A change in leadership is under way at Over-the-Rhine’s Know Theatre. Eric Vosmeier, producing artistic director for the past half-dozen years, is gradually handing over the reins to resident scenic and lighting designer Andrew Hungerford. Know, an adventurous and occasionally chaotic organization that began in 1997, is handling this evolution in a surprisingly orderly fashion. In December 2012, Vosmeier informed the company’s board that a strategic plan unveiled last fall was also the foundation for leadership succession, since he planned to depart in the next 18 to 24 months.
“Know is a great mid-level stepping stone for theatrical professionals,” Vosmeier told me in a recent conversation in Know’s Underground bar, “and that’s a good place for us. We create an inordinately high-quality product for what we do, for who we are and for the size of our organization.”
They also do it on a shoestring budget, with just four full-time staff. “I’ve gotten a lot of the work done that I wanted to get done,” Vosmeier says. “Not all of it — things never happen as fast as I want them to. I’ve been talking with Andrew over the past three years to lure him into an associate role in advance of this; he’s a superb choice and someone who knows this company as well as I.”
Hungerford earned his master’s degree in technical theater at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music in 2005 then launched a successful freelance design career working with companies from California to New York City and building numerous connections with artists elsewhere. In 2007 Jason Bruffy, Vosmeier’s predecessor at Know, recruited Hungerford; he’s since become a fixture, creating memorable scenic and lighting designs for shows like Angels in America (2010) and When the Rain Stops Falling this year.
(He’s spent four seasons as Cincinnati Shakespeare’s resident scenic and lighting designer, too.)
He came on board as Know relocated from its original Over-the-Rhine venue, Gabriel’s Corner, to its current Jackson Street venue. “We were no longer the itinerant, started-in-the-church-basement company,” Hungerford says. He played a role in choosing plays and lived nearby from 2007 to 2009. Even as his career expanded nationally, he continued to stay connected to Know.
“It was really great to have such a personal investment in the product going onstage,” he says. “Being a part of the cycle of pushing forward and trying to improve the product is something that’s been part of my life for the past seven years.”
When Vosmeier broached the idea of a transition, Hungerford was ready. “I had so much of my life invested in this company that it was just a natural progression to help it move on to whatever is next,” Hungerford says.
Just what that means is still taking shape. He and Vosmeier collaborated to assemble upcoming, recently announced shows. Vosmeier plans to remain actively involved through the June 2014 Fringe; the first production of Hungerford’s tenure will be a stage adaptation of Moby Dick a year from now. Because he’s a designer, he will recruit adventurous directors to stage shows for Know. Already engaged for Moby Dick is CCM emeritus professor of drama Michael Burnham, named to the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards theater hall of fame in 2003.
Hungerford helped conceive Know’s mission as a company that’s an “artistic playground.” As much as possible, he intends to keep things happening at the Over-the-Rhine venue 24/7. He likes the “never-be-dark” approach that various other small theaters have adopted. “It makes no sense to have the building sitting empty,” he says, “to only have people come into your building four times a year for productions.
To that end, Vosmeier will focus on expanding the Jackson Street Market, an umbrella organization he created to nurture entities such as True Theatre, OTRimprov and other small performing arts groups needing shelter and support.
Vosmeier’s plans beyond 2014 are anybody’s guess, including his own. He’s been brainstorming, but right now he’s focused on helping Hungerford connect with Know’s supporters and others, a luxury he didn’t have when he started.
“We have spent a great deal of time over the past several years talking about the organization and its functions,” Vosmeier says. “Andrew knows a great deal now. He and I helped create where Know is now. I’ve always valued his input into the organization, kept him around as much as possible. I’m really happy he’s going to take over. We’re in a position to take a big step forward, to grow a little bit more.”
That’s good news for Cincinnati theatergoers who relish Know’s adventurous creativity: There’s more to come.
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