Dan Knechtges took on a Texas-sized task when he joined Theatre Under The Stars as its artistic director in 2017: to take a popular theater organization with a 50-year history of success and make it even more popular and successful. Oh, and to do it in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
Knechtges, by all accounts, has done just that.
The openly gay Broadway veteran first worked with TUTS in 2016 when he directed and choreographed a critically acclaimed revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He joined the company a year later, just in time for its 50th-anniversary season. And Hurricane Harvey. (Knechtges missed his first day of work because Houston was in the middle of that catastrophic storm.)
Under his leadership, the local company had some major accomplishments in its 2018–2019 season, including self-producing the entire season rather than relying on touring shows in its annual lineup. The staff also had a major restructuring and a shift in its operating model, moving the company more in line with current Broadway standards.
Big but necessary changes, says Knechtges. While the company has a tremendous track record, he notes that it hasn’t quite fulfilled TUTS founder Frank Young’s vision of being nationally recognized.
“I don’t think of myself as a gay man leading an organization. I think of myself as just a person, We have a lot of very conservative religious folks on our board who I consider my friends now. That never would have happened in New York.”
“My personal philosophy, and that of the board and staff, is that you can never be successful enough,” the Tony Award-nominated Knechtges tells OutSmart. “I came in saying, ‘Actually, we do it like this on Broadway, and this is the way the national trends are going.’ Shifting the way we’re structured [to be in line with other theaters], both in administration and behind the scenes, has been one of the biggest challenges.” And one of the biggest payoffs.
Knechtges explains that moving the focus to the front end of the production process has reduced costs while allowing for greater creativity. For example, there’s lots of work to do before the crew starts building sets, so putting more time and thought into the design aspect means that by the time that crews start building the set, all of the kinks have been worked out.
And designers are freer to try new things when all that’s at stake is a plan on paper. The cost difference between tearing up a drawing, as opposed to tearing up a half-built set and starting over, is enormous.
The results of Knechtges’ efforts were seen onstage during the company’s 50th-anniversary season, which was made up entirely of well-loved classics.
“We did a great production of The Wiz,” he says, pointing to the show’s casting of two women in traditionally male roles as a move forward for the company. “We had a female Wiz; we had a female lion. That may have made some people uncomfortable, but the show was rated one of the top arts events in the city by the Houston Chronicle.
“The chorus was non-gendered. The men and women in the chorus played all women at one point, then they played all men at another. And then they played every part of the spectrum in between.”
Obie and Helen Hayes Award-winner Robert O’Hara directed The Wiz. African-American and openly gay, O’Hara is also a playwright known for his challenging race and gender roles in his work. “He’s very brave,” says Knechtges. “He said, ‘I want the chorus to do this.’ I trusted him, and it paid off. Now he’s making his Broadway debut this year.”
Part of Houston’s attraction for Knechtges was the city’s diverse population. He works to make sure that diversity is reflected onstage at TUTS performances. Taking the company to a higher level of excellence requires importing some talent from New York City, but Knechtges is committed to supporting Texas actors, designers, writers, directors, and choreographers as much as possible.
“I’m very proud of our Houston community that’s represented on that stage,” he says. “I don’t think there’s another company that’s as devoted to hiring Texans. Theater Under The Stars hires more locals than any other arts organization in Houston. We’re committed to that.”
The company’s 2019–2020 season features Marvin Hamlisch’s A Chorus Line, the show Knechtges has called “perhaps the best musical ever written.” Director Julie Kramer and choreographer Jessica Hartman lead the production.
Chorus Line is followed by Spring Awakening, which has a modern-rock score. Directed by Taibi Magar, with choreography by Marlana Doyle, the show is a departure for the company and is part of Knechtges’ desire to expand TUTS’ reach with productions of exemplary new theater works as well as traditional classics.
Knechtges directs and choreographs the company’s holiday show, Elf–The Musical. Then in mid-February, the North American touring production of Once on This Island (winner of the 2018 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical) will be directed by Michael Arden and choreographed by Camille A. Brown.
Knechtges again takes on director and choreographer duties with the world-premiere professional production of the Texas-themed Pure Country, based on the 1992 film starring George Strait. Finally, Disney’s Newsies, directed and choreographed by Chris Bailey, closes the TUTS season.
This 2019–2020 season lineup accomplishes three things on Knechtges’ agenda: the presentation of musical-theater classics (A Chorus Line), the development of new shows (Pure Country) and the continuation of TUTS’ relationship with Disney (Disney’s Newsies).
As if all of that wasn’t enough to keep Knechtges extremely busy, TUTS also has a far-reaching community-engagement program with two theater schools for children and teens: the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre, and The River Performing and Visual Arts Center, which works with the differently abled. TUTS will also work with Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts this year as part of the school’s musical-theater track. And TUTS will provide art therapy through the Arts and Medicine Program at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital.
Wait, wait, there’s more: TUTS partners with several community organizations, such as Dress for Success and the YMCA of Greater Houston, for TUTS’ Public Works Houston community-engagement program, providing arts training and exposure to local residents that culminates in a public performance at Miller Outdoor Theatre.
Knechtges acknowledges the crucial support he’s received from TUTS staff and the board of directors, led this year by board chair Franklin D.R. Jones Jr. (Randy Stilley was last year’s chairperson during the company’s
“I could not do this without Hillary Hart, our executive director,” Knechtges notes. “She handles all of the administrative stuff and makes it possible for me to focus on the artistic side.
“And we have the best board ever. Those folks on that board support us in a way that’s incredible. They’re always available to talk, always available to have a meal. Even if it doesn’t have to do with Theatre Under The Stars—if it just has to do with life, they’re there for us.”
Knechtges has changed TUTS, no doubt about that. But he says the organization has changed him, as well.
“I don’t think of myself as a gay man leading an organization. I think of myself as just a person,” he says. “We have a lot of very conservative religious folks who are members of our board, and who I consider my friends now. That never would have happened in New York. It just wouldn’t.
“I always considered those New York folks as intolerant, and stayed away from them. I know that’s not the case [here in Houston], and it gives me hope that there’s more room for that kind of understanding to spread. I have to believe change is possible—otherwise, we’d just all have to give up.
“And the theater is the best place to enact a cultural shift.”
This article appears in the October 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.