By George Basler
Tim Gleason still remembers what the weather was like on KNOW Theatre’s first night.
“We opened in the Centenary United Methodist Church in mid-August. It was a great time to do a show in a church loft with no air conditioning,” he said, with a laugh.
But the first production, Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana, was successful enough that the company kept going. And this weekend KNOW Theatre will reach a milestone by celebrating its 20th anniversary with the opening of Murray Schisgal’s comedy, Luv, a Broadway hit of the 1960s.
“Love is what it’s all about, love of the theater and what it can do” said Gleason, the company’s artistic director since its start. “It’s love of what we do that has kept us going.”
During its two-decade history, the theater staged productions in a number of different locations before moving into its permanent home — the former Central Fire Station, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton — in 2006.
In that time, its mission has stayed the same: to present provocative plays that may be a little cutting edge, even controversial. Productions have included Bent, about the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany; David Mamet’s poisonous battle of the sexes, Oleanna, and the Pulitizer Prize-winning The Shadow Box about cancer patients struggling to maintain their dignity in face of the disease.
“I’m constantly being told that we do heavy stuff, but there’s always a dollop of ice cream with one comedy a season,” Gleason said.
Anyway, challenging the audience is the point. “It’s in our mission statement,” Gleason said. “I want to do the kind of theater that moves me, the kind of theater that makes you think and respond in an emotional manner.
People have indeed responded. While not exactly rolling in money, KNOW is making a profit, a rarity for small, independent theaters. And it’s doing so without ever taking a penny of public money. Support comes from donations, membership fees, ticket sales and advertising, Gleason said.
The 2013-14 season will be a retrospective one featuring four productions that have been done in previous seasons. LUV will run weekends from Sept. 20 to Oct. 6 After that KNOW will stage Mass Appeal in February, The Rainmaker in April and Death and the Maiden in June.
The company also will present its 10th annual Playwrights and Artists Festival the weekends of Nov. 22-24 and Nov. 29-Dec. 1. The festival will feature six plays that playwrights have created using works of art as their inspiration
Finally, in July, the theater will host the four student-written plays that are the regional winners in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. The program is now in its third year at KNOW.
When selecting a play for KNOW Theatre, Gleason must consider whether the show will work in the intimate space of the Carroll Street theater, which has only 76 seats. The closest seat only 22 feet from the actors, he said.
“Something happens in a space this size. You feel the energy coming at you, and the audience hopefully feels the energy going toward them,” Gleason said.
The 59-year Scranton, Pa,. native got the theater bug later in life. A former engineer, he became entranced by acting in his 30s after taking a non-credit course at Broome Community College from the late Angelo Zuccolo. “The more I got into the true capabilities of what theater can do, it lit a fire for me,” he said.
Gleason emphasizes the theater is not a one-man show. He credits people who have worked as volunteers and board members over the years as a reason for KNOW’s survival. He also salutes “actors who stuck with me” and “people who have helped me build sets.”
At the same time, finances are always a challenge, he said. Gleason teaches acting and works a part-time office job to help pay his bills. While the actors, directors and technical staff get paid, “it’s not nearly enough,” he said
What is especially disappointing is that Gleason still comes in contact with people who don’t know the KNOW Theatre exists even though it’s been around 20 years. Even after all these years, the theater must continue to build an audience, something that can be a struggle.
As it enters its third decade, the company is investing in a new lighting and sound system to improve the technical qualities of a production.
“In our own little way, we’re trying move the world in some manner,” Gleason said.
IF YOU GO: KNOW Theatre’s season will open Friday (Sept. 20) with LUV by Murray Schisgal. Performances will continue Sept. 21, 22, 26-29 and Oct. 4-6.
Friday and Saturday performances are 8 p.m. while Sunday matinees are 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 ($15 for seniors and $10 for students). Thursday, Sept. 26, is a pay-what-you-can performance.
Tickets can be ordered online through KNOW Theatre’s website, or by calling 724-4341.