Iowa City has many of the things Adam Knight loves about New York — without being in New York.
After spending 17 years there, Riverside Theatre’s new artistic director was looking for more opportunities to do what he loves most: produce and direct plays.
“Things were going well in the city, but in some ways, I felt like I really wanted a change,” said Knight, 39, one of the founders and artistic directors at Slant Theatre Project. “Our mission was to build the plane in flight, so we would embark on new plays and projects we believed in, without exactly knowing exactly how we were going to do it. That kind of danger and creative risk-taking really informed my process. It freed me up from trying to know all the answers right away.”
But he was ready for a change.
His Slant Theatre co-director Matt Dellapina planted the seed for uprooting to Iowa City. After going there to shoot a film with Sean Christopher Lewis, who recently served as Riverside Theatre’s interim artistic director, Dellapina told Knight: “I can see you living here.” So when the Riverside job opened, Knight headed west.
It’s not that he didn’t enjoy his time out east.
“One thing that was missing is part of what I loved about theater in the first place — part of what got me into theater in the first place — which is a strong relationship to the community.”
He was part of an exciting community at the University of Evansville in southern Indiana, where he studied alongside Rami Malek, now earning rave reviews as Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Knight also directed him in a play in New York, and Malek slept on his couch at the time.
Knight also worked at college and in New York with classmates Kelli Giddish, who stars as Detective Amanda Rollins on “Law & Order SVU,” and playwright Mat Smart, one of the artistic directors at Slant Theatre Project.
“It was an interesting pocket of talent there,” Knight said of his alma mater.
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Knight, Smart and their Slant Theatre colleagues also built a small community in New York City, consisting mostly of theater people.
“It was an insular community,” Knight said, adding that if audience members who aren’t theater people wander into a show, their attitude is “impress me,” because they can just go to another theater down the street.
IN THE HEARTLAND
In Iowa City, he’s found the best of both worlds: “the opportunity to keep doing theater at a high level, but keep building stronger ties to a community,” he said, “not on a show-by-show basis, but on a season-by-season basis; and as a conversation that’s going to keep continuing; and as a dialogue versus a presentation. That really appealed to me.”
He interviewed in September during Riverside’s season opener of “The Cake,” written by Bekah Brunstetter, whom he knows. He also has friends who have worked at Iowa City’s progressive professional theater.
“Every time I mentioned Riverside in New York, I would always find someone in the room who had worked here before. That was really a good sign,” he said. “These are artists who I respected and trusted. I already knew the strength of it before I arrived.
“And seeing ‘The Cake’ really solidified that for me. The performances were fantastic and told the story in an exciting way. I also loved that no seat is bad. I’ve been in a lot of theaters, and that’s not true of most places.”
The first thing he did at Riverside Theatre was just sit in the space and get a feel for it.
“I knew that it was a place where I could create art,” he said.
A native of Greenville, S.C., he grew up doing outdoor Shakespeare, so Riverside’s longtime summer tradition, which Lewis turned into a free program this past season, is “like a dream come true” for Knight.
He also just likes Iowa City’s vibe.
“Iowa City is a place that has so much culturally going on — has good restaurants, has a downtown that feels very livable. ... It just seemed like a cool town. I felt like this was a place I could live for a long time,” he said.
“In a strange way, New York has taught me to live anywhere. It’s taught me what I want. It’s also taught me that not all roads have to run through New York.
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“I’ve always believed that great theater can happen anywhere.”
Riverside’s commitment to new plays and emerging playwrights, as well as the classics, also lured him here.
His first foray into the Riverside season was directing Arthur Miller’s classic “The Price,” which ends its run today. Next onstage is the edgy new holiday comedy “Rotten Eggnog,” written by Lewis, directed by Nina Morrison and running Nov. 30 to Dec. 16.
“It’s very rare that a theater of Riverside’s size is so committed to new work,” Knight said. “We always have a great slot for Shakespeare and American classics and plays that have premiered recently in New York or Chicago, but I love that there’s also a slot for world premieres. There’s this hunger in this town for new work, and that is very rare and exciting to me.
“My background is working on new plays. I love having writers in the room. I love not knowing where a play’s going until we discover it, and there’s something just so wonderfully present about new work, and that to me is the epitome of what theater wants to be.”
Equally important is having the talent to run this gamut of shows.
The area’s acting pool is “fantastic,” he said. “No one told me there were so many good actors in Iowa City and the Corridor.”
He’s seen several shows in the area since arriving in late September.
“The thing that’s been true across the board is that they’re good productions, and the hunger that the actors seem to have,” he said. “There’s a real desire to work and to collaborate and to do new plays. There’s a higher bar here than the population of the area would suggest.”
He’s stepping into a season that was decided long before he arrived, and he’s fine with that.
“It’s important for me right now to be listening, not telling. Sean Christopher Lewis has done a great job the last few years really making sure that Riverside was challenging and speaking to our audience in the right ways. I trust his instincts in some of the things he chose, and right now it’s a great opportunity for me to be working within those choices and to be learning more about our audiences,” he said.
“Moving forward, I’ll take that information I have, and my own sense of what I perceive and believe, and it will be fun to put those pieces together. Right now, it’s great to have a structure to be existing in and to be learning from.”
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