Andrew Hungerford, a prolific designer in Cincinnati for years, is now taking the reigns as Artistic Director of The KNOW Theatre in Over the Rhine. Currently the KNOW is producing “The Twentieth Century Way” (which I’m finally seeing tomorrow night . . . look for a review soon) and the annual FRINGE show is just around the corner. In fact, this week they just announced the complete lineup of shows. You can get all your Fringe information by clicking here. What follows is a fascinating look at one of Cincinnati’s most prolific theatre personalities.
Hi Andrew! I for one am very excited to see what you do with The KNOW as artistic director. Tell me . . . how did you come to love and be involved in the theatre?
I’ve always loved storytelling in all its forms. The first show I remember seeing onstage was a tour of The Pirates of Penzance. In the week after the show, my parents took me to the library and we checked out a recording of Pirates (on vinyl!). I got an album of the show on cassette, so I could carry the Pirates around with me in my walkman. Through high school, I started to act, and even did a Shakespeare summer camp at Wright State between my sophomore and junior years.
When I went to college at Michigan State, I had a tough time choosing a major. I didn’t want to give up on anything I was passionate about, so I ended up pursuing two different degree programs: one in theatre, and one in astrophysics. Conveniently, the two buildings were right across the street from each other.
My eventual goal was to go to physics grad school and audition for shows on the side. But those plans got a little sidetracked.
I had never really been exposed to the art of theatrical design in high school (all I knew about lighting design, for example, was that this one guy on the lighting crew would occasionally poke at lights with sticks and could make an awesome Wookie noise). But in my freshman year of college, I got a job as the assistant to Linda Janosko, our department’s scenic and lighting designer. It was a crash course in design research, lighting, painting, drawing, theatre-making, and was an all around amazing experience. I didn’t actually start designing myself until my junior year of college, and after I discovered how much I loved it, I dove in completely. I spent many late nights in our black box theatre, laying the groundwork for a life in the theatre.
That said, I wasn’t completely convinced of my career path until I took a study abroad trip to London between my final two years of college. We saw over 30 plays in the 6 weeks we were there, and the experience was transformative. The show that clinched it for me, that sealed my fate, was the Robert LePage solo performance, “The Far Side of the Moon.” Appropriately, it combined a story (tangentially) about physics with an amazing performance and a design that was truly magical. After that, I applied to grad schools, people seemed to like what I did, and it was full speed ahead.
That’s an incredible way to start! Any particular people influence you along the way?
My undergraduate theatre professor, the late Frank C. Rutledge. Frank had a brilliant way of creating incredibly interesting theatre with undergraduates of wildly varying skill levels. He wore a fedora and referred to Harrison Ford only semi-ironically as “The Great Actor.” He made me a better actor and a better designer. He taught me about what it is to take a thing that someone else created and reassemble it into something new and amazing for the stage.
My undergraduate design professor, Stan Jensen, who not only shaped my aesthetic but gave me a maxim by which I try to live, “Do No Stupid Plays.” By which he meant: it takes so much time and energy, and so many physical resources, to make the production of a play happen, we’d better be sure the play has something of real value.
Also, there’s my friend Michael Burnham, who pushes the people he works with into creating amazing, beautiful, sometimes messy things. He embodies a sense of play and exploration that I try to let inform all that I do. Ed Iskandar, who is finding ways to create a theatre that combines amazing art with a truly communal audience experience. He’s one of the people most likely to change the face of American Theatre, and I’m lucky to both count him as a friend and get to work with him from time to time. And there are too many others to list them all here. Everyone I work with, all of my friends and colleagues here in Cincinnati and around the country, teach me things about making better theatre with every show I do.
You’ve designed some really incredible sets and been part of some really great theatre. Where do you find your inspiration?
In terms of my overall inspiration, I try to read a lot, I try to keep up with contemporary art, popular culture and literature. I take long walks. And I see a lot of plays in different theatres all over the place. Some of my favorite shows of the last few years (that I haven’t worked on):
Einstein on The Beach. – Yeah, it’s a non-narrative 5 hour opera that’s essentially been restaged as it was originally conceived nearly 40 years ago, but it’s still incredibly relevant and surprisingly moving.
Gatz – The complete Great Gatsby read onstage. Brilliant.
Bring It On: The Musical – Seriously. I went in with no expectations and ended up loving the hell out of this show.
An Iliad – The one man Trojan war as adapted by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson. I saw Denis O’Hare perform this in LA. It’s a brilliant piece of theatre. I also worked on a production of this at a theatre in Michigan, which was also amazing. It’s a truly great script.
You obviously are a deep thinker. I’m sure you have some philosophy about theatre in general?
I believe in theatre that embraces the liveness of the experience. I believe in theatre which demands that people be in the same room as the performers in order for the experience to be complete. I believe in theatre that strives for the highest of artistic goals without being elitist. With so many entertainment options available to us at the push of a button, I believe that theatre has to be different and exciting enough to justify audiences making the effort to get off the couch after a long day of work.
I know how it is! When I’m in LA, if traffic is bad, it can take an hour and a half (or more) just to drive to the theatre. And that show I see better have something that makes the arduous journey worthwhile. So theatre needs to do things that TV and film can’t do, or can’t do as well. Or it needs to take the things that TV and film do, and reinterpret them in an amazing way. I believe that good theatre can be really long or really short. But a show needs to be engaging whether it’s 90 minutes or 5 hours. I believe that theatre must not be boring.
I’m interested in plays about people that we don’t often see on stage. I’m interested in plays that break the conventions of naturalism. I’m interested in plays that are naturalistic, but so intimate, that you have to be less than 20′ from the actors for the experience to be truly affecting. I’m interested in magic, and make believe, and child-like wonder, and simple and surprising theatrical transformations. I’m interested in the whimsical, the visually inventive.
I’m interested in telling stories that would not otherwise be told. And I’m interested in finding ways to get people excited about theatre, as excited as I was to be that kid in the mezzanine when a Pirate King swung onto the stage, singing.
For a start, we’re going to try to make more theatre, whether on our mainstage, or in the Underground (our bar) or by working with local artists in other venues outside of our home on Jackson street.
I hope the result of that will be eclectic collections of programming that gain additional meaning when taken in context as part of a whole rather than simply viewed in isolation. That’s part of why we picked a theme of Adaptation for the first collection of programming we announced under my tenure: I hope to start a conversation about what that unifying theme means in relation to each show.
That said, I recognize that not everyone will like every show that we program at KNOW (that would be an impossible task). But I hope that audiences will trust our taste and know that, even if they don’t necessarily like one play, there’s a good chance they’ll like the next one. I want to keep audiences on their toes, and keep them coming back.
And I really want the theatre to operate from a place of abundance rather than scarcity. I want us all to share in these experiences together as part of a community.
What are you MOST excited about in this new capacity?
Oh, man. I am so excited to work with my friends in bringing awesome plays to Cincinnati. Each time we start production work on a show it’s like assembling the Voltron team, or getting the band back together, or some other crazy awesome analogy. I’m excited to help KNOW grow into the theatre it needs to be for the next phase in its evolution.
I’m sure there will be challenges.
The two biggest challenges are: Building our audience and building our funding base. These certainly aren’t unique challenges to our organization, but because of our small scale, they can seem a little daunting. We’ve got a small, dedicated group of fans for our Mainstage season and a big, dedicated audience for the Fringe. But some of those Fringe patrons never step through our doors during the rest of our season. And it’s possible that some people don’t realize that we do more than Fringe.
We’ve done a number of shows that I’m really proud of over the last several years, some of which have been among the most critically acclaimed shows of their respective seasons. And, unfortunately, audience turnout hasn’t always matched that critical response. We’re doing a high level of work at an affordable price that should make it possible to sell out our 99 seats every night, and it can be very frustrating to me that we don’t. I think part of that is awareness: more people would come if they just knew who and where we are and the kind of stuff we’re doing. And so a big part of what I’m hoping to do is help raise our profile in the larger community.
And then there’s the issue of funding. We’re a small company, with a small budget. Our staff works incredibly long hours on salaries that are distressingly low. We’ve made strides in the last couple years to improve that situation, and I hope that we’ll be able to continue down a path of paying our employees not just a living wage, but a reasonable wage, while also expanding the staff to spread the work load.
But in order for those things to happen, we need more money. Of course increasing audience size is an important part of that. But another part of it, as is the case in all non-profit theatre, is finding generous people who believe in what we do and who are willing to support the cause with tax deductible donations.
We believe in keeping ticket prices affordable. Our current $15 advance ticket price is comparable to the cost of movie ticket (at least a 3D I-Max ticket). But while movies are distributed across thousands of screens with hundreds of seats showing five times a day, we’ve only got 99 seats and 15-20 performances. It’s a tough spot to be in, from an earned income perspective.
Art, to an extent, has always been subsidized by patrons, people who believe in using some of their hard earned money to fund the creation of works for the betterment of humanity, who fund people and projects that help us get a little closer to realizing our society’s collective potential. So, if anyone is feeling generous, let’s talk!
Well, I know that groups like the League of Cincinnati Theatres (of which I’m on the board) and my blog are very excited to find creative and new ways to get the word out about all of the great theatre in town. So hopefully we can all work together to make that happen.
So, what’s next for you in the immediate future?
On April 4th I opened both Willy Wonka Jr. at the Children’s Theatre the KNOW’s “The Twentieth-Century Way” (running through May 3rd)… a life in the theatre is certainly full of variety! Next, I head to Portland Stage Company in Maine to light a production of The Savannah Disputation. After that it’s work on locking in the rest of Know’s 14-15 Season and getting our Serials Program up and running for the summer. And designing Two Noble Kinsmen at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.
You are so incredibly busy! How can we follow what you’re up to?
If anyone is interested, you can follow me on twitter at @hungerf9. I tweet about what shows I’m doing, complain about public transit, say rabble-rousing things about theatre, and tell people what I had for lunch. You can also follow KNOW’s official account at @knowtheatre, and “like” our FaceBook page for programming updates.
Also: If you enjoy a show that you see, or have ever been moved or affected or entertained by a show that you’ve seen at KNOW or Fringe, please tell everyone you know. Word of mouth truly is our best marketing. Post stuff on social media, tell your friends over coffee, drop mentions of the theatre in casual conversation. Every time someone mentions a show that they’ve seen, theatre wins. And if you have strong thoughts or feelings about a show, or just want to talk about it, don’t hesitate to contact me. I’m really interested in the theatre we make being a catalyst for conversation, rather than just presentations.
Andrew, I can’t wait to see what you have in store for audience members like me. Congratulations on the gig and we’ll be sure to help get the word out as we can! Thanks for taking time out of your schedule to talk with us.
Thanks again for your passion for Theatre! I really appreciate your blog as an additional outlet for conversation about theatre in this town.
The KNOW Theatre is currently producing “The Twentieth Century Way” (get tickets here) and will produce the annual FRINGE festival. If you’ve never attended a Fringe show, this is your opportunity to see some of the most unique theatre around. Information about all of this can be found at the KNOW’s web site.