In the Know: Transforming a theater on the fringe

Andrew Hungerford

Andrew Hungerford

Friday, April 4, 2014.

That was the night Andrew Hungerford stepped into the center of the ring.

He was already well established in the Greater Cincinnati theater community. He’d been the resident designer at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company and Know Theatre for several years. He’d earned an MFA in lighting from the College-Conservatory of Music and had launched a couple of fringy, pop-up theater groups.

But that night was different. It was the opening of Tom Jacobson’s “The Twentieth-Century Way” at the Know. Just before the show started, producing artistic director Eric Vosmeier stepped in front of the crowd and began one of his lickety-split, I-dare-you-to-keep-up-with-me curtain speeches. Suddenly, his rhythm changed. He told the crowd that he would be stepping down from his position. He would stick around long enough to complete the Fringe Festival, but after that, Hungerford would be leading the Know.

It wasn’t a complete shock. But you could hear the buzz in the crowd. Many of them had no idea it was coming.

Interestingly, both men – Vosmeier and Hungerford – were almost identically dressed. It was as if they’d called each other earlier in the day to coordinate their outfits. Greyish herringbone sport coats, white shirts and black ties. But they couldn’t have appeared more different.

Vosmeier looked unkempt, with a shirt that was opened a few buttons and visibly rumpled. Hungerford was sharp and snappy; his shirt was buttoned to the very top. And you just knew that, under that sport coat, that shirt had razor-sharp creases. Where Vosmeier’s speech had a certain breathlessness to it, Hungerford’s had the easy pacing of a nighttime TV host delivering the intro to his show.

Most of us didn’t realize it then, but the differences we saw onstage that night were palpable reflections of their styles as artists, as administrators, as thinkers.

Hungerford’s appointment shouldn’t have come as a surprise. He had served under the two previous artistic directors, Jason Bruffy and Vosmeier.

“He learned what has worked in the past,” says Know founder Jay Kalagayan, who recently rejoined the Know board. What Kalagayan doesn’t say is that, just as important, Hungerford had seen what didn’t work.

“Andrew also brings numerous relationships with performing arts organizations and artists across the country,” adds Kalagayan. It’s not that Bruffy and Vosmeier weren’t connected, says Kalagayan. It’s just that most of the contacts those two called into play were local. “Andrew has spent his career as a set and lighting designer building relationships with universities, theaters, operas, etc.”

Like so many theater professionals, he got his start staging shows on his front porch as a kid in Clinton Township in suburban Detroit. He was such an enthusiastic actor that his grandmother predicted that would come to define his career.

“Every day on the playground was another installment in an ongoing serialized narrative, where my friends and I mashed up elements from our favorite stories into our own fictional corner of the universe.”—Andrew Hungerford.

But even as he entered Wyandot Middle School, it was obvious that one specialty wouldn’t be enough for this kid. Hungerford explored all manner of theatrical activity.

“I made some terrible ‘movies’ on VHS,” he recalled. “I recorded radio plays and wrote short stories . . . I also would craft elaborate stories during play sessions. Every day on the playground in fifth grade was another installment in an ongoing serialized narrative, where my friends and I mashed up elements from our favorite stories into our own fictional corner of the universe.”

He quickly moved up the theater chain. He became the assistant stage manager on a show called “It’s All Greek to Me.” (“It was most likely terrible,” says Hungerford.) About the same time, he tried a little standup, offering impersonations of tycoon/presidential candidate H. Ross Perot at civic events. He was just 12.

By high school, he was acting in more serious roles, including the title role in “Cyrano de Bergerac” when he was a senior at Chippewa Valley High School.

Even as a student at Michigan State University, he was collecting ideas and inspirations from several different fields. By the time he graduated from MSU in 2002, he had earned bachelor’s degrees in theater and astrophysics.

A visit to London during the summer of 2001 changed everything. There he saw the celebrated production of “The Far Side of the Moon” at the National Theatre. It was, says Hungerford, “the show that convinced me to go into theater as a career. It was a combination of the lovely, layered text, a fantastic solo performance, and brilliant design work that led to some truly magical theatrical transformations. The end of the show, which uses a giant mirror to create the illusion of zero gravity, was particularly inspiring.”

Since he made that decision, Hungerford has hurtled forward, adding theaters to his collection of gigs, writing scripts, wheeling and dealing to create new opportunities for collaboration. Following the philosophical lead of Vosmeier and the Fringe Festival, the Know has introduced free Wednesday performances and expanded its community connections through its Jackson Street Market and relationships with OTR Improv and the trueTheatre storytelling project.

But the most successful creative outreach venture has been “Serials,” which has opened the doors to dozens of playwrights, actors, directors since it was launched in 2014. “15 minute episodes of new plays, every two weeks, for a total of 5 installments” is how the Know describes it. Budgets are nonexistent, but audiences have been enthusiastic. The next round of “Serials” – the fourth – begins Feb. 8.

Hungerford is as ambitious as ever. Indeed, he has found a way to be artistic director of a Cincinnati theater even as his official residence remains with his wife, screenwriter/playwright Elizabeth Martin, in Los Angeles.

But as the Know demands an increasing amount of his time – the theater’s schedule is its busiest ever – he’s looking for ways to re-jigger his calendar.

“I’ve always wanted to do too much,” admits Hungerford. “I’ve pretty much been busy continuously since 1989 when, in fourth grade, I was on both the Science Olympiad and Odyssey of the Mind teams.

“Basically, there’s too much that I want to do to choose only one path, and my life’s goal is to live without collapsing the waveform. But now that I’m in the second half of my 30s, I need to figure out a way to get a little more sleep.”

1 comment for “In the Know: Transforming a theater on the fringe

Leave a Reply