Will Davis is having a realization over lunch. We’re dining at a café in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood on an unseasonably warm February day, and he’s talking about his attraction to William Inge’s plays—a journey, he’s just now remembering, that had its start not that far from where we’re sitting.
One of the director’s first jobs was as Damon Kiely’s assistant on Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs in 2006 at the Windy City’s American Theater Company (ATC), where Kiely was artistic director at the time. Working on that show was Davis’s introduction to Inge, whose body of work has haunted him for years. In particular the unquenched longing in Picnic has been at the forefront of his mind.
So it’s no surprise that the 1953 chestnut was on Davis’s must-direct list for his first season, when he took over as artistic director of ATC in early 2016. But instead of helming a traditional version of Inge’s classic, he assembled a cast of individuals encompassing diverse genders, ages, races, and experiences to create “queer fellowship” (the production ran March 17-April 23 at ATC). Why the radical approach? Because Davis, who is transmasculine, wants to give the play’s famously repressed and closeted writer a posthumous gift—a present that Davis himself might have appreciated back in 2006.
“I feel like I’ve been living with Inge’s ghost for quite some time, and this question, that I feel you can read in his whole canon, is some version of: ‘Shall I follow my heart song’? And the answer is no. Or, ‘Don’t you dare.’ Or, ‘It’ll kill you or no one will love you.’ And I do very deeply identify with that,” Davis says. Working on Inge with Kiely in 2006 certainly spoke to Davis at a time when he was “a very closeted young woman with a sweepy bang haircut in a dress. There was something really deep in there about the unknown, uncharted land of want and desire and belonging and identity that I couldn’t have described to you in that way then but now feels like: Oh, that’s something I want to bring to life inside this play for myself.”
Coming back to run a Chicago theatre is a full-circle move for the 33-year-old Davis, who had been making much of his career as a freelancer based in New York City and directing shows across the country: Andrew Hinderaker’s Colossal at Maryland’s Olney Theatre Center and Minneapolis’s Mixed Blood Theatre, Basil Kreimendahl’s Orange Julius at MOXIE Theatre in San Diego, Calif., Jaclyn Backhaus’s Men on Boats at Clubbed Thumb and Playwrights Horizons in NYC.
But Davis began his career in Chicago, first as an acting student at DePaul University before he got cut from the program for “having no professional potential,” which he calls “one of my badges of honor.” (He has a BFA in theatre studies from the school.) “Now that I’m back here, the ghosts of all of those feelings of failure and ineptitude—I’m now actually processing the rest of them,” he says, adding that he often has strange memories from that time just making the 15-minute walk from his apartment to the theatre.
Chicago is also where he first met Bonnie Metzgar, who served as the interim artistic director of ATC after P.J. Paparelli’s sudden death in a car accident in 2015. They met in 2008 when she was running About Face Theatre and he was getting his MFA at the University of Texas at Austin. Davis would come back to the city to visit friends and was eager to network with people in town.
Metzgar remembers immediately clicking with Davis, even though their first conversation was a bit heated: Davis was bemoaning being replaced as a director on shows he had workshopped, while Metzgar insisted her role as an artistic director was to give priority to artists in the local community. She saw a fire and a passion in Davis.
Metzgar’s main task as the interim A.D. at ATC was shepherding the company through grief over Paparelli’s death as well as searching for his replacement. Company members wanted to take the institution in a new artistic direction, and Metzgar reached out to several artists and industry folks for referrals. At least 10 of them wrote back with Davis’s name.
“P.J. made some very strong programmatic choices for the company, including a lot of documentary theatre, and the cohort resoundingly agreed they wanted someone who was thinking about the work in a really new way,” Metzgar says. “The thing about Will Davis is he really thinks about the work of the theatre and uses different language. You just don’t hear some of the things he talks about from other people.” Like? Most directors aren’t likely to hold forth on the “dance dramaturgy of the new play,” for instance.
So she sent Davis an email encouraging him to apply for the position, which he remembers as “the most beautiful email I’ve ever read, and I as a rule always do what Bonnie tells me to do.” While he wasn’t actively looking for an institutional position at a theatre—he thought he’d maybe look for one in a few years—he was flattered by the offer. When he thought about it further, he remembered an assignment in grad school where he had to write his own obituary. He recalls, “The number one thing that came out of that really terrifying exercise was realizing that I wanted to be remembered as someone who made space for other people.”
While Davis admits he doesn’t have any experience running an institution or dealing with funders and board members, he thinks his lack of knowledge might be an asset. Davis never met Paparelli and had never seen his work, but from what Davis has gleaned, he feels he shares his predecessor’s interest in new work and the theatre as a civic space.
For his first season as artistic director, Davis partnered with the Chicago Inclusion Project to create an inclusive casting process for the shows in the 2016-17 season, and while one of Davis’s goals in the position is to bring the company back to financial health (it needs to “get smaller to get healthier,” he says), he also wants to make sure the people he hires reflect the community and the world.
“This is a very, very white place—myself included,” Davis says. “One of my goals for the theatre is to address its whiteness. What I like is that as a field we’re talking about it, and more importantly, what I feel like I’ve heard in my new role is even better than talk. There are some funders who are saying this thing needs to change. I need to see a plan.”
Wendy Goldberg, artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., identified this spirit of inclusivity in Davis before she even met him. Goldberg first took notice of Davis through essays he wrote about the lack of development opportunities for emerging directors. In response she invited Davis to the O’Neill, and this led to the creation of the National Directors Fellowship for emerging directors, for which Davis is a mentor. Now Goldberg is joining Davis on a newly created artistic advisory board for ATC, designed to help the organization stay fiscally responsible while also championing artists as administrators.
“We do a great job talking about this idea of generosity in our field, but it’s a hard path, and we get bogged down because there is so much we need to do to stay afloat as artists/administrators, so I don’t always see this spirit present,” Goldberg says. “Will is just starting his career and he has this sense of generosity—I responded to that strongly, and you see it in his work, which is imaginative, theatrical, and has a great investment from his ensemble.”
As a director, Davis gravitates toward ensemble-driven work. But while he likes to work with big casts, he prefers smaller spaces and minimal props. “One thing I’ve learned about putting the epic onstage is that you must pressurize it,” he explains. “I like to really hem in big shows and make it hard to move almost, and then let the theatricality of breath or changing the parameters of the stage launch that energy that has been collecting in the internal space.
“It circles right back to where I am with Picnic right now,” he continues. “I was saying to this designer this morning: If you have nothing for a really long time, and then you put a chair where there was nothing, that chair is the most magical thing you’ve ever seen. What a strange creature is a chair? It has four legs.
“It’s that withholding thing, and it enables the sublime. It enables the mundane to be spectacular. That’s what I love to see onstage. I think slickness is wonderful; as a theatrical construct I’m less interested in it. Maybe one day I’ll get way into that.”
Davis’s hiring at ATC also marks another milestone: He is the first transgender person to lead a major nonprofit institution without a defined LGBTQ mission. Davis says he now feels it’s part of his job to talk about his gender identity, whereas when he was freelancing he would speak to reporters about it only if the gender identity of everyone else involved in the production was similarly addressed. But now he says he wants “the light turned on as bright as I can get it that I’m here, and that I’m interested in refocusing the theatre on a few key things. One of those is equity in the arts.”
Not that his relationship to gender is easily summed up. “I don’t like to spend too much time dwelling on the trauma of queerness, because I don’t think it’s politically a helpful thing, and I don’t think that my identity empirically holds any trauma,” he says. “But I have experienced a lot from the rest of the world’s response to my identity. I don’t know what I look like to people anymore. I don’t really have a relationship to gender anymore in terms of a ‘this’ or ‘that.’ I feel like my interest in gender is about all of us as magical creatures, all of us as a soft collection of identities.”
He does refer to himself as a “Peter Pan prancy man” on more than one occasion, and to see him walk around the theatre space on West Byron Street, this seems to be an accurate description. Davis doesn’t just turn around, he does a modified fouetté, swinging his leg back and landing with it horizontal in front of him. Why walk when you can chassé around the room?
At an early rehearsal for Picnic, Davis is working on movement with this cast, and his fiancée, Evvie Allison, a downtown dancer he met when they were paired in a show at queer dance company Ballez in New York, is on hand as the choreographer for the production. It’s the first time the couple have worked together professionally.
The ATC space has been converted from its previous proscenium setup to a more open room. A pile of wood planks rests in the corner—the remnants of the ship props from ATC’s staging of Men on Boats, helmed by Davis earlier this year.
As Davis plays around with dance moves, he responds to problems and challenges with curiosity instead of frustration, as in, “How curious that none of that worked.” (“People on my staff will tell you that you could play a drinking game with the number of times I say ‘How curious?’” Davis concedes. “It’s my main mode, as opposed to something is wrong or something is right. I’m just more interested in something is happening and how curious that that thing is happening. What should we do now?”)
Davis grew up doing ballet, but for a young woman increasingly feeling uncomfortable in her skin, the gendered nature of dance and particularly ballet took a toll.
“Somewhere in middle school something went wrong,” he recalls. “I could tell you now what went wrong; at the time, all I knew was, I was there in my pink tights and black leotard and my little toe shoes and just feeling like a monster. And when you go through puberty you feel that dysphoric physical thing where there’s you and there’s your body. When I think about it now, I just know the valley between those things was just getting epic.”
Now that that valley has been bridged, Davis says, “The thing I feel like I didn’t have as a young person is a soul. I don’t feel like I was a woman and now I’m a man. I feel like now I’m a Will Davis. And that magical Will Davis has a soul. I have gravity. I feel like I’m alive on the Earth in a way that I was not before.”
Early on in his transition process, before surgery and hormone therapy, an actor offered to do some bodywork with Davis, which Davis strongly resisted because he didn’t feel comfortable in his own then-female body. But, as the actor pointed out, Davis had already begun to cover that body with tattoos of birds and feathers, and he recognized the recurring theme, telling Davis, “Your body was saying to me, ‘I’m going to break free and I’m going to get out of here, I’m going somewhere else.’”
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s true,’ and I absolutely feel that in my continuing relationship with my body and the sort of audacity to think of its potential and not its limit,” says Davis, who gave in and let the actor do more bodywork on him. “And the idea that, like, you can feel something and dream of something and you can manifest it. Like, I made this. Cost me a lot of money. But I did make this body. And to me it means that anything is possible. I dreamed this idea, and now it is in three dimensions and you can touch it.”
Birds and flight appear throughout many aspects of Davis’s life: in his apartment, in his wardrobe. The next night at rehearsal, as Davis is exploring choreography again, he tells the cast about a YouTube video of the blue-footed boobies’ mating dance, during which the birds lift their brightly colored webbed feet and marvel at each other’s appearance.
He and Allison stand up and start mimicking the birds, raising their feet high in symmetry as their arms seem to naturally flap like wings; the birds’ movement, as well as their utter lack of self-consciousness, is something he wants the actors to channel in their performances.
“They love their feet!” Davis exclaims. “I want to feel like that!”
Then Molly Brennan, a veteran Chicago actor who’s playing Hal in the production, turns to Davis and says: “You are like that.”