Director at the Erie Playhouse, Richard Davis, talks to Mitch Stark, Founding Creative Director of Theatre Avenue, about how he got his start in theatre and the use of digital projection in Matilda the Musical.
How did you get started in theatre?
I did theatre in high school and got involved in the community theatre where I lived. It was very small and did very few shows. But I really enjoyed it. Then I moved to Erie, Pennsylvania and I was studying to become an x-ray technician. Once I got that degree, all my friends moved away and I was looking for something to do. So I got involved at the Erie Playhouse. I went to auditions, got cast in a show with the singing chorus. And that’s how I got my start.
I watched people and gradually started dancing and then I lived with one of the guys that worked in the children’s theatre. He let me start doing choreography. It was about that time I decided that being a nuclear medicine technician was not my thing and decided to go back to school. I started doing costume design for some shows and I decided to go back and get my design degree. So, I got a two-year degree at AIU Fashion College in Atlanta, Georgia. When I graduated there, I started working for Norcostco Atlanta Costume. I moved on to Costume World for a year. And then at that point in time, the playhouse decided to hire a full-time costume designer and they hired me. So I moved back to Erie and back to the playhouse. I was the costume designer here for 15 years. I got involved again doing choreography, then directing children’s theatre and moved onto the main stage. So in my career here, I’ve directed 110 shows. Then, when the managing director retired in 2006, they decided to split his job into two. So I became the producing director of the playhouse and that’s how I’m here [laughs].
What drew you to theatre and initially lit that spark?
I was in the marching band. The gentleman who ran the music program at my high school, Loren Wright, was just a very inspiring person. I was involved in his course and his concerts and just watched him create and always push (the limits). I was fascinated and wanted to be a music teacher. My mother said, ‘You can’t play piano. You’ll never be successful at that.’ She sort of pushed me to where I ended up going. And so, getting involved in the playhouse really set that spark again. I was bored and I needed to meet some people and thought that would be a good way to do it. I’ve always been a creative person. I painted when I was younger. If they had had a dance school in my little town, I probably would have taken dance. So getting in that atmosphere and being involved in the playhouse, you become part of the family while you’re here. You are doing a show with your friends and nothing is more fun. It just grew from there.
When you think back over the shows you’ve done at Erie, are there ones that rise to the top as having been really wonderful for you?
A lot. There really have been a lot. And sometimes it’s just a matter of combining the show you’re working on with the right people that you have—that really make the experience more powerful. I enjoy a good boom-bu-doomp musical, don’t me wrong. But I love a musical that has drama, that has a little more bite to it, like Sweeney Todd and Next to Normal. Things like that that really have a resonating story, that touch and move people. And I really love watching that. I go to my shows a lot. Some directors will direct a show and they walk out the door and they think their work is done. And I agree, your work is done and it’s out of your hands at that point in time. But I love to watch an audience’s reaction. In a comedy or a musical comedy, I see how my ideas have played out and if the audience gets it. Or if they’re moved by what we’re doing. And when you see that, that is such a huge payoff for me. So I go to my shows as much as possible. And frequently I’ll run sound because I know I’m going to be here every night anyways. That and the fact that I’m a huge control freak [laughs]. But that kind of comes with the territory.
When you make something huge, like when I built the dragon for Shrek, (it’s rewarding to) see how the audience reacts when that curtain opens up and they see that big dragon. And with Matilda, making the disappearing chocolate cake. Watching people’s reaction when they look at that cake and think ‘where did that cake go?’ The very first dress rehearsal, we had two casts of girls. The (second group of) girls were up watching and they said, ‘where did the cake go?!’ And that was so fun.
What have been some of the highlights with your production of Matilda?
It has been so much fun. Once in a while, you get a cast where you have all the right people in the right parts. It was not a lot of work for me! (laughs) Because they are all the right people to play those roles. So watching all of that happen and come together was great. Watching that community. With any show that I do, you take a bunch of people. Some that know each other really well and some who are complete strangers. And putting all those people together and creating a community out of them, watching that happen, is a really rewarding thing. One of the things I like about doing this is that you never know who you are going to meet when you walk into a new show. And watching people come in and suddenly they have met their best friend for life. You watch that friendship continue over the years and you know you had a little part in that —it’s kind of a cool thing.
What do you think projections brought to the show?
I think they bring a sense of humor to the show. I really enjoyed how the Theatre Avenue arch projections worked out and the fact that the set is talking to the audience in a way. It sets up what is happening, like with ‘Bruce’ and ‘Discipline’ and ‘Intermission’ and ‘Goodbye.’ You know, all those things are happening with that arch. It helps to create that whimsy and drive home the sense of magic that the show has. So that’s been really nice and I love when you can use animation. Like in Hello Dolly when we created the moving train and you (Theatre Avenue) had the clouds moving in. I love that little bit, when you can have the animation moving when it suddenly takes it above what theatre can be visually. Creating those moving elements and taking it more into a real-world kind of thing.
In regards to style, ranging from whimsical like Honk! and Seussical the Musical to photo-realistic like Annie and Hello Dolly, what do you think works best in theatre stylistically? Or is it a range?
I really think it’s a total range. I think it’s really what you’re trying to do overall. What you’re going to do projection-wise for Next to Normal isn’t what you are going to do for something like Shrek. I do think it helps to drive home what your overall concept is for the show and I think it really brings the scenic elements to life more. In particular the animation. You make something happen and you can make it happen beyond what you could with just trying to do it with scenery.
If you met a director or teacher and they were really excited about projections, but were looking for starting tips. Is there anything that you would point them to first? What advice would you give them?
I would say don’t be limited by what people tell you. That if you have an idea, you should just go for it and try it. And don’t think that you have to have an 11,000 lumen (lumens means brightness in projector speak) projector. That projector is awesome, but you don’t need that to do projections. And it’s okay if there is a little shadow on the screen. I’ve done so many front projections. You may have a little shadow of a person on the screen, but overall it works really well and it’s not a bad thing. And you can really use your imagination to create something. You know, there is so much stuff. You can work with someone to create artwork and there are things you can go out and buy. Video that you can buy that can make cool stuff happen. One of the first things I made was Sweeney Todd and I had these units come on that were solid walls and when people came on I played this video of blood running down and projected that over the scenery and it created such a cool effect. Don’t think that there’s anything you have to be limited by. Try it and work with it and you’ll find your way. I would encourage anyone to use QLab. Make sure you have a Mac to do that. I’m sure there are other ways, but QLab works really well doing projections.
What would you imagine we will see in the next five to ten years with either projections or digital media?
I’m sure it’s going to grow. It has grown so much in the last five to ten years. Especially with all the new musicals. You know, first it was scenery that made new musicals hard to do and now it’s projections that are making musicals hard to do. On broadway they aren’t projecting on a drop. They have an LED wall, which makes it easier. But it will continue to grow and more people will be using it. You know, two years ago, you couldn’t find somebody that would sell you projections online that were made for theatre, you just kind of had to find pictures and make your own projections.
About Richard Davis
Richard Davis, Production Director, was born and attended high school in Kane, PA. He earned an associate of science degree in radiological technology from Gannon University and subsequently an associate of fashion design degree from Bauder Fashion. Prior to receiving his fashion degree, Richard was a nuclear medicine technologist at Saint Vincent Health Center.
Before joining the staff at the Playhouse as Costume Designer in 1989, he was costumer for Norcostco Atlanta Costume and costume designer for Costume World in Pittsburgh, PA. However, Richard’s first involvement with the Playhouse was in 1980 when he appeared in The Wizard of Oz, and he’s been a part of numerous shows since. His favorites include: Children of Eden (Director/Choreographer); Beauty and the Beast (Choreographer/Lumiere); Jesus Christ Superstar (Director/Choreographer); and 110 in the Shade (Choreographer/Noah).