A tall, lanky man in his late 30s stands in front of a small but packed house. He rocks on his feet, practically dancing with anticipation, and flashes the audience a beaming smile. As he launches into the de rigueur “no cell phones, note the exits” pre-show monologue, he cracks jokes with the lighthearted familiarity of someone who has done this approximately 1,000 times before. This man is Andrew Hungerford, and he is the producing artistic director at Know Theatre of Cincinnati.
But Hungerford also wears a few other hats: He’s the director as well as the scenic and lighting designer of tonight’s show, the regional premiere of playwright Lauren Gunderson’s Ada & the Engine, a play about scientific pioneer Ada Byron Lovelace, who invented the first computer program, and her relationship with inventor Charles Babbage, the “father of computers.”
“I was lucky enough to have seen the demonstration of Babbage’s machine about 10 years ago, before I read this play,” Hungerford recalled a few days before opening, leaning back in his chair at the local coffee shop just around the corner from the Know. “Watching it work was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” he said.
It’s not just the kind of show Hungerford is attracted to but one he may be uniquely suited to. (His theatre previously staged Gunderson’s Silent Sky, another show about forgotten women in scientific history.) An unlikely pairing of science and art has characterized Hungerford’s career in the theatre from the start, and may be the reason for his singular position as a lighting designer who runs a theatre.
His college résumé gives some clue as to his diverse interests: He holds a B.S. in astrophysics and a B.A. in theatre from Michigan State University, as well as an MFA in lighting design from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. One reason he’s not doing science today, in fact, is that it was in the university’s theatre department that he discovered the passion that would become his profession. At Michigan State, as part of an assistantship, Hungerford happened to shadow a professor who was assigned to the school’s scenic and lighting department. That was his first exposure to design.
His original plan, he explained, had been to go to grad school for physics and seek theatre design work on the side. But after doing another assistantship for an astrophysics professor, he saw the tedium of that line of work in the field, and his plans shifted dramatically.
“I spent more time working on shows than, say, my thermodynamics homework,” he recalled with a twinkle in his eye.
In 2001, Hungerford studied abroad in London, and there he saw Robert Lepage’s one-man show The Far Side of the Moon, performed in both English and French (“The French version is 15 minutes longer, which I find fascinating,” he interjected). The final scene of the show, he said, left him with an image and impression he will never forget: a scene featuring Lepage, a bed, two mirrors, and an orange that created the illusion that Lepage was sitting up in bed and the orange was floating. This moment, Hungerford said, changed the trajectory of his life.
“This is the thing that made me think, okay, I have to do theatre,” he says. “Visually inventive worlds are the center of my design aesthetic.”
After that fateful trip, Hungerford began assisting in scenic design. Then in his junior year he discovered lighting design, in what might literally be described as a lightbulb moment. “Lighting design awoke the science part of my brain,” he recalled.
Indeed lighting design fused Hungerford’s two academic interests in a perfect marriage of two subjects often thought to be wildly different from each other. “The depth of research of science combined with the artistry was so engaging and compelling,” he said. “So I ran with that and then designed as many shows as possible.”
At times Hungerford’s right-brain/left-brain intellect can seem intimidating. Local actor Maggie Lou Rader, who is also Know Theatre’s education director, described her boss’s intelligence as a vital asset. As an example, she offered an anecdote about starring as Henrietta Levitt in Gunderson’s Silent Sky, which told the story of the women at Harvard Observatory who manually mapped the stars and galaxies the male scientists observed. When she asked Hungerford why the play’s characters were “charting this and this and this,” and “why is that important?” he sat down and enthusiastically explained it all to her in detail. “I think I gathered enough to understand why Henrietta was brilliant, but that was the extent,” she said with a laugh.
You can see what she means: Hungerford’s eyes positively glow with enthusiasm when he describes the favorite gel colors he uses in his designs. But the way he speaks about those colors and their inspiration is so poetic, you almost wouldn’t believe he’s thinking about the science too. His current favorite color belongs to the LEE palette and is LEE 728, which is called Steel Green, which he described thus, “I love it because it’s the color of a summer sky in Michigan as a tornado approaches. It’s such a great, unexpected color, and it looks spectacular on scenery.”
Hungerford often uses paintings and photographs from the period in which the show he’s designing is set to find the color palettes for the show. Lately he’s taken a particular interest in blue-green and silver gels. “There’s something really painterly about it,” he describes. “Combining unexpected colors so you get unexpected undertones adds depth to the overall picture.”
Part of his design process includes analyzing the script to determine the actionable goals of the characters moment to moment, then designing a lighting plot that supports those goals. “For me, lighting design is about taking it all and translating it into the actual lighting systems,” he explained.
Hungerford got his professional start as a lighting designer in 2004 at the Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati, then was hired by the Know’s artistic director, Jason Bruffy, to be the theatre’s resident scenic and lighting designer in 2007. In 2010, he started another role as a set, lighting, and sometime sound designer at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.
Darnell Pierre Benjamin met Hungerford when the latter was the scenic designer for Know Theatre’s 2010 staging of Angels in America. But their professional working relationship extended through work at both the Know and Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.
“I saw him as a nerdy guy who was somehow able to have great social skills,” Benjamin recalled, smiling fondly. “Whenever we did chat, we always had great conversations. But our friendship flourished right as he became artistic director at the Know.”
That was in late 2012. The interview for the artistic director position took place in the local coffee shop around the corner from the theatre. It was a casual conversation with the Know’s then-artistic director, Eric Vosmeier, and it lasted around 15 minutes. It ended with a difficult choice for Hungerford, whose home is in L.A. with his wife, Elizabeth, a screenwriter.
“It was tough, because I am based in L.A., but I had invested five years of my life into the organization at the time,” Hungerford said. “Which seems like such a small amount of time looking back,” he added.
All of the previous artistic directors at the Know came from directing backgrounds, as do most artistic directors of most theatres. Hungerford brings with him a different way of looking at theatre. While he has taken on many other roles at the Know, his lighting design remains paramount to his vision. “There have only been two or three times in my career where someone has designed the lighting for a set I designed,” he said.
While it’s rare for a designer to run a theatre, Hungerford has found a way to incorporate his lighting background into his work on scenic design and his directing as well. There is no better example of Hungerford succeeding at this than with Ada & the Engine.
That play, he said, was his favorite show to design so far, in part because he had been thinking about it for such a long time. “I thought about what I wanted it to be, but it didn’t crystalize,” he explained. “Like, I had all of these amorphous thoughts. It was partly the struggle that made it so satisfying. It turned into something super-magical.”
Magical is a good word for the work produced at the Know, whose own website describes itself as “Cincinnati’s Theatrical Playground.” A pointedly experimental theatre, the Know hosts several programs outside of the regular mainstage season, including an annual Fringe Festival, which introduces new shows from independent artists over the course of 11 days, hosting more than 150 live performances from groups all over the country.
Reflecting on the Know programming outside the mainstage, Benjamin observed that the content seems to get stranger and stranger. “Andrew is seen as the leader of the weird stuff,” Benjamin said. “He is more than willing to give people a place to test things.”
A good example would be the show Calculus: The Musical, a musical comedy about a contemporary student named Ada who is visited by the historic Isaac Newton. After its 2007 Cincinnati Fringe performance, Calculus: The Musical became the only show in Fringe history to be granted an extended run due to audience demand. This year, Calculus: The Musical kicked off the Cincinnati Fringe Festival’s announcement party with a revival performance, proving that there is always a home for the offbeat at the Know.
One reason Hungerford ardently pursues producing and introducing the Cincinnati community to new works has to do with their content—and their design challenges. Benjamin recalled working with Hungerford on a show in which Benjamin was an actor and Hungerford was the lighting designer. “He asked me to stand in place for a while,” Benjamin said. “I’m not stupid—I’m a dark-skinned black man surrounded by pale white people. That is not easy to light.”
He asked Hungerford if that was the reason for the long lighting process, and the designer confirmed it with a wry smile. Benjamin found it “so refreshing” that the designer would make the effort to ensure everyone involved in the production receive the same level of attention to detail, something Benjamin hasn’t often encountered in his career, he said.
Hungerford’s sensitivity to diversity and inclusion onstage also suffuses the shows he selects as the Know’s artistic director. A crucial aspect of producing new plays is a bold commitment to telling diverse stories. “He’s very passionate about giving voices to marginalized groups,” Benjamin said.
As Hungerford put it, “We have such problems with representation on our stages that any opportunity we have to expand who is represented onstage in all aspects, the better. I want our plays to reflect the diversity of the world around us. This is the world we live in; let’s represent it.”
In addition to being a home for diversity, Alice Flanders, Know Theatre’s managing director, said she thinks of the theatre as “a breeding ground for young artists. One of Andrew’s favorite things is to host the opening or regional premieres of shows,” she added. As a member of the National New Play Network (NNPN), the Know has become quite familiar with staging new works and regional premieres.
Rader described working on the premiere of a show called Pulp, by Joseph Zettelmaier, which the Know hosted as part of the NNPN’s Rolling World Premiere program, which supports three or more theatres willing to produce a show during a 12-month period. As a part of the process, Zettelmaier came in to watch a run.
“To have the playwright in the room was so scary, and it was something that none of us had ever done before,” Rader explained. But because Hungerford made the effort to lighten the room and relieve the stress, it turned into one of the most fun rehearsal periods Rader’s had. Hungerford has a knack for stress relief, she said. “If it ever does get tense he’ll be the first to remind you that, ‘Eh, you know, it’s just a play.’”
“If we’re not having fun practicing our art in the room, why are we doing this?” Hungerford asked rhetorically. “If the cast had fun and had an enjoyable experience making the show, then the audience can see and feel it. It’s part of that infectious joy of the live experience.”
A sense of humor and cool under pressure is something those who’ve worked with Hungerford for a long time have noticed. Jeremy Dubin, company member and director of creative education at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, described Hungerford as a “fount of positivity. I think he always tends to influence a room. He always brings kind of a lightness to it.”
My first encounter with Hungerford rang all these bells. I was invited to an off-site rehearsal for Ada & the Engine; I’d slipped in through the side door as he was offering direction to the cast. He stood, settled onto one of his lanky hips, one hand entangled in his scruffy brown hair, as he searched excitedly for the right words to capture his thoughts. When he finished, he jumped back into his chair and directed the cast to begin the scene again before grabbing his coffee mug.
This first introduction perfectly captured his sense of humor, his creative passion, and his love for science: On his coffee mug was Neil deGrasse Tyson and the words, “Y’all Mothafuckas Need Science.”
Jackie Mulay is a theatre critic and writer based in Cincinnati.