Cover Story: In the Know, in the Groove

Jay Kalagayan, Jason Bruffy and their Know Theatre partners aren't finished growing

Sep 19, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Joe Lamb

Know Theatre's Jay Kalagayan (left) and Jason Bruffy

Back in 1997, Jay Kalagayan was a recent Xavier University grad with a yen for theater. But he found it hard to find opportunities locally — his Filipino heritage made him the odd man out with many groups that simply didn't know what to do with him.

So Kalagayan decided to establish a new company, which he dubbed the Know Theatre Tribe. His goal was to create a performing group that would be open to all kinds of people, both as performers and audiences.

He wanted to see the diverse range of Cincinnati's community — and its theater talent — reflected in his group's work. They thought of themselves as "nomadic," doing readings and performances in places like art galleries and bookstores.

But Know also needed a home base, and they found it at Gabriel's Corner, a church basement at Sycamore and Liberty streets in Over-the-Rhine. For eight seasons, Know presented adventurous work in a cramped setting.

There were so few amenities that the group was forced to be creative. The church's congregation took a relatively hands-off approach to second-guessing the productions Know presented: American Standard (1999), Track and Field (2001) and A Note on the Type (2005) by Cincinnati playwright Kevin Barry; Prelude to a Kiss (2000) by Craig Lucas; Naomi Iizuka's Polaroid Stories (2000); Lanford Wilson's Redwood Curtain (2001); Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues (2002); Pretty Fire (2004) and Neat (2005) by Charlayne Woodward; and August Wilson's Two Trains Running (2004).

But one production was truly a watershed for Know: In June 2003 the company presented Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi, a controversial script that portrays Jesus and his disciples as gay men.

As it has elsewhere in America, the production evoked protests from the Christian right, perhaps exacerbated by the fact that it was being staged in a church. There were a lot of additional expenses, including security, made necessary by the production.

One of Know's board members arranged for Kalagayan to meet with local arts patron David C. Herriman to seek some funding. Kalagayan says, "He asked me, 'What will you do if I don't give you this money?' I said, 'We're going to do the show anyway.' He was really impressed by that."

So impressed, in fact, that he started underwriting productions. The work became even more adventurous — Sara Kane's 4.48 Psychosis, the regional premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis' The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and Jonathan Larsen's tick, tick ... Boom!, the company's first musical and a solid hit.

It became evident that Know needed a new home. During 2005 and early 2006, Kalagayan and Jason Bruffy — who joined Know in 2003 after serving as the assistant director for Corpus Christi — had been scouting for new locations and stockpiling equipment. When they checked out a vacant nightclub on Jackson Street in Over-the-Rhine, they involved Herriman in the process.

Herriman offered to buy the building and lease it to Know at a rate they could afford. It's made a world of difference for the company.

In early 2006 Know relocated and has marched steadily forward with new productions of even edgier material — last season offered Suzan-Lori Parks' In the Blood and Adam Rapp's Gompers; next month they open the season with Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman (Oct. 18-Nov. 10) and more works by Parks, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and Rapp, one of the most admired contemporary theatrical writers.

The downstairs bar, dubbed The Underground, is a site for readings and small musical acts. It's a hangout before and after shows and was the hub of activity during the 2007 Cincinnati Fringe Festival.

Oh, yes, the Fringe. It was Bruffy's brainchild when he was still part of the company at Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, the theater company that brought him to town in 2000. When he came on board with Know, he continued his leadership with the Fringe, feeling the two entities had a synergy.

"It just made sense for us to be hosting the Fringe," Bruffy says. "When you look at the other companies here in town, so much of it worked together hand-in-hand. We were stealing equipment back and forth. At a certain point, I didn't want two separate jobs."

By using the Know facility as its office, the Fringe really took off this year and looks to continue even stronger in 2008. Eric Vosmeier, Know's new associate artistic director (and former theater manager at The Carnegie in Covington), will be the hands-on manager of the fifth annual Fringe next June, but the entire company converts into a festival organization for the month or so around the two-week event that presents dozens of edgy performances.

When asked if he expected Know to last when he started it 10 years ago, Kalagayan says, "I just started. I wanted to provide opportunities for people who were talented but weren't getting cast. They all came together, and then they all left after the first year! And it was just me. The problem with starting a company is then you've got to keep it going — and going and going and going."

He's done that and more, of course.

"I love when I talk to someone who's just had their first experience with theater outside after high school, and they are just dazzled," he says. "One of our board member is an accountant. He doesn't see a lot of theater outside, but after seeing a show he's always talking to the cast members.

"We have a joy for what we do, and that's reflected when people come here. It's long hours and everything, but we're accessible and they get a chance to talk to us. They might be used to a 1,000-seat theater where they're way in the back. Here in our 100-seat house, they're up close. They see the actors sweat." ©

Q: What's the coolest thing about you?

Jason Bruffy about Jay Kalagayan: "Jay dances in the office. He doesn't have an ego that would go along with the accolades he's earned. He's willing to step back and let other people take it and run with it."

Kalagayan about Bruffy: "Jason is always striving to create something better. He's always thinking around the object or the problem, trying to improve upon it."

Kalagayan about Doug Borntrager, Know Theatre production manager: "He's a great mix of creative, professional and laid-back. You need all three to have a well-rounded person, but it's his laid-backness that makes him Doug. It's a calming effect when you're putting a show together."

Q: What's cool about Cincinnati's theater scene?

Kalagayan: "The potential for how cool the theater scene can be in Cincinnati."

Bruffy: "Being part of a scene that includes a Tony Award winner like the Playhouse; a great theater like Ensemble; Cincinnati Shakespeare, my alma mater; and more. Only a handful of cities can boast that great artists can make a living locally."

Q: What's cool about the arts in Cincinnati?

Bruffy: "With the Fringe Festival, we see so many beautiful collaborations — for the music scene, the art scene, the theater scene. There's so much potential to grow and expand and keep going."

Kalagayan: "I'm a fan of the proximity that's coming on right now — our location near the Art Academy, Ensemble Theatre is a real anchor, the School for Creative and Performing Arts that will happen soon. Things are really locking in. I think the arts in Cincinnati work together and collaborate as much as they can, but what I really like is there are more arts and culture together in one location."