arts

Setting the stage

Soon-to-be MFA graduate reflects on his life as an aspiring playwright



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Nathan Davis, a student in IU's MFA playwrighting program, debuted his original plays at IU. Davis said his desire to be a playwright struck at a young age, growing up with theatrical parents. Davis will graduate this spring and said he considers himself a playwright. Ike Hajinazarian Buy Photos

Nathan Davis plays many roles in his life. A husband. A father. A practicing Bahá’í. A lover of theater. After three years in IU’s MFA playwriting program, he can add a new role to his repertoire.

“Now, I really consider myself a playwright,” Davis said.

Since 2011, Davis has studied under Ken Weitzman in IU’s playwriting program. He will graduate from the program this spring after staging two of his original plays,

“Dontrell Who Kissed the Sea” and “The Art of Bowing,” through IU Theatre.

Davis said working with other aspiring playwrights and experienced professors gave him the confidence and validation he needed to pursue playwriting.

“It’s all about the collaboration,” he said. “When other artists are sparked and excited and inspired by something I write, I know I’m on the right track.”

Though Davis’ plays made their debuts at IU, he said his desire to write and create original works has been with him since childhood. He grew up in Rockford, Ill., a city that Davis remembers as being too small for his theater dreams.

His father acted as an ensemble performer in the town’s lone theater company, the New American Theater. His mother worked as a mime and a theater teacher at a local private school, the Spectrum School.

As the son of a faculty member, Davis attended the school for free.

Davis said he remembers his time in elementary school fondly, as a place where he could freely experiment with his creativity. It was there that Davis wrote his first play — an adaptation of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy for a class performance.

Davis said he and his classmates were extremely passionate about the play, taking the reins on everything from the script to the set and costume design.

“Our school allowed us to immerse ourselves completely in the process,” he said. “The result was, among other things, long battle scenes underscored by classical music with strobe lights. Lots of wooden swords. Lots of polyester cloaks. It was one of the happiest times of my life.”

Davis’ passion for theater carried into high school. He attended Auburn High School, a public school in the area, and enrolled in the Creative and Performing Arts program.

He took a curriculum of classes focused around theater and acting. After many years of dedication to theater, deciding what he wanted to do with his future was a no-brainer.

“Every time I had a choice whether to do theater or something else, I chose to do theater,” Davis said. “So I thought to myself, ‘You know, I’m probably going to keep doing that, so I might as well just admit to myself that that’s what I’m going to do.’”

Davis planned to study theater at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but he first took a year off to perform a service project.

As a member of the Bahá’í religion, Davis said it is common for young Bahá’ís to take a year around high school or college to take part in some sort of service project. Davis worked with a group called Project Wildfire, staging amateur dance and theater productions in Minneapolis and throughout the Midwest.

“Project Wildfire was a coming-of-age experience,” Davis said. “Giving myself over to a cause bigger than myself transformed me in every way. I was taken out of my comfort zone over and over again. But once your horizons expand, you can never really go back, and that’s a wonderful thing.”

It was during his time with Project Wildfire that Davis met Liz Gordon. She would eventually become his wife, but the relationship developed slowly.

After their year with the group, Gordon returned to Ohio, and Davis pursued his theater degree in Illinois. The two met up again during a spring break trip in Arizona, and it was there that their relationship began. They were married in January 2003, when Davis was 23 and Gordon was 22.

Turning his focus back to his education, Davis said his undergraduate career focused primarily on acting, though he believed a desire to write plays was always at the back of his mind.

“I think at that time I knew that I eventually wanted to write plays,” Davis said. “I tried to write plays, but I had a hard time finishing them.”  

It didn’t help, he said, that he hadn’t mastered the skills required of a playwright. Or the scope, for that matter.

“I had really big ideas, and I didn’t have the skill to execute them,” Davis said.
“I just didn’t fully understand the craft. From acting and from being in plays and being around theater, I knew what a play was, but to actually make that happen and to make your own story happen, it’s tough.”

That all changed in May 2006 with the birth of his first daughter, Olivia.

Davis and his wife have since had two more girls — Elsie, 5 years old, and Eleanor, 7 months. Davis said having his daughters caused him to think differently about all aspects of his life, including his own upbringing and what his parents must have gone through while raising him.

This new look on life inspired him to more actively pursue playwriting, he said.

“When you become a parent, your entire world view shifts,” he said. “It opened up my heart in ways I didn’t even think it could be opened.”

Davis also said practicality influenced his transition from acting to playwriting. He’d had to pass on auditions and other acting opportunities once his daughter was born, and he said if he focused more on playwriting, he could fit writing in during breaks at work or at home late at night.

Davis began his first play, “The Unremembranced Sunset of Salona,” in 2008. He described the play as more of a release to let out all his beginner’s mistakes and admitted he has never seen the play performed.

“I didn’t have anybody read it out loud,” he said. “I didn’t do any of the things you’re really supposed to do as a playwright. I just decided that I really wanted to write a play on my own terms without getting too deep into any other outside concerns.”

After “Salona,” Davis began shipping some of his work around to playwriting schools across the country to further his education. He came upon IU and enrolled in the MFA program in fall 2011.

Now, Weitzman serves as director of the MFA playwriting program at IU and said he has seen Davis grow as an artist throughout his time in the program.

“I think he’s become a terrific collaborator, and he’s learned to be open to the input of his directors, designers and actors,” Weitzman said. “Stylistically, he’s always challenging himself. I’ve seen his palate expand even more here.”

The play focuses on Dontrell Jones III, a character who has visions of an African man diving from the deck of a slave ship into the ocean. He makes plans to sail out to the spot and dive in after the man, despite his family’s objections. It is through this journey that Dontrell discovers secrets of his family’s past that ultimately shape his identity.
Davis said he had grand visions for the play, such as a spectacular ship for Dontrell and his soulmate to ride off on. But because of budget restrictions, revisions had to be made.

“It taught me that there are other ways of creating spectacle,” Davis said.

He said the hardest thing about being a playwright instead of an actor is the experience of live performances. Actors can get caught up in the actions and emotions of the play. As a playwright, he said, it’s harder for him to get lost during the live show.

“When I’m in the audience, I’m thinking of the entire event,” Davis said. “I look at the audience, any tweaks I need to make, the mood. But I love that. It’s thrilling and nerve-wrecking.”

After successfully staging his first play, Davis began work on “The Art of Bowing” for the 2014 “At First Sight” repertory, his last to be shown at IU.

Robert Heller, who directed “The Art of Bowing,” worked with Davis through the revision process. Davis had a very different vision for this play, Heller said.

“He was like ‘I’m pretty terrified of writing. I don’t want it to be like realism. I want it to be more of an exploration. I’ve never really written that, and I’m a little horrified of it,’” Heller said of his early conversations with Davis.

What Davis ended up creating was a play about human nature and the problems that plague the human race, told through the separated storylines of three characters.
Davis said the goal of “The Art of Bowing” was to use the confidence he’d gained from “Dontrell” to try something completely outside his comfort zone.

“The cast really hit their stride in the last performance,” Davis said of the play’s reception. “And the audience seemed engaged, which I thought would be tricky since there’s no tidy message.”

Davis said he hopes “The Art of Bowing” finds an audience soon as well, and, until then, he will keep working on it.

Weitzman said no matter where Davis ends up, he is sure to find success in theater, and his upcoming opportunities are tremendous launching boards.

“His work is at the same time deeply philosophical and very poetic and at the same time contemporary and very funny,” he said. “I think he’s really being launched as a playwright in a significant way. I expect him to continue to challenge himself and grow as an artist.”

Davis said he’s going to allow some time to gestate after being in an intense writing mode for so long at IU. But he can’t stop himself from coming up with new play ideas.

“It’s just tremendously satisfying to be able to tell a story, create characters, create the world that you want to see or the story you want to see and just see it realized,” Davis said. “As a playwright, you’re able to shape the entire world. It’s kind of like you get to make the playground everyone plays on.”

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