Heidi Helen Davis, a director known for her work in Los Angeles at the Theatricum Botanicum, East West Players, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Moving Arts and the Mark Taper Forum, died on December 15 at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, after a yearlong struggle with breast cancer. Her son and ex-husband were by her side. She was 60.
Davis began her career as an actress at the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in San Francisco, where she appeared in several productions including Peer Gynt, Heartbreak House and The Little Foxes. She played Isabella in Measure for Measure at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria and Solvang, California in 1980.
She also taught acting and directing over the years at many schools, most recently at the Howard Fine Studio and the Los Angeles Film School. Davis worked as the acting coach on the Showtime mini-series Fidel in 2000, and on the feature film Memoirs of a Geisha in 2003.
Born in 1951 in Wichita, Kansas, the second of four children of Robert A. and Nana Tomita Davis, she grew up in Palo Alto. She trained with Phillip Pruneau of the Poverty Players and at ACT under the direction of Bill Ball and Allen Fletcher. In 1984 she married cinematographer Lloyd Freidus. They had one son, Benjamin, and were divorced in 1991. At the time of her death, she was directing a class production of Loose Ends at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, where she had taught for the past three years.
Since 1988 she had staged more than 20 plays at Theatricum Botanicum. “She had a way of working with actors that allowed risk and complete exploration guided by instinct,” said Ellen Geer, the Theatricum’s artistic director. “A rare gift for a director.”
Geer had noticed Davis’ 1987 staging of Robert Schenkkan’s Tachinoki, about Japanese internment camps, in an Ensemble Studio Theatre production at what is now the MET Theatre. Davis was herself the daughter of a Nisei, or second generation Japanese-American, who was interned at Hunt, Ida. Geer remembers Davis’ “remarkable direction. I asked to meet her and she was my compatriot in art from then on.” Memorable productions at Theatricum included her adaptation of The Cherry Orchard set in Virginia in the 1970s, Our Town and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Davis lived in Topanga, not far from the Theatricum Botanicum, for 15 years.
Davis staged the premiere of EM Lewis’ Song of Extinction in a Moving Arts production at [Inside] the Ford in L.A. in 2008. Last year she directed and championed the UK premiere — a Rio Hondo College production at Venue 13 for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The play revolves around a teenage son coming to grips with his mother dying of cancer.
Reached by email this week, Lewis responded, “I have found myself entirely unprepared for losing Heidi, too young and at the height of her powers, to cancer — despite the fact that I met her when she directed my play about a woman character who was losing that same fight. Heidi came to the project with every bit of love, strength and determination she had in her — which was a lot. She demanded truth and grace from all of us, and I believe we made a small, beautiful thing up there on that stage together. It is difficult for me not to imagine her now, just for a moment, as Lily, in the Dream Bolivia we created, filled with love and worry for her family, but moving on, finally, bravely, to that undiscovered country beyond. I hope she did see flowers in the most unexpected places.”
James Pasternak, a colleague at the Los Angeles Film School, where Davis taught from 2001 to 2010, said she “taught film directors how to direct actors. Her mastery was immediately recognized, and she was given her own studio at the school. She was fearless in her quest for dramatic truth. She had an uncanny diagnostic talent, derived from her own successful directing, that helped other directors find a unique vision of their movie, and a way to collaborate with the actors and crew to realize that vision. She had a fierce intelligence, moral strength, tough love mothering, a quick laugh, a teasing manner, and a big heart. The whole school is in mourning.”
Davis is survived by her son, Benjamin Lyon Freidus, 22, her parents and three siblings.
In lieu of flowers, Davis requested that donations be sent to Theatricum Botanicum. It was her wish that the funds be dedicated to mentoring the next generation of theater artists. As a person of mixed race, she strongly endorsed the Theatricum’s mission to expose diverse audiences to the great works. Donations may be sent to the Heidi Helen Davis Intern Fund at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, P.O. Box 1222, Topanga, CA 90290.
A public memorial at Theatricum Botanicum, which had been her artistic home for 26 years, is planned for next spring.
For more on Heidi Helen Davis, read this LA STAGE Times interview from last July 26, on the occasion of her staging of Rose Cottages at Theatricum Botanicum.