“I think the breed is commonly referred to as the ugliest dog ever, and you can write that,” Davis says. “Sorry, Elizabeth, that is a homely dog.”
Davis apparently missed that other bit of acting advice, “Don’t insult the director’s pet.”
“She’s a good dog. But, yeah, I think we all made fun of Elizabeth’s dog,” Davis says. “She knows her dog is an acquired taste. She knows. It’s so ugly it’s kind of cute.”
“Ahh!” Davis screams (somewhat softly, as we’re eating lunch at his office), slipping into improv mode and feigning a reaction to seeing the dog for the first time. “It’s adorable!”
From improv to Shakespeare
Davis has been participating in improv theatre for almost 10 years. He and fellow Dream cast member Douglas O’Neil started out in 2000 as a member of a local troupe called Torrential Downplay.
“We had a really good run,” Davis says of Torrential Downplay. “We did a lot of good shows. We had a nice following. It was just one of those things where a lot of people went to do different things so the troupe had to kind of disperse.”
When that group split in 2003, Davis and O’Neil joined Feminist Debutante Guild, an improv troupe started by Birmingham Weekly columnist and Dream cast member J’Mel Davidson. When Feminist Debutante Guild faded in much the same way as Torrential Downpour had, O’Neil started ETC.
Davis had no experience with improv theatre before joining Torrential Downplay. Indeed, he’d never done theatre of any kind, save for a role as Johnny Appleseed in a 6th grade play (“I was the best Johnny Appleseed that you ever saw,” Davis says). But you wouldn’t know it now. Davis’s near decade of experience in improv is a part of his personality, and it made appearances throughout our interview. Especially when he was trying to remember what “homely” breed of canine he was working with in Dream.
“It’s a something-something hound,” he says quickly. “I can’t remember it. You’d recognize it. It’s hairless, pretty much, except for this tuft of crazy hair on the top, real narrow snout and little jagged teeth. It’s a something-something hound,” Davis says again. “A water hound, I think. A Chinese water hound?”
I ask if he means it’s a Portuguese water hound.
“That’s it,” Davis says. “A Portuguese water hound!”
After I note that the First Dog is a Portuguese water hound, he decides Hunter’s dog is not a Portuguese after all. He was right when he first said Chinese — from his description, I later deduced that the animal is surely a Chinese Crested.
“Maybe that’s just in my mind, because news organizations won’t talk about anything else,” Davis says, and slips into a voice reminiscent of a pundit on a cable news show. “Forget this economy, what about the derivatives of doggy?”
Playing bad actors
Davis will play Robin Starveling in Dream. He’ll be joined by fellow ETC cast members Mike Cunliffe and Nick Crawford (Tom Snout and Snug the Joiner, respectively), as well as Davidson and O’Neil (Francis Flute and Peter Quince). Together with Franklin Slaton, who plays Nick Bottom, they comprise the crew that the play’s mischievous nature-spirit Puck dubs the “rude mechanicals.” The mechanicals are lowly commoners, enthusiastic about presenting a play to Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and his betrothed, Hippolyta, though their acting talents are lacking. The play the mechanicals present — a play within the play — is a love story called “Pyramus and Thisbe.” Shakespeare scholar David Bevington describes the mechanical’s drama as “an absurdly bad play, full of lame epithets, bombastic alliterations and bathos.” Essentially, Davis and his friends are playing bad actors.
“It’s fun to play over-the-top bad actors,” Davis says. “I’ve been around enough the last 10 years. I’ve picked up some pointers. Just a few.”
As Shakespeare’s work is a somewhat sacred text, ETC’s members won’t be veering from the script. Even in Shakespeare’s day, true improv was rare, especially in tragedies (you don’t riff on Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy). Improv was limited even in comedies such as Dream, though stock characters like fools sometimes interacted with the rowdy Elizabethan audiences.
“I’m OK with scripted materials, but I prefer improv,” Davis admits. “Probably for a good reason: I don’t like learning lines and I’m lazy.”
Davis says that the transition to scripted material has been relatively easy due to the fact that Dream is a comedy. The language the mechanicals use is a bit easier as well — as commoners, the mechanicals’ lines don’t rhyme except when they’re putting on “Pyramus and Thisbe.” The mechanicals’ clothes are ragged, and Puck describes them as clothed in “hempen homespuns.” For the play-within-a-play, Davis’ character Starveling is the personification of moonlight, which means he carries all the trappings of the idealized Elizabethan man-in-the-moon: a bundle of thornbush sticks, a lantern and, of course, the dog.
“The dog looks perfect for us. The rude mechanicals, they’re a bunch of disheveled guys, they don’t know what they’re doing,” Davis says. “They’re terrible actors, they’re commoners and they just don’t know anything, and this dog is perfect.”
ETC isn’t the only group collaborating with Muse of Fire. As Hunter noted in an e-mail to Birmingham Weekly, “We’re so full of collaborator angles it’s a damn polygon up in here.” (She then apologized for her “really awful” joke). Notinee, a local Indian dance group, will play a role in Dream, as will poet Shariff Simmons and Birmingham Salsa DJ Carlos Otalora. Even you can play a role in Hunter’s “Lush Indian fusion” production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream by dressing in saris or other traditional Indian garb (and get $5 off your $20 ticket for your effort).
Muse of Fire’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs May 1-2 at 7 p.m., with matinees May 2-3 at 2 p.m. at Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark. Extemporaneous Theatre Company will present its popular improv event, Project Codename: Vulcan’s Underpants, May 22-23 at Birmingham Festival Theatre at 8 p.m. For more information visit www.extemporaneoustheatre.com or www.shakespeareatsloss.com.