might not have the inclination or resources to buy a ticket to a musical.
Yet, Houston needs joy and beauty in our lives more than ever.
For the TUTS team one of the first ways to help meant turning their perviously schedule, ticketed short run of the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre production of Green Day’s American Idiot into a free performance.
”We want to be that reprieve for people to step away from the daily recovery process and be able to come into our theater to experience great art-making and great storytelling,” proclaims Hart. “We’re here to serve them in that way. It also creates opportunities to look at how we’ve been operating and what might make more sense for us moving forward, how we can better serve our community.”
This 2017-2018 season, TUTS’s 49th, might become the key season for both introspection and forward vision as they begin planning for their 50th.
“Any theater that makes it over five years is a miracle. And the fact that the first season that I will be programming is the 50th is astounding,” says Knechtges who gives immense credit to TUTS founders, and all the artists and staff who have worked for the institution over half a century, but also to Houston patrons who have supported the organization.
Over this half a century, TUTS has found a unique balance, rare among U.S theater companies, for presenting touring Broadway musicals, mounting their own big revivals and sometimes producing or co-producing brand new shows.
In 2016, the TUTS board brought in veteran AD Sheldon Epps as an interim artistic advisor to help reshape the 2016-2017 season and organize the next. Knechtges got to know Houston last season when he directed How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, giving audiences an almost clairvoyantly relevant production in its timing before the presidential election.
This season contains that balance of presenting and producing, with the first two shows, The Secret Garden (now through October 22), which will eventually head to Broadway, and the holiday show Sleeping Beauty (December 12), designated as TUTS co-productions.
In the spring of 2018, TUTS alternates their revival productions Memphis (February 20), directed by Knechtges, and Guys and Dolls (June 12) with the touring Bright Star (March 13), penned by Steve Martin. TUTS also has a hand in bringing Hamilton to town, so early season subscribers were able to secure tickets.
“We hit the ground, trying to serve up what was given to us and serve the best production we know how to do,” Knechtges says, of working on a season selected before he arrived. He believes it a good test for Hart and himself as they establish a working relationship with each other and staff.
As we talked, I had to ask about the critical acclaim TUTS garnered for last season with one caveat that many of the self-produced revivals cast only a few Houston actors. Both executive and artistic directors reiterated their determination to keep TUTS an integral part of the Houston creative community. Hart stressed their commitment to responding to local needs, as well as the importance of TUTS education programs, especially the Humphreys School.
“One thing I’m interested in is creating a community of musical theaters actors, not just actors but choreographers, designers, directors, and writers, that we can take and produce and maybe even export. That it’s not just a one-way street, but it’s two ways,” explained Knechtges, later adding: “I know that are many Broadway artists that are native Texans and native Houstonians, and I do think there is something to us creating a home and to be a draw that would also invite those artists back.”
“It’s also about creating a network,” Hart chimed in, “so that the next time one of the New York actors is doing a job somewhere in the region, they already have a network of collogues and friends. It’s about knitting our industry and communities closer together by finding that mix.”
Knechtges wouldn’t give any specific details on what the 50th season might bring. He does intend to build on Epps’s commitment to diversity in programming, explaining that diversity is not solely a matter ethnicity or gender, but also in a way of looking at the world in nontraditional ways.
“There are things that challenge you as a person in everyday life and I think our shows should do that as well, not necessarily assault you with it, but they should challenge you in those ways of looking at things and illuminating things. I think you can only do Grease so many times in the way it was done without getting bored,” he said, but also believes TUTS’s rich history has to play a part in its future.
“The 50th of TUTS should be about a renaissance of Theatre Under the Stars, much in the same as I feel there’s a renaissance of Houston. By looking at the past we’re able to see into the future. I think the shows are going to be a smattering of both, hopefully something new as well as looking at shows that were seminal in TUTS history.”
The Secret Garden, the first production of the TUTS 2017-2018 season runs now through October 22 at the Hobby Center.