Transgender stage director Will Davis stepped outside his Houston hotel room and “took a big inhale” of Texas air.
“I was flooded with the warmest feelings and memories,” he says, explaining that he began his transition while a graduate student at the University of Texas from 2009 to 2013.
Davis returned to Texas last month to begin rehearsals on the world premiere of Cypress native Robert Askins’ new comedy, The Carpenter, which opens January 18 at the Alley Theatre.
As a freelance director, Davis works at theaters in cities across the country, and his arrival in Houston makes him the first trans director in Alley history. “They told me that it’s exciting for them, and it’s absolutely exciting for me. It is important for me to be really visible as a trans or genderqueer person and say to folks who think they have never met a trans person that you have met many, you just didn’t realize it.”
“It is important for me to be really visible as a trans or genderqueer person and say to folks who think they have never met a trans person that you have met many, you just didn’t realize it.”
Davis says a major milestone came when he chose a new first name while living in Austin. “The idea for me picking ‘Will’ was its verb quality—the inherent promise that I ‘will’ do something through sheer ‘will’ power.”
“I can almost grow a beard now,” he adds. “It makes me less of a target, and I can do more to support people in the trans community who are targeted. Actually, I don’t know how I look to other people. I get ‘Thank you, sir’ and ‘Thank you, lady.’ It’s amazing and hilarious; I’m constantly reminded of how what a person sees comes from their own frame of reference.”
Especially gratifying is for Davis to enter a community in a position of leadership, showing people that it’s possible to succeed in the career of their choosing. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” he says. “That is not to say that I can move mountains, but in a small way I am keeping a door open for the next person. If I run into a problem, we can resolve it so that it won’t be a problem for whoever comes next. Which is not to say I’ve had a problem at the Alley. This has been an incredible company to work with; they are doing so much of their own work, and their inclusivity has been amazing.”
The success Davis has achieved, including two years as the artistic director at American Theater Company in Chicago, demonstrates how he hasn’t limited himself to simply telling queer stories. The Carpenter, for example, has no LGBTQ content, although Davis might be an ideal candidate (having studied at UT) to divine the play’s pokes at the rivalry between Houston and Dallas.
“It’s all being done with a twinkle in its eye,” says Davis.
Press material summarizes the play as follows: “Dan is a self-made man from blue-collar Houston, while his fiancé is from Dallas—Highland Park, to be exact. As they arrive at her father’s palatial mansion for their wedding, Dan receives a startling revelation about his family, his father, and the secret everybody has been trying to keep. And all the while, his college buddies are trying to get him drunk, his future father-in-law is shooting his rifle into the ceiling, and Google is trying to take over his business. When the carpenter shows up to build the wedding gazebo, all hell breaks loose. There are mistaken identities, accidental partner swaps, an angry stripper, and laughs.”
“It is a big, awesome, social-commentary of a new play,” says Davis, noting that he and the scenic designer have collaborated on a stage set “that is an irreverent homage to Real Housewives of Dallas, in all of its opulent, terrible marvelousness.”
Next up for Davis is a stop in Louisville, Kentucky, to direct another original script, We’ve Come to Believe, at the 43rd Humana Festival of New American Plays. Then he’ll be collaborating with out musical-theater genius Stephen Sondheim on a concert staging of Road Show for the Encores! series at New York City Center, and directing a production of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, that will probably be performed by “a cast made up entirely of people of color.”
Creative casting enlightened one of Davis’ greatest stage triumphs when he “cast a wide net” in tryouts for American Theater Company’s 2017 production of Picnic by the late, closeted playwright William Inge. Actors were encouraged to audition for roles in which they self-identified, regardless of gender. For example, Hal (the role that William Holden portrayed in the 1955 movie version) was described by Inge as “a handsome drifter,” says Davis, “so I wanted to cast the handsomest, ‘drifterest’ actor who auditioned. I was looking for soul qualities.”
Offstage, Davis says, he feels “a joyful responsibility, but a responsibility nonetheless,” to look out for fellow trans people, particularly those who can’t easily put on and take off a gender identification by the clothes they wear or their hairstyle. “When you are white and trans-masculine, you are targeted much less than trans women. I feel the number of trans people who are killed or hurt is much, much higher than anyone knows because many crimes are not reported; in other cases, the gender of the victims is mis-recorded. There is also a great disadvantage for people who are doing jobs such as prostitution that put them in physical danger, so they face a double whammy or a triple whammy. I try to engage with community organizations and work to keep these folks visible.”
What: The Carpenter
When: January 18-February 10
Where: The Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave.
Tickets and info: AlleyTheatre.org
This article appears in the January 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.