Riverside Theatre’s new director plans to take risks and reach new audiences

The Price

Riverside Theatre — running through Nov. 18

Adam Knight is the new artistic director of Riverside Theatre. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The new artistic director of Riverside Theatre, Adam Knight, moved to Iowa City just over a month ago, bringing only an antique bed frame with him. Currently, he is directing Arthur Miller’s 1968 play The Price (which opened Oct. 26), on a set cluttered with vintage furniture, including a large wardrobe, as well as a fencing foil, mirrors, rolled up Turkish rugs, a harp and an over-sized oar. When I sat in on rehearsal, Knight joked about moving the furniture after the play closes into his nearby unfurnished apartment.

The stark contrast between the two settings is an apt metaphor for how Knight approaches his new position at Riverside and also for his directorial methods: entering into an established setting and working with what’s there, taking the most important bits and reevaluating what’s of most value.

Originally from Charleston, South Carolina, Knight is a seasoned director and producer, and co-founder/co-artistic director of the Slant Theatre Project in New York City, a company known for “building the plane in flight” — producing new works by emerging playwrights. Knight already knew about Iowa City’s literary and political reputation before hearing of the opening at Riverside. He cited admiration for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and said that he finds the political caucuses “exotic and interesting.”

During his 48-hour interview process in July, he was impressed by Iowa City’s many offerings. “It’s unusual for a city of this size to have this much and varied culture,” Knight said.

Knight took the position as Riverside’s artistic director to expand upon the type of work he was already doing at Slant: taking risks, producing vibrant new work and following artistic impulses. As a director, he demands a lot of himself: to “unthink the idea” and challenge audience expectations, which includes asking what work resonates at this particular moment, and be flexible enough to make late changes. He never wants a theater company to look like the roomful of relics in The Price.

“We always have to ask ourselves, ‘Why this play now?’,” he said. “We must take risks or risk becoming a museum piece.”

Adam Knight (right) directs the cast of ‘The Price’ at Riverside Theatre. Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Riverside produces eight shows a year, including two annual premieres—either world premieres of original work (often written locally) or Rolling World Premieres in conjunction with the National New Play Network (where three or more theaters across the country mount the same new play in a 12-month period). The theater is in a unique position, Knight said, because it is “unabashedly local, and yet part of the larger national conversation.” This season will include a holiday production, a world premiere of former interim artistic director Sean Christopher Lewis’ Rotten Eggnog, as well as another work that will be determined within the next few weeks. Knight is currently deliberating on the summer season, including which Shakespeare work to produce, as well as thinking ahead to next year’s offerings.

“We will never just do a play just to do a play,” he promised, but only select and stage works that are thought-provoking and fresh.

Knight realizes the history of Riverside Theatre as an Iowa City cultural institution and entered into this season to work with the plays chosen by his predecessor, Lewis, who also helped him cast the first shows of the season. Trusting Lewis’ selections, Knight plans to spend the early part of the season observing, listening and learning about the Iowa City community. As he works with a group of veteran Iowa City actors, such as Tim Budd and Jim Kern, Knight is learning about the cast’s shared history and their growth.

Knight hopes to preserve Riverside’s connection to the past and celebrate its legacy. Knight applauds Riverside’s reputation as a place for serious theater at a professional level of complexity, and as a “beacon of great work and home of great writers.” He hopes to lean into Riverside’s established strengths, and maintain programs such as the free summer Shakespeare production and the Free Will program for area students.

But he also said he hopes to expand Riverside to “become a bigger part of the fabric of the community.” Knight wants to reach new audiences, reconnect with previous audiences and continue to appeal to sustaining members. This includes making Riverside more inclusive, he said, by “expanding the types of stories we tell.”

“We must find the balance between the stories we want to hear and the stories we need to hear,” Knight explained. “We need to push the conversation further.”

He has plans to develop Riverside’s outreach efforts, offer more opportunities for area students and engage with the other arts and cultural programming in the greater Iowa City area.

“Riverside is not an isolated tower,” Knight said. “We are opening our windows and doors to let the light in. It’s the right time.”

For those who haven’t been introduced to Riverside Theatre yet, Knight suggests taking advantage of student pricing for tickets ($10), free drink Thursdays and talkbacks with scholars, cast and crew. For those looking for a longer commitment, there are still Riverdog Season passes available.

The Price — a play that is, he said, “quite literally about furniture and the price of furniture” — is providing Knight with opportunities to challenge our expectations of what we think about Miller’s oeuvre. Although we think of Miller as a behemoth of American serious drama, with his canonical plays The Crucible and Death of a Salesman, his less-produced works allow for new avenues of inquiry, such the comic potential that Knight finds in Miller’s work.

Adam Knight is the new artistic director of Riverside Theatre. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

It was clear during rehearsals what an open director he is, taking notes from his cast, technical director and stage manager to develop a cohesive ensemble with everyone contributing to create the best performance. Actors tried out different blocking options for a particularly tense moment, playing with the cramped space of the stage, even days before opening, willing to make adjustments and changes to tell the best version of this play. Knight liked one option to open the second act, but demurred when outvoted by his designers who preferred an alternative. He repeated, “Let’s try it a little messier,” and allowed the whole ensemble to discuss what was working or not.

“Theater is uniquely present and provides an opportunity to have our thoughts challenged,” Knight said, “to think, to laugh, to cry and to have our individual responses in a communal setting, with even our heartbeats synchronizing during a performance.”

Colleen Kennedy shaves her head; wears baggy trousers and little round glasses; deplores depilatories; drinks pints; protests regularly; votes Socialist Worker Party; supports; spurs; eats fire; soaks; pulses; wrestles; squats; is concerned; refuses to be stereotyped. (That is actually Dame Emma Thompson’s bio from Cambridge Footlights, but Colleen aspires to all of this.)

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