If there is one thing William Stanford Davis has learned in the 15 years he’s been directing theater, it’s “that in order to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs.”
In other words, he says, over the years he’s learned how to be a leader, how to get the best out of actors and how not to worry about being friends with actors he’s directing, even those who are actually his friends.
“I’ve been fortunate to work with friends,” says Davis, who likes to be called Stan. “Sometimes as a director you have to make that go away. You are the leader. You have to encourage, but be firm. You can’t worry about being friends. You can be friends later. You have to trust it’s going to all turn out right.”
If he has any doubts that the show will be a success, they must be tucked under the black fedora he’s donning. It tops off his jeans and his casual bluish gray baroque shirt.
Sitting on a card chair in an upstairs rehearsal room at Pico Playhouse, Davis, who is stoked about the show, occasionally removes his fedora to wipe the beads of sweat that have gathered on his bald head and those wet escapees that have rolled down his cheek.
“This is what happens when I’m all in,” says Davis. “I sweat all the time. But, it’s a good sweat.”
Davis is in full director’s mode right now, excusing himself and running downstairs to the stage — one, two, even three times to confab with the crew about the set, the lighting and the placement of a sofa.
“It doesn’t end,” says Davis with a smile that signifies he’s not complaining, but rather loving every minute of it. “I’m making some adjustments to see if they work.”
‘”Old settler” is a phrase that was used in 1943 Harlem (where the play is set), which referred to women who have reached the age of 30 without getting married and with no suitor in sight.
The show is about two sisters who share an apartment. Quilly, the younger of the two, is a woman who is quite sociable. She’s not considered an “old settler” because she was once married — unlike her 55-year-old never-married sister Elizabeth, who is an “old settler.”
The sisters’ lives are turned upside down after Elizabeth, in a move to help pay the rent, takes in a 29-year-old boarder named Husband, who has just traveled from the south in search of his childhood sweetheart Lou Bessie. He hopes to take her back home.
Things get even more complicated when Elizabeth and Husband start to develop feelings for one another.
Initially, The Old Settler was given a workshop at the 1995 National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. It was seen there by the Russian Theatre Union, and in 1996, the play was produced in Sheleykovo, Russia, followed by a run in Moscow. In 1997, the play had its first American production at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, a co-production with New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn, to which it immediately moved. Pasadena Playhouse produced it in 1998 and International City Theatre in Long Beach revived it in 2011.
In 2001, a TV version on PBS featured real-life sisters Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad.
This is the second time Davis, 62, has courted The Old Settler. He had a relationship with the show back in 2009 when he workshopped it for Camelot Artists (now Skylight Theatre Company) at the Beverly Hills Playhouse.
Everybody is back who did the 2009 workshop. The only difference, said Davis, is that Crystal Garrett, who understudied in the previous show, is now playing Lou Bessie. The remaining cast members include Ruby Hinds (Elizabeth), Jolie Oliver (Quilly) and John Roderick Davidson (Husband). Oliver is also the executive producer.
Davis has a simple reason for re-visiting the show. He likes it. He read the play years ago, but didn’t read it again fully until 2009. That’s when he says he understood the breadth “and scope of the play.”
“When I really read it, I heard the humor and the pathos,” says Davis, who hails from St. Louis, Missouri. “I heard the voices. I really like Redwood’s writing.”
John Henry Redwood was an actor best known for his roles in the plays of August Wilson, and a playwright who also wrote No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs; Mark VIII: xxxvi; A Sunbeam;, Acted Within Proper Departmental Procedure and several one-acts. He died in 2003 in Philadelphia.
Davis feels a connection with the show.
“It’s our story,” says Davis, who graduated from Lincoln University in Missouri, where he studied radio, television and film. “It’s an American story. In The Help and The Butler they talk about how these people, these domestic people, had to be invisible. In this show, these domestic ladies are very vocal. Quilly sounds like my aunt who was nosey. These people are people I know. I fell in love with the writing.”
Alan Naggar, one of the play’s producers, also got involved because of The Old Settler’s story. Naggar is the president of InterACT Theatre Company. He is also the recipient of an LA Weekly award for best revival for August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and a 2007 Ovation award for best production of a play in an intimate theater for Wilson’s Jitney, both produced under the banner of his By the Skin of Our Teeth Productions company. The Old Settler is presented by JVO Productions and By the Skin of Our Teeth Productions in association with InterACT Theatre Company.
“This story is poignant and the show is fun,” says Naggar, who is also an actor who has appeared in films, television and theatrical productions. “All the characters are fleshed out. You really get a sense of the difficulty these women go through. Not only in their relationships together, but socially, being alone, being single, being single and black, being single and black in New York. You get a sense of the city and the times.”
Oliver brought Naggar on-board as a producer because, she says, she was impressed with his credentials.
“What I liked about him is he knew theater, he had a theater company, he had the kind of smarts I was looking for and a personality I do not have with respect to budgeting and how to say no,” says Oliver. “I picked up all of that in our initial conversation. I was impressed with him and who he had worked with.”
Oliver was equally impressed with Davis.
“Stan directed our workshop,” says Oliver, who has executive produced several short films and a standup comedy show called Who Let The White Guy In?. “Getting Stan was a blessing and a grace. He knows what he wants. He has such a feel for everything. He’s certain about what the house needs to look like, what the characters should have in their home, what they should be wearing, the music that should be playing. He makes it true to life. He understands it, which is so wonderful. He is doing a great job.”
Although he has virtually the same cast, Davis said there are many changes to the show.
“Everything changes in the sense that it’s a brand-new show,” he says. “We’ll hear the voices again for the first time. The set is a thousand times different. We workshopped it so we had a basic set and minimal props. This show is constantly changing and evolving. I’m trying to make it a better play. I encourage the actors and I encourage myself to see things we haven’t seen before. With this set and this lighting, it looks like a brand-new play. But with that comes a whole new set of problems.”
While he has a whole new set of problems, Davis agrees the message of the play hasn’t changed. It’s still about love, family, betrayal, loss, grief and more.
“It’s all that,” he says. “I encourage all the actors to let everything go that they did before in the other show. Whether they got a laugh or received a desired response from the audience, I want them to let it go and do something new because this is essentially a new show.” But he acknowledges that it can be difficult to start from scratch and not rely on techniques that worked in an earlier production.
A Leg Up
If anyone understands the acting process, Davis does. He also understands actors. That’s because he’s one of them.
He has more than 70 television and film credits. His most recent role is as Potato Pie on the new Showtime series, Ray Donovan, starring Liev Schreiber.
His other television credits, too many to fully mention, include CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, Showtime’s Shameless, Fox’s The Finder. He was part of the cast of Rasheen Crawley’s The Movement.
His most recent stage performance was in Cages at the Matrix Theatre. He received an Ovation nomination for best featured actor in a play in a 2006 production of August Wilson’s Fences, in which he played Bono. He also appeared in North on South Central (which won five NAACP Theater Awards in 2004), The Anteroom, Legacies Two Ships Passing and more.
A lifetime member of the Actors Studio, some of his directing credits include Laurence Fishburne’s play Riff Raff and a production of Shame at the Elephant Asylum Theatre.
His colleague and fellow Actors Studio member, Charlie Robinson, who appeared in the same production of Fences at the Odyssey Theatre in 2006, admires Davis’ talent.
“We developed Fences out of the Actors Studio,” says Robinson, who will open next week as Willy Loman in the South Coast Repertory production of Death of A Salesman. “We know each other very well. Yeah, Stan and I talk a lot. He told me about The Old Settler. I’m sure he’s doing a good job. He did a wonderful job in Fences.”
“I love acting,” says Davis. “The challenge for me as an actor is to make it new every night. I’m always in my head asking, ‘What is my intention?’ I do that while continuing to explore why am I here in this moment. What makes it different? It’s tough, but I think it happens every night, but in different places.”
Davis, who has been married for eight years to his wife, Laura Pallas, says theater is, without a doubt, one of his loves — and that his wife, who is a singer, understands.
“Theater lets me breathe and lets me be the person I am,” explains Davis. “I’m the freest on the set or on the stage. The real Stan is the man doing the work.”
Davis is nothing if not direct. Asked who makes the best directors, he speaks his mind.
“Directors who have been actors make better directors,” says Davis. “I think a director should be able to see it from an actor’s POV [point of view]. Actors are very fragile. They seek love. A director who understands that can get the best out of them. Only a director who has been an actor can do that. Clint Eastwood has a different POV. It’s about seeing everything.”
In developing his directing style Davis says he has “taken something from every director I’ve worked with.” He describes his style as loose and light.
“My style is easy,” says Davis. “I like to keep it fun. I don’t like to micro-direct. I like the actor to come in and show me. I do my homework. I like the actor to do theirs. We read the script maybe 50 times before we get on stage. If we’re not having fun, why are we doing it? My style is let’s have some fun.”
Naggar says as soon as he met Davis, he knew he was the one for the job.
“I met Stan and was impressed with Stan,” says Naggar, a newlywed who, last June, married Michele Rose Naggar, who is also the show’s associate producer. “When I talk to somebody about a project, I want to hear their passion about the project. I want them to be invested in the project. I met Stan and we had similar ideas about what the piece meant. Putting a show together is all about the team. It doesn’t mean we don’t disagree. Theater in general is a passion project. In a 99-seat theater, it’s only worth putting in time if you’re going to feel proud about the product when you’re done.”
Stan the Man
Davis has had a diverse and, he says, fulfilling career. After graduating from college, he moved to Dallas to become his own man. From there he made his way to Los Angeles, 30 years ago.
In his younger days, before he found his true calling, Davis was a deejay and was also the lead singer of the R&B group, The Paramounts. Asked if he could still sing, he replies, “I can carry a note from here to Pico.” Comedy was yet another venture. For several years Davis worked at comedy clubs across the country.
Out of everything he’s done, he maintains that theater won his heart.
“I like it, I just like it,” he says. “You get to do it over again. Last night didn’t count. Even if it’s the best night, it’s over. You get to do it over again. It’s the immediate gratification of it all. The biggest rush I ever had was when I came out for a curtain call. I played a villain and they booed me. It was great. I loved it. I came off stage and a guy leaned over to me and said, “It’s better than sex, ain’t it Stan? I said, ‘Yes it is, yes it is.’”
The Old Settler, Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd. Cheviot Hills. Opens Sunday. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm, through Oct. 27. Tickets: $32. www.theoldsettler.com or www.plays411.net/oldsettler. 323-960-7712.
**All The Old Settler production photos by Ed Krieger.