Jason Bruffy will leave his position as artistic director of Know Theatre of Cincinnati on Sept. 4 to lead the Salt Lake Acting Company (SLAC) in Utah.
He became Know's artistic leader in 2004 and oversaw the company's 2006 move from a church basement in Over-the-Rhine to a remodeled, two-story building on Jackson Street in another part of the neighborhood that has become a focal point for Cincinnati's performing arts scene. His departure coincides with that of Know founder, Jay Kalagayan, who announced earlier in the summer his intention to relinquish his responsibilities as the 11-year-old company's development director. Managing Director Eric Vosmeier will be Know's interim leader while a search is conducted for Know's next artistic director.
Early in 2009, CityBeat named Bruffy, New Stage Collective's Alan Patrick Kenny and Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati's D. Lynn Meyers as the "Persons of the Year" for the vitality they have brought to Over-the-Rhine and the city's performing arts scene. Unfortunately, New Stage Collective folded for financial reasons in April after seven seasons. Bruffy's departure was prompted by the opportunity in Utah rather than the tough economy.
SLAC, founded in 1970, presents innovative and thought-provoking plays for Utah audiences. Bruffy takes over just as SLAC kicks off its 40th season. The first production, directed by a guest artist, will be Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, opening on Sept. 16. SLAC presents shows in a two-stage complex.
In a phone conversation on Aug. 19, Bruffy told me that Know's previously announced 2009-10 season has directors lined up for each production. The season kicks off with Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's drama Boom on Oct. 10. It will be directed by Cincinnati Entertainment Award-winning director Drew Fracher. Vosmeier was already slotted to stage The Adding Machine, a new musical, in February 2010.
Know's most ambitious offering for the season, Tony Kushner's immense two-play Pulitzer Prize winner Angels in America, is set for a repertory run in April-May 2010. Cincinnati Shakespeare Company's Brian Isaac Phillips has been engaged for Part I, Millennium Approaches, and a guest director from Columbus is likely to handle Part II, Perestroika.
Bruffy came to Cincinnati in 2002 as a member of Cincinnati Shakespeare's Young Company. He took on the added responsibilities of company manager during his first season. In 2003, he told me about his ambition to establish a Fringe Festival in Cincinnati, something he made happen in 2004 under the auspices of CSC's Studio Series.
The Fringe (and Bruffy) moved on to become an independent entity in 2005 and then merged into Know Theatre in 2006. With its sixth iteration this past June, Cincy Fringe (now managed by Vosmeier) has become the largest performing arts festival in Ohio.
"We founded the Festival," Bruffy says, "with the idea of supporting and encouraging artistic process and freedom. There were these pockets of great avant garde work happening all around the city, not to mention the country, and no one in the mainstream knew about it. In one night, we committed to giving them a home here in in Cincinnati."
SLAC's interim executive producer Nancy Borgenicht says, "Bruffy was the unanimous choice of board, staff and search committee. He is a gift from heaven. Theater is clearly in his young bones. Most impressive of all, he has enormous grace. We are very lucky and very happy."
Jeff Syroney, Know's board president, of course, isn't feeling so lucky or happy.
"I am torn between my happiness for the success of a talented artist and a dear friend and the lamentation of the loss of one of the city's true artistic entrepreneurs," Syroney says. "Never one to shy away from a challenge or an experiment, Jason's ability to create community through vision has been a gift to Cincinnati. His influence and inspiration will be missed."
During Bruffy's six years with Know Theatre, the company experienced a tenfold increase in its operating budget. Staff has tripled, including the addition of four actors in a full-time resident company. Bruffy personally directed almost two dozen productions during his tenure. This summer he took on another task, helping Jersey Productions by directing their July production of Oklahoma! at the Aronoff Center's Jarson-Kaplan Theater.
"I have spent eight wonderful years in Cincinnati," says Bruffy, a native of New Jersey. "Cincinnati is a place I will always call home. The passion this community has and the wealth of culture the city has to offer is a tribute."
From my position as a long-term observer of the Cincinnati theater scene, I see this as a great opportunity for Bruffy to test his skills and provide him with a more substantial organization to bring his artistic vision to life. He's headed to a city that might be even more conservative than Cincinnati, so he'll still be in a position to use his talent and passion to push the envelope with thought-provoking theater.
As for Know Theatre, the next 18 months will be a time of change and growth. Bruffy leaves the theater with a solid foundation and a staff that can see where they're going. The Fringe is well established with Vosmeier as its manager.
I expect that Know's board will look carefully both locally and beyond for Bruffy's replacement, and that individual will inherit a solid organization and a challenge to take it to a new level. That's exciting for theater fans here in Cincinnati.
Know Theatre is holding a farewell cocktail party (cash bar) for Bruffy at Know's Jackson Street Underground on Sept. 3 starting at 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. I'll be there to wish Bruffy well, and if you care about theater locally you should be there, too.