Stage director Will Davis likens his experience growing up as a girl to A Christmas Carol‘s Ebenezer standing outside the window, looking in at the living. “I thought that intense isolation was just the human condition, that that’s what it means to be alive,” he says, then adds, laughing: “I didn’t know, I didn’t know! So every day for me now is like, ‘It’s another day! And I’m here! And I am alive!'” In conversation, Davis punctuates painful recollections with a loud, boisterous laugh. He uses the word “joy” often.
In February, American Theater Company (ATC) named the experimental theater artist its new artistic director following the sudden death, in 2015, of its previous artistic director, PJ Paparelli. Beginning previews January 6, Jaclyn Backhaus’s play Men on Boats marks Davis’s directorial debut for the renowned 31-year-old company, where Pulitzer winner Disgraced and Tony winner The Humans premiered. Ben Brantley of the New York Times called Davis’s direction of a 2015 off-off-Broadway production of Men on Boats “highly ingenious.” His credit-packed bio suggests the work of a seasoned vet—not a 33-year-old who left grad school less than four years ago. How did so much happen so quickly? “A lot of it is about joy, honestly,” says Davis, seated inside ATC’s theater, a former warehouse in North Center. He traces that joy to his gender transition.
For Davis, much was in a name. “Words are magic. You say them, and things come true,” he says. “When you name a thing, it is alive. Before you name it, it isn’t.” Will came alive in 2012. “Naming Will enabled every other decision I’ve made personally and artistically,” he says. “ ’Will’ is a verb, and it’s a promise: I was in a place that felt like complete chaos my entire life, but I will get to another place. That was one of the first times I had a sense of liveness—and not being outside the glass.”
As Davis came alive, so did his art. The creative floodgates opened. “Will’s true voice, by virtue of not being able to be expressed, the moment that it was, came out with such a singular beauty and clarity and originality,” says Michael Patrick Thornton, the Gift Theatre’s artistic director, who got to know Davis when he directed a short play, A Healthy Start, for the Gift and subsequently during a new-works festival in Austin, both in 2013. “As a director, he came out like a racehorse.”
Now Davis, a director drawn to physically adventurous new works, wants to turn ATC—known for documentary-style issue plays and, like much Chicago theater, naturalistic dramas—into a place for “wild theatricality,” he says. “I’m very interested in making ATC a Chicago home for formally experimental work. I have no issue with the deft naturalism of much of the work here in Chicago; I just wouldn’t know how to make it.”
What goes for his life goes for his art: “I don’t exist on the gender binary, I’m neither this nor that, I’m something else—and that is of my own design. It’s the same thing for me artistically: I’m just not worried about whether folks can categorize the work.” Indeed, he finds people’s attempts to read his gender “endearing and wonderful,” says Davis, wearing a dark blazer and jeans and scuffed combat boots. On days when he washes his shortish brown hair, “when my hair is really clean and fluffy,” strangers are more likely to think he’s female. He smiles: “I get so much joy out of that because it feels to me like, Oh, that is how much gender exists, no more and no less—shampoo. And when I think about it that way, I’m like . . . I’m free.”
For all the theatrical freedom Davis hopes to nurture, however, the challenge of leading ATC won’t be solely an artistic one. “ATC has been spending more money than it has and producing bigger than it’s capable of paying for,” Davis says. He intends to rein that in. “Fiscal responsibility is a new and hugely important value in this building. As an artist, I do not separate business from art making. They make each other possible.”
Even with relatively limited means, Davis plans to make ATC both an exporter and importer of formally inventive new plays. “My hope is he’ll make Chicago a national destination for the development of new works,” Thornton says. “Chicago has a track record of producing new works, but in terms of developing them, we’re not quite on the top of that list yet.” The plays that Davis says interest him are the ones that can exist only in the theater—”they require live space and time”—and that have something in them that seems impossible to stage. “I believe very firmly that the theater does the literal OK,” he says, “but it does other things better.”
To illustrate his point, Davis hops up from a folding chair and grabs a couple of wooden boards. Men on Boats follows ten 19th-century explorers on four boats, “but there are no boats in this play,” he says. “That would flatten the theater’s rough magic.” He holds the boards so they form a V in front of him, instantly conjuring a ship’s bow. He slowly pulls the boards apart, evoking a boat capsizing. Then he drapes his arms over one board, and he’s suddenly a man at sea, afloat on a piece of wreckage.
His creativity encompasses gender representation as well. In Men on Boats, the characters are male; the bodies aren’t. The gender-fluid cast comprises non-cisgender-male actors; some identify as women, others as genderqueer. Though some ATC productions, like Dan Aibel’s new play T., which opens in May, will have traditional gender casting, Davis will again go nontraditional for William Inge’s midcentury classic Picnic in March. Among its mostly queer cast, two men will play both parts of a straight couple. “It’s not about trying to gender-fuck something, which is also an admirable goal,” Davis says. “It’s about trying to tease out the core of these characters as I understand them.” For Davis, Inge, a closeted gay man who committed suicide, wrote characters who ask if it’s OK to be different—and are answered with a tragically incontestable “no.”
Davis takes an equally open approach to the audition process. He asks actors to read for the parts that interest them, regardless whether their gender matches that of the roles. “It’s not about men playing women or women playing men,” he explains. “It’s about the inside of an actor being called toward the inside of a character.”
He attributes much of his interest in the insides of characters, and in the group dynamics of rehearsals, to his father, a psychoanalyst. “Sitting around a dinner table, having conversations about how people articulate their emotions and how they tick—part of my interest in the theater is related to that,” he says of his upbringing in northern California. (Despite his own fascination with how people tick, Davis’s father would later have a difficult time with Davis’s transition.) And with a singer-performer mother and a godmother who put on adventurous shows like a Pinocchio featuring a papier-mache whale floating down a river, Davis and his younger brother never questioned the importance of the arts.
For Davis as a young child, the arts meant ballet. In middle school, Davis began to feel an inkling that life as a girl wasn’t the life for him. “I didn’t have any context for what was going on for me, but just an awareness that I wasn’t fitting into the world of black leotards, pink tights, and toe shoes. I felt a lot of shame at not being good enough or delicate enough,” he says. “For someone experiencing a lot of body dysmorphia as a trans person, and compounded on top of that the regular dysmorphia of being in middle school, it was a pretty intense time.”
It was made even more intense at age 13, when Davis’s parents divorced. “It was horrible,” Davis says. “It continues to be tough. My parents haven’t found a way to ever connect again, so the bulk of that trauma sits with me and my brother.” Like countless queers before (and after) him, Davis found refuge, during middle school and high school, in theater. “The theater department totally saved me.”
Davis went to DePaul University to study acting, but then took his first class in direction. “That was a massive game changer for me,” he says. Direction wove together the psychoanalytic and choreographic threads in his life: he could draw on his understanding of both human behavior and human movement. After earning a BFA in theater studies from DePaul in 2005, Davis lived in Chicago for five years—a time when he was “floundering,” he says. Yet his floundering phase included an apprenticeship at Steppenwolf and an assistant-directing stint for ATC—and getting married at age 23. Davis credits his now ex-husband, whom he still refers to as “my best friend in the whole world,” with helping him through the gender transition that began when Davis attended graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin. “When we got married, we made this vow to be family, and we are still family—it just looks different,” he says.
In 2013, his directing MFA in hand, Davis won a theater fellowship that took him to New York, where his career quickly flourished. “When I moved to New York, I decided I was gonna do my fucking job and do it really well and do it with so much punk-rock joy,” he says. It wouldn’t have been quite so punk rock or joyful, Davis readily admits, without money he inherited from his late grandmother. “It was the only way I could afford to be in New York,” he says. “I got this gift, and I spent it on my career.” In 2014, Davis had top surgery (i.e., a double mastectomy)—which he mentions out of a sense of “gratitude, joy, and responsibility” as the rare trans artist heading an arts organization.
While in New York, Davis played Prince Charming to choreographer Evvie Allison’s Cinderella for the queer ballet company Ballez. “I systematically ignored her for a good six months. She was too pretty,” Davis says. Last spring, though, soon after Davis accepted ATC’s offer, he and Allison got engaged. Davis feels Allison’s presence in his life has helped his father through his struggles with Davis’s transition. “It’s not been easy,” Davis says, “but had I decided to care more about what other people think, I would’ve stopped getting out of bed five years ago. Other people’s opinions are not worth my life,” he says, then smiles widely and laughs. v