THESPIAN ALUM Dan Knechtges is proof that Broadway dreams come true — just not always in the way you imagine them. The graduate of Troupe 1674 from Midview High School in Grafton, Ohio, initially dreamed of acting but continually found himself drawn to choreographing and directing projects. He made his Broadway debut in 2005 creating dance sequences for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, then in 2007, he earned a Tony nomination for Xanadu. Four years later, Knechtges made his Broadway directing debut with Lysistrata Jones.

Today, Knechtges is the artistic director of Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars, where he not only oversees the selection of a season of classic and new musicals but also leads the theatre’s two schools — the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre, an afterschool program with training in acting, singing, and dancing, and the River Performing and Visual Arts Center, which provides students with disabilities the opportunity to express themselves through musical theatre. “Now I’m responsible for igniting passion in young theatre students,” Knechtges said. “That is an interesting, full-circle moment. It’s fun to pass along what my high school director, Diane Moser, instilled in me.”

Dan Knechtges (second from left, with Robert Bartley, Kevin Wright, George Buston, Gregory Bossler, and John Willson) appeared in the Maine State Music Theatre production of Big River.

Dan Knechtges (second from left, with Robert Bartley, Kevin Wright, George Buston, Gregory Bossler, and John Willson) appeared in the Maine State Music Theatre production of Big River. Photo courtesy of Gregory Bossler.

What sparked your interest in theatre?
I have to go way back. In fifth grade, I did The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. My older brother played the lead in the show the year before, and I wanted to play the lead. Around the same time, my sister started taking dance classes. I saw the attention she got, and I wanted that attention. I ended up taking dance and piano. It was those three things melding together that forged my passion for the arts.

We had the best high school drama teacher, who was passionate about theatre and how it changes your life and teaches responsibility. It added fuel to my fire. My sophomore year, we did Brigadoon. I choreographed a ribbon ballet to one of the numbers. I remember thinking, “This has never been done before. I’m so original.” I’m sure if we looked back, it probably was terrible. But at the time, I thought it was the best thing ever.

We saw that all the sports teams would wear their jerseys to school on game day, so the entire show week, every day, we would wear something to signify and unite us. We wore our costumes to school on the day that our show opened. So, for Brigadoon, the guys were wearing kilts all day at school. It got us noticed because we were just a small school. Sports were everything.

I had a lot of drive, and it was because of doing high school theatre. All my friends did. We took it seriously, so we became the cool kids, in a way.

Dan Knechtges
Photo of Dan Knechtges by Jenn Duncan.

Your initial focus at Otterbein University was acting. When did you shift to choreography and directing?
I choreographed all the high school musicals. My senior year, there were five choreographers on Godspell, and we got two or three numbers each. It was such a smart way to get us involved, because there was no money for a choreographer. I got my feet wet doing that work.

When I got to college, I didn’t get cast in many things. I think, partly, they didn’t know what to do with me, and partly I was feeling myself out. To get noticed as an artist, I started choreographing and staging numbers. The head of the dance department was a former Fosse dancer on Broadway. She saw my work and said, “You’re great as a choreographer. You should really move into this.” I liked that idea because choreography and direction, to me, were more intellectual than performing. Even though I can be fun and outgoing, I like the intellectual puzzle of putting a show together. I just didn’t know it until she said it.

In transitioning to directing, the most obvious skill shared with choreography is being bossy. I say that jokingly, but it’s kind of serious. In a musical, the choreographer has all the responsibilities the director has but none of the power. When you do both, you have much more control. Especially in musicals, I think my skills as a storyteller — and that’s how I approach choreography — are probably what I use most as a director. It’s always about story — story, story, story. I never let up on that.

What I think makes me unique compared to other choreographers that go into directing is that I started in acting. Because I can speak with actors and respect their process, I’m able to get more out of them. It’s the same working with authors. There is a dramaturgical structure that actors instinctively know that dancers and singers generally must work harder to understand.

What draws you to specific projects?
Stuff that is off center or a little bit out of the norm are things that really get me. And it has to have heart — it’s got to have a pulse or speak to humanity somehow. If that’s done through humor, I’m there. That has made me successful in my career — I’m good at comedy. There’s nothing better than when you’ve crafted a moment and it gets a big laugh.

The Broadway cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
The Broadway cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, choreographed by Dan Knechtges. Photo by Joan Marcus.

In 2017, you were named artistic director of Theatre Under the Stars. Had you aspired to running a regional theatre? 
I always imagined a place where I could have a residency, but I never thought there was a theatre quite right for me and my sensibility. I started working in theatre when Theatre Under the Stars had lost its star luster, so I never thought of it as a place to go work. Then I came and directed [How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying], and I really liked Houston. A board member reached out because they liked that production and asked if I would throw my hat into the ring for the artistic director position. I did, not knowing what would happen. In the process of interviewing, it made me think about my creative life and the opportunity. I felt I would have more control over the shows I was doing and the shows I wanted to create, rather than always trying to find ways to do those shows as a freelancer.

You’ve said one of the keys to your success was that you weren’t afraid to create your own opportunities. How important do you think that is for today’s theatre artists?
It’s more important than when I was growing up. Nowadays, a lot of people are looking at social media as entertainment. For instance, people will brush their teeth watching Insta stories. I’m not saying who … but that is a form of entertainment, where you’re creating content and the way that content is viewed. Producers also are looking at social media to understand you as an artist, so I think creating your own opportunities is a way to get noticed.

If I had gotten many opportunities in college handed to me, I would not have been ready for the struggle of New York. Frankly, a lot of folks who did get those opportunities in high school and college aren’t in show biz now. Part of it is my makeup — I’m stubborn, and I take rejection better than most — but it’s also because I created my own opportunities, and I still do. If I had to go back, I would try to create even more opportunities than I did.

You not only have to create your own opportunities but you also need to be passionate and curious. Nobody is going to teach you what you need to know. You need to go out and find it yourself. I had great teachers, but the best ones didn’t teach me. They led me to what my next passion would be. If people sit back and wait for the information or the training to come to them, they’ll never succeed.

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