“For me, theatricality and queerness share a definition: this idea that we name things, and so they are,” Will Davis told me in a recent interview in the cozy backstage office of Rattlestick Theater in the West Village, where he recently took over as the company’s third artistic director, succeeding Daniella Topol and David Van Asselt. “We say, ‘This is where we are; this is where the playing space is.’”
As a playing (and working) space, Rattlestick is uniquely positioned, as a tiny 99-seat space with an enviable location, as a platform for new work, and Davis—an acclaimed director of both new work (Men on Boats, Bobbie Clearly) and classics (Picnic, As You Like It)—is committed to expanding the reach and impact of that platform. This is not his first turn as an artistic director: In 2016, he was named to succeed PJ Paparelli at the helm of Chicago’s American Theater Company, and by most accounts, including his own, was making progress in expanding the theatre’s impact and access when, with startling abruptness, the theatre’s board shut it down and let Davis go after just two years, citing a downturn in ticket sales.
It was a painful chapter, not least for Davis, who continued his freelance career but had had his appetite whetted by the experience of gathering and serving a community around an artistic home. The Rattlestick gig is significant for another reason: Just as his job at American Theater made him the first trans leader of a non-LGBTQ-specific theatre, his new role makes him the first trans person to lead an Off-Broadway theatre. Though we’ll have to wait to get the full measure of Davis’s tastes, as his predecessor, Topol, already programmed the yet-to-be-announced 2023-24 season, his hiring is among a number of hopeful signs—the upcoming Global Forms Festival, the Terrence McNally New Works Incubator, the Van Lier Fellowship, rehomed from The Lark—that were on Davis’s mind when we met to talk about his new job and what the future holds.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Congratulations, Will. Can you tell me a bit about what brought you here?
WILL DAVIS: Many of us had pandemic epiphanies. I think mine started the year before, in 2019. I’d gone back to freelancing full time, and it was such a different experience. I just realized, I love my work, I’m proud of my work, but there was just a new sort of edge of emptiness there. Running a theatre, having the opportunity to be an artistic director, to make work in a community, having a long-form conversation, to be really digging into what a theatre as a civic space can mean—all of these things were so inspiring to me. So it was my plan to pivot away from freelancing. I was looking for, at the very least, an opportunity to pare back the number of shows in a year to the work I really felt was going to have the kind of impact I needed it to have, and also just looking for the right service platform, honestly. I started applying for a lot of these gigs, and here I am.
Not long after you started at ATC, you spoke to my colleague Suzy Evans, and one thing you mentioned was your awareness about how predominantly white the company’s programming had been.
When I said that, that was before We See You, White American Theater. What’s wonderful since that time is that that conversation has continued to evolve; it has become more complex. It falls under a larger umbrella issue for the theatre, which is about access—about folks who have been denied the resources in the professional theatre, or have just not been the dominant paradigm. There are a lot of sites for that conversation. That’s one of the primary things that the theatre has to do: representation all the way down. I also feel there are so many different pockets of folks experiencing that marginalization. So we’re figuring out the ways we are specifically working on that, but also, what is the big-picture way we are talking about access and visibility? There are a lot of issues sharing a space in the middle of the Venn diagram.
Speaking of access, I have to ask about the walk-up stairs here at Rattlestick. Is that on your list?
Yes, this space is getting completely renovated. All the money has been raised for a $4 million renovation, and one of the things that’s going in is an elevator, which is very exciting. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot being here is that Rattlestick is an old school downtown theatre; it’s been here since the mid-’90s. And in a moment where we’re watching companies in this part of New York either close or change hands in significant ways, watching the field kind of constrict, it’s incredible to me that Rattlestick is going to renovate this space. The company that has been so carefully handed off to me is in beautiful shape. And there’s so much potential here. I’m really thrilled that in the face of this scarcity, this scary time, that we’re going to be able to model a lot of abundance, a lot of opportunity to invite people. Especially when that elevator goes in.
One thing I noticed about Daniella’s time here was that she really activated community, whether it was creating an ad hoc community to view Lewiston/Clarkston and share a meal, or Novenas for a Lost Hospital, which literally included a walk around the neighborhood. Among other things, it felt like a very savvy acknowledgement of this theatre’s great location, with so much to do around here before and after the show.
She’s done an amazing job cultivating a lot of community partners for Rattlestick. That is definitely part of the charge going forward, to deepen and expand those relationships. I mean, it’s not lost on me: being a queer person and running a theatre in this neighborhood. It’s a really exciting opportunity.
I happened to notice that at some point under Daniella, the name of the theatre quietly changed from Rattlestick Playwrights Theater to just Rattlestick Theater. What does that change mean for the theatre’s focus going forward?
The decision to take that specific word out obviously predates me. But I think what that is is a sign of expansion. When we talk about new work, we’re talking about a lot of different kinds of artists with different kinds of skills. So the idea is in no way to pull resources away from playwrights; the idea is to complicate the conversation, and to bring resources for directors and designers to that same place.
I really appreciate you asking this question, because it is, from an artistic standpoint, one of the things that’s most exciting for me about being here. There’s this long legacy of new work here, and taking Rattlestick into the new chapter of that means that we get to really open up how we’re shining a light on new work, how we are feeding early-career playwrights, early-career directors, early-career designers, and just pointing out that the theatre is a group format, actually, that the piece of art we make, we make all together. I really want Rattlestick to be part of modeling something for the field about how we are supporting all of those artists. For me the mantra is, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” Figuring out how we are supporting early-career artists on every place on the circle is only good for all of us.
How much will you be personally directing at Rattlestick?
I definitely will be directing at Rattlestick. To what extent is part of a larger ecosystem conversation, and that conversation is all mandated by the mission, which is about new work that has a community impact. I definitely think of this place as an artistic home, but the intention is not that it’s my little sandbox. That’s not good stewardship; that’s not care and feeding of the institution and its role in the larger fabric of things. What I love is that right now Rattlestick is set up to do two shows a year, which means there is a long runway to really develop something. I think for a theatre that is focused on new work, the more time you have to really cook the project, the better opportunity you’re giving to all of those artists who are trying something really new.
How would you define “artistic home”?
The immediate thing that comes to mind is, it’s the place where you can do your work. But what an artistic home is is so much bigger than that. It’s more about the community. It’s more about, how are we using the form to create opportunities for people to connect and for people to create work they aren’t able to create in other spaces? How am I curating that? How am I stewarding all those relationships? How am I using this as a home base to matchmake artists? How am I using Rattlestick as a platform for initiatives I think can model good changes for the field? That’s what an artistic home means.
Apart from the two shows you program, there’s other stuff on your stage throughout the year, right?
Yeah, the other piece of programming that is annual is the Global Forms Theater Festival, which is so unique. I have yet to encounter another festival like it. It’s really very powerful to be in a room full of immigrant artists having the opportunity to work together, outside of the pressures of what it means to be working as an immigrant in this country, and to just make the work. And the projects that are going up this year are really special.
You mentioned new work, but I noticed that one of your credits before the pandemic was Road Show at Encores, and when Suzy wrote about you, your production of Picnic was a main focus. Can you talk about your approach to reviving work?
I like to call them “old plays in new ways.” I just did this massive production of As You Like It at La Jolla, which I co-directed with Chris Ashley. It was a splendid, splendid thing. When I decide to do an old play in a new way, it actually feeds right back into this thing we’re talking about, about access and visibility and legibility. Chris invited me to make this show with him, where we, with a few small exceptions, worked entirely with a cast and creative team of trans and non-binary artists. Here’s the deal: With works like that, over time there’s a story that’s been told about how you do them. But as soon as you get curious and release those parameters and get into the heart of the work, what a community like that can do, and can offer the play, is just gifts on gifts on gifts on gifts. My particular interest was this Shakespearean trope about a beautiful young woman who puts on a hat and suddenly she’s a very handsome prince. I find it’s a Trojan horse, because on the one hand, for many hundreds of years, audiences have been served the idea that gender is no more and no less than a hat, whether they understand that or not. On the other side, what the show became based around is: What if Rosalind is not hiding? What if what’s happening is, she goes to the woods and starts collecting more and more of her identity, who she is, and starts opening up in all of these different ways and becomes a full person. And the love story is about her asking Orlando over and over again: Do you see me? Can you love me? And he says, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. So obviously those two people should get married, you know?
What it meant to make that with that group of people, it just meant that we did not have to talk inside a cishet paradigm. We were inside this very, very trans space, so the complexity of the conversation we had, I’ve never experienced. I’ve kept that experience at La Jolla so alive in my heart and soul and mind, and I’m definitely bringing it here. I don’t mean the show; I mean this idea of what it’s like. I think Global Forms is another great example of what it’s like to create space for communities to be together, where they can put down whatever part of the dominant paradigm they have to push against right outside of this building, and in here it’s just gone. The question is, how many spaces can we create for how many groups of people to come in and make work with each other?
The idea of affinity groups like that, where no one has to translate or codeswitch, is very powerful.
And there are phases to all of this. Because, of course, the long game is that we all start to see each other in fullness, in all of our complexity, so we can come together and make work and and no one feels disenfranchised.
You sound very upbeat.
I feel such optimism and such excitement. Another thing that’s so incredibly appealing to me about Rattlestick is its size. We’re in a moment of incredible flux in the American theatre, and the nimbleness of this theatre, its ability to be immediately responsive, is very exciting to me. I cannot wait to open the doors here.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre.
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