Kyle Whalen is a Chicago writer and theatremaker. He has written for PerformInk and Chicago Stage Standard. He is a company member of Commission Theatre Co. Follow him on Instagram/Twitter @whalenschmalen.
By Kyle Whelan
Before we discuss anything, Will Davis introduces me to a prop blackbird named Terry. Terry is perched on a music stand, next to an end table supporting a tower of books. Beloved and Between the World and Me are visible near the top. I smile wondering if Davis is using Terry as a strategic stutter-step, to set the tone of our conversation. Or is this just an automatic burst of the wholesome weirdness Davis radiates?
This year marks American Theater Company’s thirty-third season—its second with Davis as artistic director. The company will again explore “what it means to be an American,” this year with plays covering everything from racist small-town Texas football to the threat of nuclear annihilation—a truly American spectrum if there ever was one.
For Davis, it seems “being an American” in large part means being curious, and making space for others to try and fail. It must be the American choice to follow failure and discovery with further curiosity, rather than fear and violence. One way of ensuring that, he implies, is expanding the ethics of the rehearsal room into our everyday lives.
What follows is an abridged version of our conversation.
Kyle Whelan: You’ve said that when you read “Welcome to Jesus,” you knew you wanted to produce it after ten pages, you liked it instinctively. How has it surprised it you, now that you’re working on it?
Will Davis: So, it’s a world premiere. The writing process is still very active. I got a new draft this morning. I primarily make new work, so this is the good stuff to me. I always say to the actors, when starting rehearsal for a new play: “What success looks like in this room is new pages.”
This is not a terribly positive thing, but the playwright, Janine Nabers, keeps getting up every day, and some new atrocity has been committed against African American communities in the United States. And she talks about “Welcome to Jesus” being a play about Christian supremacy. There are so many examples [of that.] Hate crimes, other violence, other, more rhetoric-based examples of discrimination that we’re seeing every day. Now, she’s having to sit down and figure out: “Well, how much can this play hold?”
One of the other big discoveries since we’ve started rehearsals: I am staging this show in the dark. This allows me to play into all these horror tropes that will excite and titillate the audience. They’ll have fun being scared. But then, the subject matter punches you in this way where you’re like: “Oh, I’ve just been laughing with and rooting for these racists.”
The term Christian supremacy makes me think how folks—often without realizing it—accept things with one part of their identity that they would reject with another. Like, they might reject or attack a man because they’re racist, or accept him because he can win football games.
That kind of slipping and sliding between those things by people in positions of power—which is primarily white people—is one of the big issues we face in this country. In the room, we’ve been talking about the way following the tenets of “love thy neighbor” leads you to commit a hate crime. You know what I mean? “I’m taking care of my community. If I perceive anyone as a threat, it is in my right, as a follower of Christ, to kill you. It’s not even my right, it’s my responsibility.”
I know sometimes that can sound and feel really dramatic, but I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the bloodthirsty aspects of our history as a country—what you don’t get taught in school. And when I emerge from that reading, the play’s plot points feel tame compared to the way this country was founded, what happened in the Civil War, straight through to Jim Crow, to the Civil Rights movement, to now. It’s all linked; an unbroken line of hatred.
Speaking as a white person, you have to have a lot of stamina for it. This is my history. You and I have inherited things that are just in our world, in our community, that come from total brutality against other people. We don’t get a say in whether we want to inherit it or not. It came with the birth certificate. There isn’t space for me to feel guilty and ashamed. That’s of no value if it doesn’t turn into useful action for others.
Then you ask, “then what?” Which is a hard question.
And the answer is action. Action in what way? I think that, with many people who work as activists, there’s also a lot of conversation to be had about: is what I’m trying to do to help actually of any help to anyone? It requires true openness for someone to say to you, and for you to ask, “Am I being of service?” And if the answer is “no,” then try something else as opposed to—
Sadness and anger and defensiveness. “But this is my nice thing I made for you!” If it’s not of service, then you’ve got to let it go.
But—”Welcome to Jesus” is also hilarious. Janine is a hysterical writer. Her humor has a Lynchian, “Twin Peaks” vibe. It’s all in the moment of disconnect. The pause that’s a little too long. It’s all in the character’s total commitment to a notion that, to the audience, seems ridiculous. So, my great hope is that we are laughing and laughing and laughing and laughing and then we’re not.
As [Janine] and I have been talking, we’ve been describing [the play’s setting] as a mythic town, and the underpinnings of this myth are biblical. We’re in this Book of Revelations place. And inside of that, people are behaving in extremely strange ways that are extremely funny.
As an artist very interested in handmade spectacle, my uber-interest is what are the things only the theatre can do well? I’m looking for that heightened theatrical frame that only the theatre can give to you, so that we can look at something from a new perspective. For this play, there’s creepy voices in the dark, and this whole room here, the periphery is all trees made of knotted rope. The sun never shines: in Hallelujah, Texas, every day is night time and every night is football time. Those things are helping put a world we recognize off-kilter to then talk about these issues of insular whiteness.
That’s exciting to me because, looking over your production history, reading stuff you’ve written, it occurred to me that—often plays reveal a secret over time, in the text. But it seems that something you do, Will, is find the nonverbal secret, and reveal it.
Yeah. I love that!
I thought that first with “Picnic,” since—
I am trying to uncover something through the design, the movement, the score, the way it’s set, the way time works in a play. That was absolutely my aim with Picnic, to talk about how, “If you’re afraid of your desire, it can make you feel completely alone, even if you’re with other people.” And Welcome to Jesus—it’s a play about how football is church, about white supremacy, about Christian supremacy, but it’s in this crazy, myth-Bible world, where it feels like it’s speaking to you from the present and the future and the past, because of the way the play delivers it all to you.
Which reminds me—so, with “We’re Gonna Be Okay,” I saw the Humana Festival production. I’m very excited to see it again. What are the different responsibilities when directing a second production versus a first?
I’m not alone in this—I think there are many arts leaders who are aware of how powerful, how potent, the second production is. I feel like that’s where a theatre company does the good work of the American theatre by providing a play space to breathe. You have the opportunity in the second production to make sure the show has five more productions.
I did some early workshops of “We’re Gonna Be Okay.” And we’ve been committed to this play for a season and a half now. I think Basil attends, in a really sophisticated way, to a queer perspective on non-queer things. [For example,] we have the character Mag, who is married to this stoic, silent guy. At the beginning of the play, she’s experienced some trauma, she’s just trying to get through. And over time, she realizes that she has a horse inside of her. She has this powerful beast inside of her, and she is going to let it out. And I think that’s one of the things I want to make sure gets articulated to audiences: it’s a play about this sincere, bizarre way of being that is just so funny.
Yeah, and the way you’ve done it here—this might be me talking from my own limited gaze—but in the Humana production, those things were inside of people’s bodies. But casting it more diversely this time, it makes visible what’s embedded in the words. I feel like that’s a crude way of saying it.
No, no, I feel like that’s a part of what you were articulating earlier, which is something I am interested in: searching for makes up the heart of the play, and then figuring out how to pull those constituent parts out into the production. Which is one of the reasons it’s cast the way it is.
One of the things I’m so excited about is Kelli Simpkins playing Efran, sort of the archetypical salesman. He’s the one trying to sell the bomb shelter to everyone else. The reason we cast Kelli is, she brought a very precise perspective on this kind of human. I think because she’s a little removed, it’s not her lived experience, she’s able to pull out the tropes [of traditional masculinity] and play with them.
And I think something I’ve talked about before, but we send the people auditioning all the materials, and they decide who they want to audition for. So, I’m able to see a full range of human beings who are interested in each role. I’m opening up this play and this room to the possibility that anyone can inhabit this—who’s going to inhabit it with the greatest sophistication?
It sounds so intuitive when you say it like that: offering it up to the actor’s interest, rather than projecting your directorial interest onto people.
It’s more interesting to find out what other people are interested in working on. And I’ll curate it. A director’s job is curatorial. So, if I see ten people for a role, I know two things: one, here is the person who can do it; two, I just learned about the work ten distinct people want to make. Instead of it only coming out of my brain, and who cares what’s in my brain? I don’t know what’s in your brain, which is far more important information for me to get.
The reason I do that here as the artistic director, is that we’re all trying to live the ethics of this theatre. This company is here to do the most good for the artistic community. An artist coming into this building leaves with more than they brought. Because it feels like our little way of homesteading our little corner of the American theatre, of having a positive impact on the rehearsal room that person goes into next.
You just made me think of what you said in your essay, “Queering the Room,” about letting go of the binary of right and wrong in rehearsal. Does that carry over into leading an institution outside of rehearsal?
My style and my goals as an artistic director are an expansion of my style and goals as a director. So, I try to lead the team in the building with the same kind of rehearsal room ethic.
Last year, I did a radio interview, and we were all listening to it together afterward. And someone on staff was like, “We could play a drinking game to how many times you say the words ‘How curious.’” That’s something I live by. The ethics of the rehearsal room expanding into the ethics of the institution. “Here’s a problem we’re having. How curious.” As opposed to: “This thing is terrifying and terrible and we’re just all going to run around.”
One of the reasons I wanted to be here [at ATC] is it is so mission-driven. I wanted to be an artistic director because I wanted to up my activism in the field. I feel like that’s what I’m doing as a director: making sure the rehearsal room is a place for experimentation, adventure, and really committing and being inspired by the ideas in the room. That’s how I feel about our staff and the company, too. Being an artistic director is not about directing. It’s about stewarding a civic space. It’s about being of use to the community, it’s about enriching the people around you.
There’s a quotation I love from Kathleen Chalfant: “All the skills you need to make a play are all the skills you need to make a society that works.”
Yes. I completely agree. One of the director’s main jobs, in my estimation, is you make a model of the culture of the rehearsal room, which is a culture of “making.” How we will make something. So, we try to do that here, and try to have a little bit of weird fun. I feel really fortunate to have a lot of really fierce activist-hearted people who work here. And they’re also just the most sublime weirdos. Which is like: you can go to a lot of places that feel really corporate; ATC is lucky to be midsized in this city. It allows us to be flexible and to say, “We’re turning this ship right, and we don’t have to have six months of meetings about it.”
People voice that frustration about other institutions: “It takes a long time to turn a cruise ship.” Sometimes it’s better to have a more manageable boat.
Which is not to say things don’t take us time.
And not that there’s anything wrong with a bigger boat.
Oh, of course. Who doesn’t want a bigger boat?
Can you talk about how “Diagram of a Paper Airplane” and the rest of the season approach the question of “What does it mean to be an American?”
I’m primarily a new play director. Carlos Murillo has this beautiful trilogy of plays called the Javier Plays, and “Diagram of a Paper Airplane” is one of those three. They have been lauded for their brilliance for the last ten years. They have been published. They have never been produced.
None of the three?
So, this question about, “What does it mean to be an American; what does it mean to be an American artist?” Well, here are these plays from this established, totally brilliant artist, and he has not seen a production of these works. When we are thinking about a season, we have a very specific rubric of what we’re looking for. It’s about diversity, any way you can slice. Because “What does it mean to be an American?” The answer to that is “A million things.” But when it comes to season planning, first and foremost it’s diverse. It’s diverse points of view. So, what does it mean, this is actually premiere production of a play that was completed almost ten years ago? That is fascinating.
A unique question in new play development.
Yeah, so—what I am really drawn to in “Diagram” is, conceptually, a death has occurred. People are gathering together in someone’s apartment in New York, they’ve come to hash it all out—things that have been simmering for decades. You think “Oh, it’s that play!” But of course, it’s not that play.
I mean this as a high compliment: there’s a performativity of loneliness in that play. You spend a lot of time with each of these characters, solo. One of the characters is recording his thoughts into a tape recorder. You hear someone pouring her heart out into a voicemail. You know, a tragedy has split this group of people entirely. And you’re watching these solo sad moments, thinking “Oh, they get back together.” And of course, it does not work that way. There’s just something about [“Diagram”] that pulls us out of the pedestrian world and into this theatrical experience of loneliness. I guess I’m a little obsessed with loneliness.
And Bonnie Metzgar, who’s directing, and Carlos go way back. That in itself is such a blessing, watching these two old friends make a play together.
Especially for a play about old friends coming together.
And I think about—Carlos is a teacher. He runs the playwriting program at DePaul. He is a brilliant writer. He has made his life here. How have these plays not been produced?
Speaking about surprises—considering your preshow speeches, or post-show conversations in the lobby, or even, say, the Fireside Chats podcast …You write in “Queering the Room,” that you are excited by the potential for disagreement in the room. Have you found fruitful disagreement or questioning from audience members?
That must happen to every person that runs an institution.
Yeah. And it is fantastic, because—again, applying “How curious. You think that, and I think this.” “How curious, I think we think the same thing, but listen to the way we’re arguing as though it’s different.”
I absolutely have had, like, protracted exchanges with folks who were very upset, and I think you’re right, that’s fairly normal for this job. Certainly, part of what factors into all of this is, my predecessor [PJ Paparelli] also had a really distinct viewpoint and way of making. And the human animal does not like change. It doesn’t matter how you package it. The human animal is like: “That seems different. I don’t do that. I’m a human animal.”
But the other side of it, which warms my heart—it’s never happened to me before in my life, but I’ve been stopped on the street a handful of times by people I don’t know, who have [thanked me.] I had someone chase me half a block to say, “Thank you for being such a loud voice for the queer community.” And, I do now get a lot of emails from trans-identified folks, who are not necessarily directors, but generally saying: “I don’t have a model, I don’t have anything, and I know you’re running this theater, and it makes me feel better.” I can’t tell you what deep, deep value that has for me. I appreciate the responsibility of that. Because I don’t mean, “Ugh, I’m responsible.” I mean, [gasp] “I’m responsible! Weirdly, it’s me! What can I do?” You know? So, that is wild.
I was saying this to the actors. We may not have the resources like somewhere massive. But what we have, [the community] can have. That’s the relationship. This place exists for other people, and I will just keep trying to figure out how to keep making space. It feels incredibly lucky that inside this four-year political period, I can work on what my contribution can be. Which brings us full circle back to needing to listen to other people saying, “That present you gave me? Was not a present.”
“How curious. What did you want instead?”
“How curious! I thought what I made you was a present, but now I see it was a trash gift.”
At least it wasn’t a re-gift.
Yeah. Don’t ever do it. Everyone knows.
Even if they don’t tell you, they know inside.
You know they know.
Thank you so much for your time, Will.
Oh, God, thank you!
After I turn off my recorder, Davis keeps talking with me generously. He casually waxes on his research process— for example, to choreograph a baton twirling routine in Welcome to Jesus, he “followed his nose” to a combination of dervishes and crusader knights. Listening to him, I grin, and know that it is a gift to get to support good, intentional artists and humans.
Welcome to Jesus previews begin on October 27th, and opens on October 30th.