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Know Theatre's artistic innovations extend past stage

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Know Theatre is bustling with a familiar surge of activity as its staff stages the first show of 2013, “When the Rain Stops Falling” by Andrew Bovell, which opened Feb. 8.

Kristen Ruthemeyer says this has been one of her favorite plays to work on since she became Know’s resident stage manager two years ago. “The playwright is very smart in the way that he’s done everything in the script. It’s all very together and everything ties into everything else.”

The show presents a slew of artistic and technical challenges, including a complex story that spans four generations (1959 to 2039) and, as the title suggests, a whole lot of running water. But with The Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s Brian Issac Phillips directing an acclaimed cast and crew—not to mention Know’s five-person staff—the team says it’s up to the challenge. “We do ridiculous things that five people should not be able to pull off by themselves,” Ruthemeyer says.

Presenting newer, bigger shows is just one of the innovative moves Know plans for this year. 2013 is particularly symbolic for the organization because it marks Know’s 15th year as a theatre company and celebrates the 10th annual Cincy Fringe Festival, one of the region’s most unique and experimental theater events.

Know began in 1997 as a traveling group of artists called the Know Theatre Tribe. In 2006, the group acquired its current Jackson Street location in Over-the-Rhine and took over the Fringe Festival. “When Know Theatre got this building, the neighborhood was a very different place than it is today,” Managing Director Alexandra Kesman says. As it joined the ranks of The Art Academy of Cincinnati and the Ensemble Theatre, Know has played a starring role in what Kesman calls the neighborhood’s “cultural renaissance.”

But even as it grows into its role as a community center for artists, Know continues to reinvent itself. One of the biggest changes to how Know operates came this year when the company stopped announcing entire seasons at once. Instead, Know now announces shows on a rolling basis throughout the year.

The different scheduling provides significantly more flexibility to perform newer shows. The team, led by Eric Vosmeier, Know Theatre's managing artistic director, is already planning to perform scripts whose rights weren’t available last summer—when Know used to announce the upcoming season. And now staff can also avoid all the headaches that surrounded the inevitable changes that arose after the old season’s announcements.

Know’s $90, six-show “flex-passes” will also work on a rolling basis; new passes will never expire, so they can be used from one season to the next.

The Underground—the Know’s basement stage, which primarily features performances produced by other artists in the area—is still going strong. But Vosmeier’s new project, Jackson Street Market, will do even more to make Know’s resources available to artistic entrepreneurs. Vosmeier believes that the city has always been “a strong supporter of the arts,” but he was tired of seeing industrious theater artists moving to other cities because they didn’t feel like they had enough local backing.

In addition to a place to perform, Jackson Street Market participants will be able to take advantage of other physical assets the company isn’t using, such as props, scenery, costumes and even office space for little or no cost. Vosmeier plans to debut software later this year that will allow artists to visit Jackson Street Market online and “check-out” resources the theater isn’t already using—something like a theater resource library. “We’re a place for artists,” Kesman says.

The Jackson Street Market program has already attracted Emery Theatre’s The Requiem Project, OTRimprov, and True Theatre. Photographer Matt Steffen, who collaborated with Know to curate a FotoFocus show last year, has also taken part.

Despite all of these strides, Know hasn’t been without its setbacks. Like many nonprofits, the economic downturn of 2008 dealt a serious blow to Know’s funding sources. Then in 2009, founder Jay Kalagayan and artistic director Jason Bruffy left the company to pursue other career opportunities.

For several years, Know was operating in what Vosmeier calls “survival mode.” These days, the company has been able to switch their focus toward new, ambitious programs thanks to committed donors and innovative financial initiatives.

One of the new initiatives is The Club of Jacksons. The Club started as a crowdfunding experiment (think Kickstarter) to stage one of Know’s biggest and most expensive shows to date, “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson.” Instead of approaching one or two large donors to sponsor the production, they invited hundreds to commit to $20—or one “Jackson”—donations over a period of a few months. Know’s friends and fans were able to raise the $22,500 for the show in less than four months.

Following the success of that first campaign, Know Theatre re-launched the Club of Jacksons as a form of monthly membership, similar to what public radio uses. Now, $20 per month earns donors a membership in the club. “It was our most successful year-end campaign ever,” Vosmeier says.

Last October, Know Theatre accepted a $10,000 grant from the American Theatre Wing, the organization that founded and produces the Tony Awards. Though often the recipient of local and state grants, this was the first national grant the organization has ever received. Winning one of only 10 grants awarded across the country was an exciting honor, Vosmeier says.

Later in the year, the theater raised thousands of dollars to renovate the Underground performance space by partnering with Brandery-born start-up Socstock, which CEO Jay Finch describes as a company that helps small businesses “harness the power of a community to get zero-interest capital to fuel growth.”

Socstock has partnered with other Cincinnati companies like Colonel De Gourmet Herbs & Spices, Pallet23 and Burnell’s restaurant, but Know Theatre was the first and only nonprofit client Socstock has ever taken on. The relationship started after Vosmeier and Finch hit it off on a personal level last fall. “This was a very unique, one-time partnership,” Finch says.

Know Theatre boasted the most successful campaign of all of Socstock’s clients last year, Finch says. “What I was most surprised by was the way in which Eric was able to galvanize his community of supporters.”
 
The affection Know Theatre enjoys from its friends and neighbors is mutual. Whatever negative reputation OTR may have had in the past, Know Theatre’s staff insists that they are lucky to be there.

Kesman lives in OTR and loves everything about the neighborhood, from the beauty of her walk to work to the creative atmosphere the area has developed. “There are so many arts organizations and events down here now that are all bringing people in.”

That same passionate connection to the arts is what distinguishes Know from the older, larger arts organizations Kesman has worked with in the past. “We are a family,” she says. “Know Theatre is not just a revolving door.”

People don’t just come to visit, see a show, and leave. “It’s more than that. It’s a community.”

“When the Rain Stops Falling” plays through March 16.

The Fringe Festival runs from May 28 – June 8.


Geoffrey Dobbins is a freelance journalist based in Cincinnati. He learned how to write for magazines, newspapers and blogs while studying journalism at the University of Cincinnati. Between runs to the comic book shop, he's been a contributor for Cincinnati Magazine, WireTap magazine and URB.com.
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