BWW Interview: Dan Knechtges & Sara Brunow Talk Public Works Houston and SEUSSICAL at TUTS
In conjunction with their 50th Anniversary Season, Theatre Under the Stars has introduced Public Works Houston, a program designed to serve their mission of impacting lives beyond the stage in thoughtful community outreach. Public Works Houston branches off of the initiative of The Public Theater in New York, which aims to engage the community by making them creators rather than spectators.
Within this program, TUTS has partnered with Dress For Success Houston, Wesley Community Center, New Hope Housing Reed, and the YMCA of Greater Houston. With the unification of these organizations, in addition to TUTS' Humphrey School of Musical Theatre and The River Performing and Visual Arts Center, comes the creation of countless opportunities for members to learn from each other by bringing their unique skills to the stage.
Rather than adapting a piece of theatre to the program, as is typical of Public Works, the TUTS team chose to dive all-in with a full-scale production. This choice supports their intent to produce top-notch, quality musical theatre--only this time around all but a handful of those onstage are members of the community rather than professionals. With a collection of individuals from varying walks of life, cultural backgrounds, ages, and experiences, this program has brought together a cast of performers that is representative of Houston itself.
This program places emphasis on the importance of listening and the benefits of reciprocal learning. Before collaboration must come communication about the needs of the community and the ways this program can serve those needs. SEUSSICAL Ensemble member Jenni Petty beamed as she spoke of the transformative effects of Public Works Houston. While stepping onto the stage and into the world of theatre was "definitely outside my comfort zone", Petti noted that working on this project has "given me confidence to take on new things and to master any stage I come across". This is the objective of Public Works Houston: to listen honestly to the needs of the community and provide through artistic expression and relationship-building.
The program begins with nine months of preparatory workshops and classes, guided by the professional teaching artists of Theatre Under the Stars. The culmination of the program is a full-scale production of SEUSSICAL at Miller Outdoor Theatre, running from July 16th - 21st, free to the public. I had the opportunity to attend one of the tech rehearsals in preparation for opening night, which gave me a great sense of the efficacy of this initiative.
I spoke with SEUSSICAL's Director/Choreographer and TUTS Artistic Director, Dan Knechtges, about the process of putting this massive show of 80 cast members together. I was curious if the rehearsal process had been treated differently because of the varying amounts of experience in the cast. Knechtges and Associate Director Mitchell Greco emphasized that due to the skill and preparation of the members, it had not been necessary to lead this production differently than they lead any entirely professional production. Greco expressed that in the case of putting this show together, "All ships rose with the tide", meaning that each cast member had risen to the occasion and assumed all the responsibilities of a professional production.
"The ethos behind Public Works Houston is incorporation," Knechtges said regarding the collaborative structure of Public Works Houston. As I sat in the audience during rehearsal, Knechtges pointed out different individuals to me as he explained stories of their growth from the start of the program until now. From the littlest child onstage to the elderly members of the cast, each individual he mentioned had broken out of their shell and stepped into a new, previously untapped self-assurance. Knechtges noted that as director, he was able to be a witness to these individuals growing in their comfort level while finding a home within this group of people.
I also had the chance to speak to Sara Brunow, Director of Community Engagement, regarding her hands-on involvement in transforming this program from an idea to a reality. She walked me through the extensive preparation process that Public Works Houston has been undergoing for the past year. Public Works is intended to break down the barriers of arts access in order to create opportunities for the community, but "What does that look like in reality?" prompted Brunow, "And more importantly, what impact are we trying to have?"
Regarding the structure of the program, first the community partners participated in developing "basic skills of personal storytelling...such as voice work, sing-alongs, movement, and instruments". In essence, the program brought all of these individuals right back to the basics of musical storytelling, a place where you and I likely fell in love with theatre as well. Whether performer or audience member, we have all been healed by theatre at some point, and Public Works Houston brings that opportunity for healing face-to-face with those that might not have encountered it before.
Following the preparatory workshops and a mock-audition process, the teaching artists began more focused work with the community members. This step included discussing the language of the theatre, rediscovering your bodies as instruments, and proper self-care in the rehearsal and performance environment. Brunow highlighted the importance of this program as "a provider of tools and self-care" that gifts "the comfort to step outside of yourself to experience learning and change".
"Every person onstage has supported another person at one point in this process. Whether they are five years old and from Northside, or 47 and from the Third Ward," Brunrow described, "The ethos behind this program is humanity and how art can bring anyone together. Anyone can do this. Art is healing and looking at another human being and saying 'I believe in you.'"
Every individual I encountered throughout the night was all smiles, even in the Houston heat, as rehearsal worked its way into nighttime. There was a tangible joy and attitude of collaboration living onstage amongst the Who's of Whoville--so much so that a chorus of children sighed in disappointment when it was time for their scheduled break. I encourage you to come out to Miller Outdoor Theatre this week for a free night of entertaining musical theatre performed by individuals that, until now, sat where you sit as audience members.
Photography Credit: Melissa Taylor
TUTS' production of SEUSSICAL runs at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park, from July 16th - 21st and is entirely free to the public. For more information regarding tickets and seating, visit tuts.com or milleroutdoortheatre.com.