“One of the main reasons artistically I took the job,” says director-choreographer Dan Knechtges, “was that Theatre Under the Stars’ mission statement is aligned with how I feel about musical theatre—which is to be at the forefront of musical theatre that engages a community, and by engaging that community is, therefore, engaging the world.”
Last August, Knechtges was chosen as the new artistic director of Houston’s famed Theatre Under the Stars, familiarly known as TUTS, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary during the 2018–2019 season, beginning in September.
Knechtges, who originally hails from Ohio, began his stage career as a choreographer and has been working on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and in regional theatre for more than a decade. As a choreographer, audiences may recognize his work in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2005), 110 in the Shade (2007), Xanadu (2007), for which he received Tony and Drama Desk nominations, and Sondheim on Sondheim (2010), as well as Lysistrata Jones (2011), which he also directed. In 2016, he directed and choreographed a critically praised revival at TUTS of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, leading to this more lasting collaboration.
The Houston theatre’s current season includes the musicals Memphis —directed by Knechtges—through March 4, the touring Bright Star March 13-25, and Guys and Dolls June 13-24. The upcoming season, the first chosen by Knechtges, begins September 11 with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary, and continues with four other Broadway classics: The Wiz, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Mamma Mia! (directed by Knechtges), Ragtime, and a sixth production yet to be announced. In a major change for the company, all will be produced in-house, with no national touring shows filling a part of the season.
As part of Playbill’s new Stage Direction series digging into the motivations, inspirations, and machinations of different directors, Knechtges spoke about his career, the way he directs, his plans for the theatre and the logic behind his choices for 2018-2019.
Why he became a director:
“I started directing through choreography. I had choreographed all my high school musicals and dabbled in directing. When I went to college it was for acting, not dance. I got interested in directing because I liked the intellectual aspect, the creative idea of collaborating with actors and playwrights and designers. I felt that this was much more the way I preferred to express myself creatively. I like the control aspect of it—that you’re able to organize everybody into one artistic outlook.”
How he uses his experience as a choreographer in directing:
“I’m stealing somebody else’s quote, but they say that the choreographer in a musical has all the responsibilities a director has but none of the power. I completely agree with that. I think it’s so similar with what you have to accomplish. I approach choreography as ideas, not steps. I think steps are the very last thing that comes. It’s all about the ideas and how you manifest them in three dimensions.
These days, as opposed to the Golden Age of musicals, everybody does everything in a musical; each performer has to sing, dance and act. A director, especially, has to have great insight on how to make everything seamless. The best compliment I always got when I choreographed for people I really respected, like [directors] James Lapine or Chris Ashley or Kevin Moriarty [artistic director of Dallas Theatre Center, which won last year’s Regional Theatre Tony Award], who’s going to be directing Oklahoma! for us, was when they said the choreography and the direction seemed seamless. Often people want to showboat and say, look at me, look at my work. It’s hard for all of us, myself included, to give yourself over to others’ creative visions. But you must do that to make a piece seem cohesive.”
His directing principles:
“The first and most basic thing is you have to serve the playwright’s vision. As a director, I have to serve the vision of Joe DiPietro, who wrote Memphis with David Bryan, rather than what my idea of what the story is. For me, it’s always going back to: Why did the playwright write this play, why did they choose this story?”
An actor in Knechtges’ rehearsal room – an example of how he directs:
“I try to do it Socratically. I know what I want, but I try to circle around it a little bit to see if the actors can find it for themselves. For me, it’s always better when people think it’s their own idea rather than coming from me. It’s manipulative, I suppose, in a way, but to me it’s better that people find it themselves and share it rather than me finding it and they trying to fulfill what I’m imposing on the play.
“I also think every actor is different, so I try to use a bit of psychology to try to figure out what makes each person tick. I’m not a dictator in a way that I’ve heard some other directors behave, in that they treat everybody the same. I don’t do that. Sometimes a joke or being funny and offhand with an actor gets you farther than being serious, and sometimes vice versa. Sometimes an actor can’t take a joke or understand the humor of life or reality and they need somebody to be a taskmaster. Some actors need certain types of Method coaching, and others just need technical things—turn here, on this line, say the joke this way. You can’t treat all people the same; you have to treat them as individuals. You have to go in with an open mind and you have to try to be all things to all people. Which is exhausting, thinking how every person in that room works differently, but it can produce pretty great work.”
A mistake he made that he learned from:
“When you lose the trust of the acting company, you have to work so hard to regain it. So anything you do to jeopardize that trust is bad. Several times I have lost my temper in frustration, or I’ve said something off color. In some instances I’ve never regained that trust. In other instances, when that has happened the thing that I’ve learned is it’s always better to fall on your own sword rather than someone else’s. You say mea culpa, mea culpa. You admit to your failures. That’s good leadership.”
A decision he made that paid off:
“I’ve had a pretty lucky sense of when an opportunity presents itself to say yes to it, even if you’re afraid. Because nine times out of ten it’s going to pay off. That was the case with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. I didn’t direct Spelling Bee; I was the choreographer. I did the very first workshop of it for almost no money. I think I got travel expenditures to go up to Barrington [Stage Company in Massachusetts]. And after a lot of inner debate when they said they couldn’t pay, I still said yes because the people were really exciting and the idea was exciting. It was a year-and-a-half later that I was opening my first Broadway show.”
His thoughts about the 50th anniversary TUTS 2018-2019 season, and why he chose all classics:
“We’re celebrating our 50th anniversary, and there were a lot of extenuating circumstances going into that, not to mention a downturn in everything in Houston because of the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey. My first day was supposed to be the day Harvey hit. So there were a lot of those factors. But also we felt that, as an organization, we needed to build our base again before we start programming a bunch of new works, especially on the main stage, that would most likely be challenging for a lot of reasons.
“One thing that people outside of Houston might not understand is that we are self-producing all six shows next season, which is a huge feat for us and has not been done since the founding of Theatre Under the Stars. What our seasons usually consisted of was several tours in addition to two or three homegrown productions. But these six will be all homegrown. That is a monumental task and a monumental shift. (That’s not to say that if a great tour comes along in the future that we have access to we won’t program it. We will.)
“So as we transition the business into something more self-grown we wanted to eliminate a few variables in how to sell [shows] and how to produce them. But the main factor was really that we wanted to get a slate of shows that were a celebration of everything that would go into a 50th anniversary season. Oklahoma! is celebrating its 75th anniversary, and it was seminal in our organization over the years.We premiered Beauty and the Beast 25 years ago, so that’s one of the reasons it was chosen. We thought it would be too good to pass up. Ragtime has never been done at TUTS, so it’s new for us, even though it’s 20 years old. And I’m going to direct Mamma Mia!, which I directed two years ago at the Muny in St. Louis.”
Plans for the future:
“What was really great about Theatre Under the Stars was that at one point it was starting to be an incubator of new musicals, and then it went off track a little bit. But the way that the theatre is positioned within the community is incredible. It has such potential to be a place where you investigate the classics but also where you incubate and create new musicals. I think good musical theatre these days requires diversity—multiple ethnicities and opinions and gender [identities]. And Houston has that. There was a Los Angeles Times article [May 2017] that said that Houston is now the most racially and ethnically diverse city in the United States [surpassing New York in 2010]. And after being here for a while I can see that. There are so many cultures, and I think that’s a key for really good theatre. So for me, this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”