Lance Davis - Co-Founder & Artistic Director of Parson's Nose
Q: Where are you from? What was your family like? A: I'm from Media, outside Philadelphia, PA. Our Mom died when I was seven and that brought me to a closeness with my sisters, Terry and Timmy (Eileen), that made my growing up delightful. It seems we did everything together. School. Kick the can. Putting on plays. We were Catholic and a lot revolved around that. Nuns were big. Altar boy. My Dad remarried and our new Mom was truly courageous, walking into a house with kids 10, 12 and 13. Don't ever make jokes to me about stepmothers. We were all devoted to my Dad who had a great, dry sense of humor. He was a steel executive. Made train undercarriages and parts for GE turbines. I'd go to work with him on very special occasions, and I still glaze over wistfully when around that smell of burning steel or freight yards. My sisters were my inspiration as to what to value in life. Hoagies and snapper soup and Uncle Remus. We laughed and laughed. My Mom's Irish family taught us how to sing. My Dad's taught us how to tell a joke without smiling.
Q: When did you begin acting and how did you get into it? What was your first role? A: Well my first gig was lip syncing Johnny Ray's "Cry" in front of the juke box at Walber's Restaurant where our Dad would take us. Funnily enough Barry Gordon began his career in much the same way, though he took it much further. Then in fourth grade Mark Geary freed me as one of George Washington's slaves, and that was very powerful. My sisters heard about me in the role and immediately cast me as the clown in Rumplestiltskin, a play at Garland Morrison's house across the street. After that I was "resting" until sophomore year at Devon Prep, taught by Hungarian priests, where I gave Marc Antony's "Friends, Romans, Countrymen." There were countrymen in the class, but no Romans, and by the end we moved to Saint Louis. I went to a Jesuit high school there where our drama teacher, Joe Schulte, cast me in Teahouse of the August Moon and then in BourgeoisGentilhomme where I fell in love with theater, France, Molière and comedy. We're doing it this year at Parson's Nose, The Middle Class Nobleman.
Q: What is your favorite role (or roles) that you've had the pleasure to play in your career and why? A: I've always loved comedy. At Notre Dame I played Arnolphe in Molière's School for Wives for Dennis Hayes, an inspiring director, mind, and now friend. I've incorporated Molière into every season we've had at Parson's Nose and played the part again. I love playing Hamlet just because it's a wonderful part in a terrific ghost story. Again at Notre Dame, our director was Reg Bain, another amazing gift in my life. He taught us how to love the work, not ourselves in the work. I studied all of the Hamlet interpretations, going back to Burton, Barrymore, Kean, Booth, for six months before we began rehearsal. I was overwhelmed, and I realized that there was only so much you could get out of your first go at it. The Brits get to do it several times in the course of a career. So finally a friend asked "What what do you want your Hamlet to be about?" And I said, "I want the audience to be sad when he dies, not go 'well thank God that's over'. I think that would be a challenge. And I want him to be funny." He's the wittiest mind in the play. I don't think he was born to avenge his father. I think he was a student at Wittenberg who was closer to his mother than his warlike father, and suddenly this is thrust upon him and he thinks he has to be the son his father wanted. He's not indecisive. He's about to kill a sitting king! And at that time it was believed the devil could take shapes to tempt you into actions that would cause you to lose your soul, so all that indecision was quite reasonable. Other roles? I'd put playing Barnet, the wicked orderly in National Health at the Guthrie as a great experience.; Dogberry, Touchstone, Flute, Harpagon, Scapin, Tartuffe. On screen, playing Chet Weems in "Twin Peaks" was fun. In sitcom you go in, hit the joke and get out. On stage you get to sustain and build, but the mousetrap is the same. The old maxims are true. "If you move on the punch line you won't get the laugh." So simple. So ancient. Cave actors knew it thousands of years ago.
Q: When you're not performing, how do you like to spend your time? If you weren't an actor, what other profession would you have liked to explore? A: Perhaps in advertising "creative". I can teach if the students are interested, but theater is really taught through apprenticeship. You watch and learn and do and repeat, in front of an audience. I wish I'd prepared more to be the producer I am now. Taken a business course or two. Learned how to be adept at Excel, Quickbooks, Photoshop, Donorperfect, grant writing. Now at Parson's Nose I've had to learn it all on the fly, but it's how you make the work happen. When I was coming up there were acting companies. I was at the Guthrie for five years! Unheard of today. Five years of steady employment, doing wonderful classic plays with brilliant actors like Len Cariou and Roberta Maxwell and Peter Goetz. It was like the old studio system. Get up and go to work at ten until eleven at night, for nine months and a living wage. No one does that now. No companies. The buildings keep going but the artists are expendable after eight weeks. You have to become an entrepreneur with great luck to survive.
Q: Share a story about "the joys of live theater". Either something ridiculous that happened during a show you were in, something you saw in another production, or any other anecdote about things that can only happen in live theater. A: We live our days looking at screens. All of us. We took a visiting friend to Universal Studios last week and he and I were on the tram. We drove through the sets where hundreds of famous scenes in dozens of films and TV shows were shot, everything from Lon Chaney's Hunchback of Notre Dame to Destry Rides Again to Jaws - and everybody was watching Jimmy Fallon on the little 23 inch TV screen above our heads. Nobody was looking outside. Live theater is an antidote to all that. It isn't reality, it's truth. It's imagination, and relationships and the most glorious and nuanced use of our language ever known. It's social. You get up and have a coffee or a wine and chat about what you just experienced together. Not like the movies where you scurry out in the darkness. Playwrights explore profound ideas with language that makes us laugh or swoon or just think hard. It's a living contract. An actor will tell the story, and you will listen, hopefully attentively. She'll tell it as well as it can possibly be told and hopes to meet your expectations. Right there. In time and space. Not listening to whether the camera crew is laughing but to you, right in front of her. And you have done your part. Being there, rooting for it to be told well. The Greeks all knew how Oedipus was going to turn out, it was the telling of the story that was important. The celebration of their culture, their language. That's what Dickens' Christmas Carol is for us. Screens don't celebrate. They make things smaller.
Q: What's the most embarrassing thing that's happened to you personally during a show? A:There are so many. The time I fell asleep during a scene I was in. That's happened a couple of times, actually. In Taming of the Shrew for Michael Langham at the Guthrie I played Christopher Sly's Wife. In the preamble to the performance, which is rarely done, the troupe of actors find this drunk, Sly, and decide to take him to the lord's house where they're performing, and he wakes up in fine robes with the lord's servants dressed as his entourage and they convince him he's a great lord and they're doing the play for him. All fine, except Sly and his gang have to sit and watch the first hour and a half every night. I don't care if it's in the nude eventually it becomes hypnotic and I found myself dozing off and I went to sleep onstage. And I think I gave one of those abrupt snorts when I snapped to consciousness. Years later, in Gideon Schein's production of Front Page in Rochester I was playing Earl Williams, the escaped criminal the reporters stuff into a roll top desk for about forty five minutes. Well we got the desk from the Eastman estate and it had been George Eastman's roll top so they couldn't let us bang out the back for an escape hatch so I had to stay curled up in the thing for forty five minutes every night and matinee and, well, there you are. At least I could look startled effectively when they opened it up and shouted.
Q: What have you been working on lately? Where can we see your work next? A: Well right now we're rehearsing some terrific Old Radio sketches for our fundraiser including Jack Benny and George and Gracie. The material is timeless and the show will allow some of our singers to step up. I spent the summer choosing the season for Parson's Nose, translating and adapting, getting it to where we could do justice to these huge pieces with small resources. I'm a very, very lucky person to have a family and wife who supports this vision of mine. I think these plays and stories are absolutely essential to the quality of our lives. We have been blessed with education and we must use it and challenge ourselves and be proud of it and find the fun of it. These writers have reached down into the core of every one of us, our fears, our obsessions, our passions, and put them on the stage. Our hearts and minds are used to their fullest. The story of the girl in the attic room in O Henry is Belle in Dickens, and Maria in Sheridan. And the laughter of the 17th Century is the same laughter today. I get to play in this garden, and hopefully to bring you through the gate.