Dallas — Grant Knutson is a constant source of motion. Upon entering the Magnolia Lounge at Fair Park, you can see him do any number of things, including and not limited to going to the airport to pick up a solo performer, picking up craft beer from down the street, taking out the garbage, and taking head counts once the Margo Jones Theatre opens.
Knutson is the managing director of Minion Productions, the company he runs with his wife Heather Wilson in Seattle. So what’s he doing at the Dallas Solo Fest for two weeks?
“We describe the mission as we help independent artists—people who have no company behind them, no theater company to help—find the resources they need to develop their shows and plan tours,” Knutson says. “That’s the main job. It extends to now include helping festivals, especially new ones, just because we have knowledge of those and we have time.”
While Knutson and his wife are the directors of the company, they pull in talent from elsewhere depending on need, including stage managers, graphic designers, and costume designers. Knutson is primarily the one on the road, and he gets to between six and 10 festivals each year. Knutson referred to his exact duties as “nebulous,” because they change daily and with each festival.
“When you’re doing any fest or just a show, you pretty much are the entire set,” Knutson says. “At this particular fest, I’ve been more getting coffee, picking up artists, taking out the garbage. Because here, I feel my job is to do whatever it takes for Brad [McEntire] and Ruth [Engel-McEntire], the main organizers, to be able to do their job. Then with artists, we kind of use the phrase ‘We won’t do it for you, but we will help you do it.’ [That could include helping] ship and make a traveling board, make a budget, make a schedule, make a marketing plan, make a travel plan, help them research that and get it set up is generally something we do, instead of do for them.”
Finances are straightforward because no one in the company makes a salary. Knutson is looking to expand fundraising capabilities to add to the list of festivals he can attend and work.
“All of it is not funded because it is just support,” Knutson says. “We don’t need too much money for it. When I work on other festivals, if I make money I put it back in the pot, and put it toward new festivals or new artists. In the past, almost all of our artists were based in Seattle with us. We would help them for a year, and after that they’d help us fundraise to grow the pot for Minion, to grow the pot for more festivals. Now, the artists we work with are around the U.S. or around America. We are trying to figure out how they can help us fundraise as we continue to get help. We don’t quite have the new model in place yet, but we are trying to grow the general pot for projects that we can put forward and get paid back.”
Knutson has worked with the Dallas Solo Fest both years it has been active. While he is a fan of the older, more established festivals in Canada, Knutson is also drawn to new festivals.
“I always like to see especially new fests, new to me to give me more knowledge, but if they are new fests overall, and seeing how the scene is growing,” Knutson says. “I get to see where the new dots on the map will be that the artists can go to.”
At a New Orleans festival four or five years ago, Knutson met Brad and Ruth McEntire, organizers of the Dallas Solo Fest. They also worked festivals in the Northwest with Knutson, and Brad approached him and asked if he could “come out and just be an extra hand.” Knutson had preconceived notions about Dallas that quickly changed upon his first visit.
“I hadn’t been to Dallas before last year’s festival, so my perception, my image changed within a few days last year,” Knutson says. “I’m very lucky that I get to travel with a targeted set of tours of what I like. I’m traveling for work, I’m traveling for festivals, so being at a venue that I like, meeting other artists, and being told where they like to go…I asked people on social media what their impression of Dallas is, and I got a spread-out, ‘big money,’ ‘big cars,’ ‘conservative people.’ Which, is fine, but not the artist set as much.”
While the festival is new, Knutson sees a lot of potential, and has noticed growth even between the two festivals.
“They started off really strong on the artistic side,” Knutson says. “A new fest is always fighting for crowds. We’re still fighting, too, to grow the crowd and get more attention. I’ve noticed especially through TheaterJones that we had very good attention from the press for a young fest. The crowds are growing. But that is one of the things we are still working on. The quality of the shows in and out of town has been really nice, and Brad and Ruth put a lot of work into just treating everybody well. There are a lot of festivals that can’t get skipped in the rigmarole, but it’s been very nice to see how much they really want to make sure that everybody is comfortable, that everybody is friendly, that everybody is taken care of.”
The roster of eight shows is small for a typical fringe or solo festival, but Knutson sees the strategy behind the decision.
“Brad tried to start off quite modestly, which is a smart idea,” Knutson says. “It takes quite a while to build up your crowd, and he’s getting new shows from locals, and out of town shows with more experience but who don’t know locals. A young fest has very little built-in crowd, so you want to split it on very few shows. So, he went for quality over quantity here to keep it at eight shows right now. I’ve been to some that small but it’s rare, and I think it’s a smart choice to grow with the audience instead of pushing it.”