A DRAMATURG TURNED DIRECTOR Rick Davis' career in theater is mix of scholarly, practical


When most people think of a dramaturg -- if they're familiar with the term at all -- they probably envision an academic in an ivory tower poring over obscure texts related to a theatrical production. But ivory towers have never interested Rick Davis, who was named associate artistic director at Center Stage last summer after four years as that theater's resident dramaturg.

"I always tried to introduce myself as the dirty-hands dramaturg," says the easygoing, bearded Mr. Davis, 33. Even in the literary post of dramaturg, he explains, he attempted to have hands-on contact with whatever production he was researching. Now at last, he has been able to immerse himself fully; Center Stage's current production of George Bernard Shaw's "Candida" marks his directorial debut at that theater.

For Mr. Davis, who has had some experience directing elsewhere, the progression from dramaturg to director is "perfectly logical." "I always wanted to direct plays," he admits. "There is a certain point at which you can't sit back any more. You have to get up and actually do the work. I think I expected, without daring to hope, that eventually I might direct a play here and that it might be a play of this caliber."

The caliber of "Candida" (1894) is undisputed. A recognized masterpiece by one of the greatest playwrights in the English language, it presents a love triangle in which a young poet is enamored of the wife of a socialist Christian minister. Among the most popular works in the Shavian canon, it is also one of the playwright's most tightly written texts, and it was one of the early scripts that helped establish his reputation as a dramatist.

Although Mr. Davis helped select "Candida" for the Center Stage season, he didn't know at the time that he would be directing it. When that decision was made, he confesses, "Initially I wished I could do something more off the beaten path."

At the very least, those familiar with Mr. Davis' background might have expected him to make his Center Stage debut with a play by Ibsen. Vice president of the Ibsen Society of America, he also co-founded the former American Ibsen Theater in Pittsburgh. In a sense, however, "Candida" isn't so far removed from the work of the 19th century Norwegian playwright.

Not only was Shaw one of the first British proponents of Ibsen, he created "Candida" in reply to "A Doll's House." "Shaw is irrepressibly ironic," Mr. Davis explains. "When he confronted the marital situation he felt compelled to tell his truth about it, and that was that the man was the doll."

In addition, Mr. Davis sees a strong connection between "Candida" and another Ibsen play, "The Lady from the Sea," which also concerns a woman forced to choose between two men. Mr. Davis served as production dramaturg on that script when it was produced at Center Stage three seasons ago. Theatergoers who attended will recall its non-naturalistic setting, style preferred by Mr. Davis.

In light of that preference, the set for "Candida," designed by CraigClipper, may seem surprisingly realistic. Yet, as Mr. Davis explained in a staff conference following the first rehearsal, "It informs our style of work on the play that [Shaw] both hated and embraced the 19th century conventions he found himself living in."

The set is an attempt to create a visual representation of this dichotomy by surrounding a realistic drawing room with constant reminders of the actual theatrical space, such as the exposed back brick wall. "You get the sense that just outside of this jewel of a world is this other [world] that's tougher," he says.

The technical side of a production is of special interest to Mr. Davis because that's where his fascination with theater began. Growing up in La Crosse, Wis., he was initiated into the theater not as a child actor, but as a child lighting technician. The first show for which he ran the lights -- at the tender age of 10 -- was a community theater production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." "I got off to a good start in terms of the literature," he says.

At the same time he was pursuing theater, Mr. Davis was also studying music -- everything from clarinet and recorder to voice. "I think the reason I am driven to direct plays is that my subconscious is telling me to conduct orchestras," he kids.

He had planned to study directing after graduating from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., with a degree in theater. But, he says, "I started looking at directing programs and was shocked at the low level of content that would expand your thinking about the theater. . . . It occurred to me that dramaturgy was the field I was looking for." In 1983 he received a master's degree in dramaturgy from the Yale School of Drama, where he has also completed all of the work toward his doctorate except the dissertation.

While still at Yale, he and several colleagues founded the American Ibsen Theater, which lasted three summer seasons. Stan WojewodskiJr., Center Stage's artistic director, attended several productions at the Pittsburgh theater before inviting Mr. Davis to serve as Center Stage dramaturg in 1986.

Initially a part-time position, the dramaturg's job expanded to full-time after two years. Simultaneously, Mr. Davis was working as an assistant professor of drama at Washington College in Chestertown, a position he held from 1983 to 1988.

He has also tried his hand at playwriting and translations, an interest that blossomed in college when he received an honorable mention from the American College Theater Festival for his play, "Sophocles at Colonus." Last season Center Stage produced a version of Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People" which he translated with Brian Johnston, and this summer the Bowman Ensemble, a recently formed local troupe, will stage his translation of Carlo Goldoni's "The Fan."

His current projects include the lyrics and libretto for a musical version of Max Shulman's novel "Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!" as well as the lyrics for an operetta based on Ibsen's "Love's Comedy," both of which will have music by Center Stage associate artist Kim D. Sherman. And oh yes, Mr. Davis will also be the dramaturg for the theater's forthcoming production of "Twelfth Night."

A dedicated advocate of dramaturgy, he has helped establish a kind of dramaturgy pipeline at Center Stage, which has brought in a steady stream of dramaturgy fellows. The current fellow, David Olivenbaum, is also the production dramaturg on "Candida."

What's it like for a dramaturg to work with a director who is a former dramaturg?

"He's secure enough as a director that it doesn't threaten him to have someone else bringing in the critical perspective of dramaturg," Mr. Olivenbaum says. "I think he welcomes it."

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