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.
Pictured: Scott Davis
By Kyle Whalen
Chicago-based scenic designer Scott Davis is amiable, hard-working, and actively understands how much he depends on his fellow artists—which must make him a greater designer. I’m sitting across from him at a coffee place in Edgewater. He’s telling me about his beginnings as an art student.
“I went to the University of Delaware to study painting and steel sculpture,” he says. “It was a BFA art program. It had nothing to do with theater. And I took a theater class there, as like a random art class that you had to take out side of the department—it was a design class. But I really went to school for painting, I was doing painting, doing my own stuff, figurative stuff—and to do sculpture. I really wanted to be an artist…I liked their theories on how to teach art, and I think that all they taught there I took with me into the field of design.”
He sips his tea. I ask him to explain more about Delaware’s theories.
“The way that they taught it there is that: art is a response to the world. So, even though it was a BFA program, my mentor really pushed me to take classes in anything. Like anything out in the world that I was interested in, period. Because the problem—and I’m going to say this on tape, but whatever,” he says with a laugh. “I think that one of the problems with art schools is that they get a little insular. That’s a very rough generalization, and I don’t really mean it the way that it sounds there. [But] studying physics affects what your art is. Studying religion helps affect what your art is. Study all that stuff. And that is quintessential to design, because it’s…everything in design is a random problem, whatever the play is about, and then you going out into the world to solve what the problem is. Or to figure out how to present that problem onstage. I think design is a field about knowing a lot about a lot of things. Or having the interest in trying to find things outside the realm of art…I was always super fascinated with physics. I loved physics. I took a lot of classes in physics—like the physics of light—just to study the physical world.”
Curiosity is one of Davis’s defining passions. He prizes opportunities to let his mind wander, down a “rabbit hole,” as he calls it later. Letting himself discover fresh interests benefits his work.
Collaboration is another of defining passion. Collaboration coaxed him out of painting and sculpture’s solitude into theatrical design. “I found that I longed for creating art collaboratively. I think that being alone, just my own thoughts, creating my own stuff is lonely, and I like people. So, I wound up going to [University of] Maryland to study under Dan Conway, who’s a scenic designer there.”
Davis wasn’t a designer before college. He “remember[s] painting sets in high school, but it was never” a focus. Daniel Conway, a professor of scenic and lighting design, showed him the ropes. “Dan kickstarted me into the field. He got me excited about it, and threw me headfirst into it. He gave me a lot of opportunities just out of school. I remember the first show I ever worked on. I assisted him on a MACBETH that Teller did. Aaron Posner directed it. The same team that just did THE TEMPEST, they did a MACBETH, like twelve years ago, ten years ago, whenever that was…[Conway] took me to help him on that project. And I was like the fifth assistant on that thing. But he really helped me sort of hone in on what the field was. I thought that he was really great. I’m very detail-oriented. And he was too, so I think he really helped me sort of hone the craft part of [design], and showed me what the field was. Because before that, I didn’t know what the field was at all.” Davis wasted no opportunity to learn from his first mentor, often observing Conway’s tech processes when he wasn’t even an assistant. “I learned more going with Dan outside the university and seeing what it actually is in the world…I feel like I was just shadowing him. Like if he was in tech, I’d say, ‘Hey, can I come watch tech? And just sit there and see what happens?’ And just learn from him that way.”
His undergraduate studies completed, Davis moved to Chicago to pursue an MFA in Stage Design at Northwestern. There, he found a new mentor in Todd Rosenthal, the Tony-Award winning scenic designer and a director of Northwestern’s program.
“I came [to Chicago] because I always loved Todd’s work,” Davis says. “And Dan Ostling—the two set design professors. The two of them were vastly different, but their work was very exciting to me, and they were both at the peak of their game when I was looking to go to grad school. So, I was very interested in studying under them.”
Davis explains that while he wasn’t Rosenthal’s only assistant, his working style and habits aligned with Rosenthal’s, which allowed a long, fruitful relationship. “After my first year of grad school, I just started assisting [Todd]. I would assist him during every break, winter breaks, all of them, whenever I wasn’t in school, I would be in Todd’s studio. I assisted him for a couple years after I left school, too. So, I was with him for a long time.” He says, “Todd trusted me with his work, our styles of working were in a way that I think I could show up and he could trust me to just do it, and sort of make choices on things, and we would work really well together. We had a good time together. And his work was always exciting to me.” Davis assisted Rosenthal and worked in his studio until his own lead design work became enough on which to support himself, saying he only stopped when he “literally could not fit it in” to his schedule. “It would have been a disservice to him and his work just to stay.”
Davis begins to muse on the relationship between designers and their assistants. “Having had assistants now, I think that the relationship is tricky—deeply personal in a lot of ways. Speaking for myself. It’s like having assistants in to work on my stuff: that’s my personal art, and so it’s hard to want to trust somebody else with it, to be okay with letting go of whatever is going on in myself in terms of my art, to allow someone else into the process with me…there’s a lot of you that’s in it. There’s a lot of vulnerability that’s out there, letting someone into your space to work with you on stuff. So, I really didn’t assist that many people. I personally haven’t had a lot of assistants. I’m sort of weird and selective about it.”
This was the first of several moments when Davis compared a professional theater relationship with a personal, emotional one. But he also seemed concerned with becoming stagnant, afraid of accidentally delegating the parts of the work from which he might learn. “I feel like I learn something [from] every piece of the puzzle. So like, if I give off a model for somebody to completely build for me, which I’ve certainly done—if I do it myself, and get in there, I’m going to learn stuff, and like, I’ll notice things—‘Why don’t we do this, this and this?’ There’s something for me to gain out of every step of it. If I draft it, I feel like I’m inside of it and can walk around in there and look at the walls. If you give it to someone else, they’re going to have their style, they’re going to do what they want to do, [and] there’s a piece of it for me that I feel like I’m missing out on maybe, in a way. I just find it hard to not touch every part of it. But the work has to get done, you know?”
A hungry curiosity paired with—and sometimes wrestling—a nose for practicality. Also—I didn’t realize at the moment—Davis had emphasized collaboration as the hallmark of theatermaking, yet revealed that he feels almost parental, or scholarly ownership of his process. This dual sensibility lives in many artists (or cooks, or parents, or bookshelf organizers): some of what they do welcomes, even requires others, and some of it is an almost necessarily private mission.
I ask him what primarily motivates designers to take on assistants: workload? Networking? Another eye?
“I started [hiring assistants as] purely a time thing,” he replies. “[But] I have certainly brought in people that I’ve wanted to impart knowledge to or help out in whatever way I can.” He sees mentoring as a designer’s duty, continuing: “I always feel like Todd did so much for me, just in terms of my knowledge base, my attention to detail, getting me connections out in the field. It’s a hard field to crack; it’s very saturated. It’s hard to break in. A lot of theaters don’t want to take a chance on someone they don’t know. So, Todd was able to introduce me to a lot of people who then hired me later. And you know, I feel like I can do that now for people. It feels like a natural succession. Like somebody did that for me, and if there wasn’t somebody there who wouldn’t do that for me, it wouldn’t happen for me. So, I feel like I can do that. Not that I feel I’m that important, in any way.”
Yet, Scott Davis is important to the people who have worked with him. His CV shows that he’s worked with dozens of directors at least twice, working with many four or five times. And certain theaters, such as Chicago Shakespeare Theater, hire him often.
“CST is an artistic home. My first professional show here in Chicago was with Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Actually, my first two shows. I was in grad school, and [with] David Bell—who I’d done A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM with at Northwestern—was just one of those relationships that was so easy. We loved what the other was doing. Like I said, I think all relationships in theater are oddly personal. With a director, it’s like any intimate interpersonal relationship. You’re sharing feelings; you’re sharing things about yourself. Your art comes from a place inside of you that is very connected to who you are as a person. You’re definitely putting yourself out there on the table in a way.”
“So my third year in grad school, [Bell] asked me to work on a Short Shakespeare, which is a Shakespeare show that is on top of [the set of] another show, and it tours the schools. It’s actually a really awesome program. It allows students in Chicago to see Shakespeare up on its feet, which I wish I had when I was a kid. That was a tangent.” He course-corrects. “Oh! And then my third year he asked me to do a show with him at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, a show in their upstairs space. It was my first actual show there at Shakes. And since then, Rick Boynton—a creative producer at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, he’s always been a huge cheerleader of mine. He saw that first show I did at Northwestern with David. And Rick and I now, at Chicago Shakes—I guess I’ve done twenty-two shows maybe, there? In the past five years, six years? I work really well with him; I think he’s a brilliant guy. And after twenty-two shows, there’s a trust there, really.” He pauses, perhaps reflecting on the magnitude of this professional bond. “I do think of Shakes as an artistic home for me, because they, of any company, have really invested in me as a designer. They took a risk on me when I literally had no credits to my name. It’s been a very fruitful relationship, and I’ve created some great work there, I love working with their creative team there. And Rick has helped me outside of there. He’s been a great advocate for me, in the field.”
Which leads him to Rachel Rockwell, one of Davis’s most active relationships with a single director. Together, they’ve done five shows, and are currently working on Chicago Shakespeare’s upcoming production of SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE.
“Rachel. Our first show together [was] BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. And it was just such a fun show. She and I, as artists—we’ve got a relationship that I treasure. I mean, we just spent a month together in New York working on RIDE THE CYCLONE together again. We trust each other. We’re on board with each other’s aesthetics. I think that our aesthetics work together in a way that’s beneficial to both of us. And, you know every time we get to work together it’s exciting and fun. It’s a relationship that grows, like any relationship, you learn shared vocabularies, there’s a comfort that builds.”
At this moment, I had the impression that, while Davis might have a treasured working friendship with Rockwell, he would speak with deep appreciation for many of his collaborators. For a profile about him and his work, his instinct was to wax on how much he values his many partnerships, and how brilliant he thinks his theatermaking peers are. The sentence I fixate on, reading back over the transcript, is: “It’s a relationship that grows, like any relationship…” Good relationships are everywhere in his line of sight. It sounds like a point he frequently makes and ponders. He compares working with a director for the first time with a first date:
“I feel like the first time you work with a director, you’re designing, you’re doing all the normal stuff, but you’re also learning how to communicate. You’re learning each other’s vocabularies. Which is always real exciting, I mean. It’s just like first dates with people—you don’t know what’s going to happen. But then there’s something beautiful that comes out of comfort, too. Of being with someone, and you can trust in them, you know what I mean? I think both have pluses and minuses. I do really cherish the long-lasting relationships. As much as working with new people is really exciting—I love when I get to work with new directors, keeps it lively—there is something beautiful about those old relationships that keep turning out fruitful [work].”
Davis continued to emphasize “sharing vocabularies,” describing it most vividly in context with times he’s worked with The Q Brothers, a critically-acclaimed experimental theater company who mix hip-hop and funk with the Shakespeare’s works. “We just we get along really well, and it’s just, there’s a safety in that room where I feel like I can say the craziest of crazy things.”
“Like with Todd Rosenthal?” I ask.
He nods. “It’s another thing that comes with time in a relationship with a director. I feel like there is a reticence the first time I work with someone to just say the craziest, stupidest idea, the one where you’re like: ‘this is the dumbest thing I’m going to say to you ever in our relationship, ever, but I’m thinking it and I’m saying it and we can move on.’ But sometimes that idiotic thing you say can bloom into something brilliant. But, the room has to be set up for it. I hate to say it, because I don’t really believe it, in a way, but you have to prove yourself to people. You feel like you have to impress them the first time.
“A trust building,” I offer.
“Yeah, it’s like, it’s like,” he starts to laugh at himself, and groans. “This is going to be the worst reference, please don’t put this in there. It’s like going to the bathroom in front of your wife, or whatever. When you get to that point in your relationship where you’re doing that thing that is like”—we’re both laughing—“there’s that sort of comfort, where you can do a horrible, crazy thing in front of somebody that you’re not going to get judged for…And with the Q Brothers, I feel like I can just come in and say the craziest thing I’m ever going to say in the world. There’s an understanding that we can all say whatever we’re thinking, and it’s fine. No one is going to judge each other.”
Davis’s good relationships with theaters around Chicago show in his portfolio: twenty-two Chicago Shakespeare credits, five with Drury Lane, five with Marriott, three with Victory Gardens, two with Steppenwolf. Yet, his freelance work brings him to theaters around the country. I present him with two perceptions I have of his schedule: does he mostly work in Chicago, sometimes New York, rarely regionally? Or does he hop around evenly?
“Really, it depends. I’m a freelance designer; I’m at the whim of directors, producers, and theatre companies that want to hire me. More and more I find that I’m working out of town. This season I’m split half and half: half in Chicago, half jumping around to other cities. I think I’m lucky that half of it is here, because I get to be home a lot. I was just in New York for a month and it’s a long time to be away. But really it depends on where your directors are, [or] the theater companies that want to bring you out with new people. It feels random to me. I wish,” but he stops himself before saying he wants more of a pattern. “I feel like because it is random now, I say I wish it was more regular. But if it was regular I would dream of it being more spontaneous. There’s an excitement to that. But it is hard, being married, to be away for incredibly long stretches of time, to always be jumping around…I find it really exciting, but it can get tiring. It’s a rollercoaster, an emotional rollercoaster. All of it.”
I begin to pack up my things, turn off my voice memo app, put my little notebook in my bag. It’s been an hour or so. It’s a weekday night, early in the week. But Davis stops me casually, asks me what I write, and why. I answer as best I can. Davis shrugs—he has time. Do I want to talk about anything else?
In retrospect, I wonder if this is Scott Davis’s curiosity muscle at work: why not find out where else our discussion might lead? So, I flip back open to my list of questions, and laugh at the question.
“I don’t know how to ask this well, but: ‘describe your style,’ is what I have written, so,” I say, inserting my foot into my mouth.
Davis chuckles and takes my bad college essay question in stride. “I’ll say this about that question about my style,” he smiles. “Barbara Gaines told me when we were working on TUG OF WAR, that what she really likes about me, is sometimes she’ll go in [to a show] and not know that my sets are mine. Which I took as a compliment, you know? It was a huge comfort to me, because what I always try and do is serve the needs of the play and the production. And it’s inherently going to be my set because I created it, but it was nice to hear that there’s not a thing that I do that is like: ‘Ah, there’s another Scott Davis up there!’”
Discussion of style inevitably folds back into discussion of process. “I’m a huge researcher, that is a massive part of my process. I’m just curious about stuff. I’m just super curious. I’ll read scripts and—I actively try not to jump to anything design-wise too early. The first time, I literally just read it. And whatever pops up in my mind, pops up in my mind. I’m always in a world in my brain when reading, but that’s not to say necessarily it’s the world I’m going to wind up in. I will take notes on the stuff I need to research—like, the history of pencils because I was just doing research for PARADE. And I was researching the history of pencils because he worked at a pencil factory, and I found that fascinating. Not that it’s ever going to turn into anything… I research: this is the feeling of a thing, this is piece of artwork—for some reason it’s a bunch of scribbles, but for some reason it means something to me. And sometimes I’ll doodle stuff and be like ‘this is totally important,’ even though it’s not anything—I really try and let it come from that. It goes back to that same thing, where I don’t ever want to be like, creating ‘Scott Davis stuff.’ I don’t ever want somebody to go into a show and be like, ‘That set is about Scott Davis.’ Because then that doesn’t mean anything. I want them to go in and go, ‘That is the perfect thing for this play.’”
A connection between us emerges, as we speak in this overtime period: I worked for several months at a fabrication studio, Ravenswood Studio, where Davis often has his designs constructed. How does his role relate to their construction projects? How much of a hand does he have in what they do? How much creative leeway does a shop have?
“I just like to dream the craziest stuff. And I don’t necessarily, when I design, want to be bogged down in the realities of stress loads, and this amount of distance equals this height on an I-beam. I have to know some of that stuff, but I like to be able to dream. I feel that’s what people hire me for, and the shop is really there to help us figure out how to fabricate it, how to create it in life. So, I really lean on shops. I don’t pretend to have that kind of knowledge. I want them to be able to come to me and say, ‘You want it to be like this? There’s this really cool material that we just saw,’ you know? I want them to get excited about doing their jobs. All I have is a bunch of models and ideas, whereas those guys really help create it.”
“I would be nowhere without great fabricators,” he concludes, though he may as well have been praising any other kind of colleague. “That relationship is just as important as your relationship with the director. I love working with shops because they have all those ideas and I want them to come to me with ideas. We have different jobs because we do different things. You know? So, I very much cherish”—there’s that word again—“that relationship. And you know with Ravenswood or with technical directors at places, I like those relationships to be positive, and I never want it to feel like one of us is working for the other one, you know? I welcome ideas coming my way. I never want it to be: ‘I’m the designer. Build this.’ I want their ideas. That’s why we do theater anyway. Collectively we create something better than any one person could create.”
For more information on Scott Davis visit scottadamdavis.com.