Relying on musical theater classics, mounting home grown productions instead of hosting touring shows, and incorporating more of the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre students in their professional productions will both restore Theatre Under the Stars to its original community engagement mission and enable it to become a nationally recognized theater center.
At least that's the plan as outlined by TUTS' new artistic director Dan Knechtges, who embraces this new direction and says some programming decisions in recent years are ones that shouldn't have been made.
When Theatre Under the Stars announced its 2018-19 season in January the list of shows dominated by Oklahoma!, The Wiz, Beauty and the Beast and Mamma Mia! was striking for two main reasons: a season leaning heavily on the classics and the decision not to host touring shows.
In a followup discussion with the Houston Press, Knechtges took full ownership of these decisions, adding that "A lot of stuff I don’t think was chosen with very much taste in the past. Not everything certainly but there were touches that seemed to be not listening to the audience."
He brought up TUTS Underground (the brainchild of former TUTS Artistic Director Bruce Lumpkin which sought to attract younger audiences through lower ticket prices and supposedly edgier works) as an example saying that he's hearing from a lot of audience members and the media that it was not successful "not in terms of the mission but in terms of the actual product."
At the same time he insisted he's not at all against new works. "I've only done new works. That's been my career up until this point," he said. But, he said, perhaps because he knew more about them, he wouldn't have gone to see many of the TUTS Underground shows or programmed them.
As for Theatre Under the Stars going forward, he said: "We'e moving toward a populist invigorating theater season. It's not just family friendly. Certainly we have some of those titles. It seems that seeing a show in a new light would be something seductive and exciting for a theater goer, no?"
For instance, he rose to the defense of programming Mamma Mia! (last seen in Houston in 2016 in a touring production brought here by Broadway at the Hobby Center) "This is our 50th season and all year long it's going to be a celebration and a party. I can't think of another show to do that with and certainly one that was not done the way it had been done in almost 20 years. This will be the first time it will be an original production of Mamma Mia! in Houston on this scale."
As for Oklahoma!, he said: "I think it’s going to make us all look at how relevant Oklahoma is in light of the politics that are happening not only nationally but within the state of Texas. It's shocking how relevant that piece that was written 75 years ago and how relevant it is today."
His programming decisions were made "with a lot of input from a lot of people and also kind of looking at the past as we’re changing what we’re doing it's sort of looking at why other things have not been received well and how other things have been.
"We’re trying to integrate many areas of Theatre Under the Stars under one umbrella rather than the community engagement be in one pocket, education be in another, The River be in another. to try to find ways that all of these shows can resonate within all of those areas of the organization. Or that they can also participate in the shows as well, not just on stage but behind the scenes too."
Actually, he said, it would make it a lot easier for TUTS if it was hosting more touring production. But they've made the decision that if they are going to achieve increased recognition they need to take another route.
"We want to separate Theatre Under the Stars from any association with other touring productions that come through Houston. We want to be a premiere regional theater and not just locally but nationally. And reinventing classics for this year, we think that that’s the way to go rather than presenting tours that for one reason or another aren’t going to make that same splash."
"The Hamilton effect is already taking place. None of the major Tony award winners are available to tour this year and that's partly because of the Hamilton effect that sort of wipes out everything coming behind it in terms of touring," he said. "There was not anything coming that was coming across our desks in terms of tours that we thought we could number one sell or anything that really satisfied our mission statement."
That mission statement, he said: "To provide singular artistic experience through the lens of musical theater for the Houston audiences. And to be a premiere player in musical theater not just in Houston but in the country.
Local actors will be hired along with visiting artists, he said. "Memphis is half out of town and half local and TUTS will be continuing that through the entire season ahead. If we are a community service group then a huge part of that is creating Houston area actors and designers and stage crew that lives and works inside Houston."
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Beauty and the Beast and Mamma Mia! will both have several Humphreys students on stage, he said. "It gives our students a chance to work along Broadway and TV professionals. "
To achieve this national presence, TUTS is returning to the approach of Frank Young, the founder of TUTS, namely producing new work for the main stage that is not "underground" but is populist, that is for a large audience, he said.
"A lot of people have been saying 'I don’t like hip hop.' I laugh. I say 'Do you want to see Hamilton?' And they say, yes they want to see Hamilton. When I say populist that’s what I mean. I think in maybe ten years people are going to look at Hamilton and they’re not going to think it’s cutting edge." He wants TUTS doing work that will attract authors like Lin Manuel Miranda to the Hobby stage. "People who are working not only on Broadway but in film and TV."
"Houston should be a place that’s known nationally. People come here for the arts. There’s some great programming happening around the city around new works. I think we have to be also fostering that."