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Board shutters ground-breaking, gender-defying American Theater Company
by Catey Sullivan
2018-03-19

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The country's only trans* artistic director of a midsize regional theater lost his job Friday. With the board's decision to shutter the American Theater Company (ATC), Will Davis—the theater's charismatic, ground-breaking, binary-defying artistic director of roughly two years—was out. Chicago lost a company known for adventurous, inclusive works that broke with centuries of tradition.

"Goodbyes are always hard but this one is especially difficult," board member Art Cunningham said March 16. Having been on ATC's board for 21 years, Cunningham praised both the people and the productions who had created art at 1909 W. Byron Ave,, giving a nod to the four artistic directors of his tenure: Brian Russell, Damon Kiely, PJ Paparelli and Davis.

"Will Davis, in particular, has consistently embraced our mission of asking 'What does it mean to be an American?' and taken it to new heights with his bold vision and theatricality." Cunningham said. "The same can be said of our Youth Ensemble and how fearless and committed these students have been since the program's inception. You truly make my heart sing.

"While the lights at ATC have gone dark, the light it has created for the past 33 years can never be extinguished. And for that I'll always be grateful," he said.

In a separate statement released March 16, Cunningham cited financial pressures as a primary factor in the theater's closure. ATC had endured a shaky budget for years. Davis inherited the financial uncertainty when he came onboard roughly two years ago, after Papparelli died overseas in a car crash overseas.

Davis immediately shook things up, intent on making plays that weren't restricted to rigid gender roles. One of his most stellar efforts was his radical reboot of Picnic, which starred Molly Brennan in a swoon-worthy turn as a handsome (usually male) drifter and a number of trans-actors in lead and supporting roles. In Davis' production, William Inge's usually-mired-in-tradition drama featured what Brennan deemed "a gay dream ballet."

Davis' final play was January's We're Gonna Be Ok, which completely flipped the usual gender script, casting men as wives and mother and women as fathers.

Davis spoke with Windy City Times about casting the production for a piece that ran in Chicago Magazine. "It's a way of expanding things, of not putting people into little boxes that say you have to be this or this, male or female. If the universe is infinitely expanding, which it is, it doesn't make sense that there are only two versions of things," he said.

He spoke with the Windy City Times' Karen Topham about the importance of inclusion. ""One of the great gifts that I have right now in ATC is the number of times an actor is cast and they say, I've never been cast as _____.' [This company tries] to create that space for joyful representation that doesn't minimize the fullness of their identities. That is alive and well in every actor cast in this show," he said.

Elle Walker, a trans actor, got a shot at playing the ingenue in Picnic. She bore witness to Davis' hopes. "Playing Madge, even for three performances truly changed my life," Walker said, "Thank you Will Davis."

When casting, Davis often worked with Stephanie Diaz and Emjoy Gavino—both members of the Chicago Inclusion Project. Gavino summed what Davis brought to the fore:

"I will thank (Davis and ATC) or making space for so many people, for gifting our community with generosity and the knowledge that we—all of us—belong in the narrative of American theater, for celebrating queerness and weirdness and teaching us that both are beautiful, for challenging the status quo at every turn. For these things and so much more," Gavino said. "Your work was important and life changing."

"Casting for ATC was a privilege and an honor," said Diaz, "[I]n Will's all-too-short tenure, I saw some of the most exciting work I've seen in my 13 years here."

The Alliance of Latinx Theater Artist of Chicago also released a statement: "To Will Davis, we miss you already. You didn't just talk the talk AND walk the walk, you danced and twirled and flew. You invited us to join. You centered our stories, our bodies and our hearts."

Davis decamped at least temporarily for New York (not returning phone messages March 19) for a directing project. Whether he'll be back is unclear. The fate of 1909 W. Byron Ave. is the same. The theater was literally built by members of American Blues Theater (ABT), founded in 1985, who transformed the former greetings card factory into a 134-seat theater. ABT moved in August, 1993. The ensemble parted ways with Paparelli (and lost the space) in an acrimonious rift in 2009.

"Founding (ABT) Ensemble member James Leaming led a community-based 90+ volunteer crew to transform the space," said ABT's Gwendolyn Whiteside, "While Blues currently performs at Stage 773, the Byron venue has been important for Chicago theater for 25 years. We hope it continues to be utilized for theater and could present a wonderful opportunity!"

Whatever happens to the space, Davis' mark on the city is reverberating. On March 16, Chicago Theatre Marathon founders Gaby Labotka and Cassandra Rose announced plans to change up the theme for the July 19-22 event at the Green House Theater Center. The new theme? "I am an American."


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