Former EDSS teacher Gord Davis is about to retire for the second time, this time from The Singer’s Theatre in Kitchener.
Davis is credited with starting the drama program at the school in 1971, though that was not originally his intention.
“I had a double major in math and English, so Merv Duke, who was the principal at the time, hired me because of that combination,” Davis said
“When they decided to start a theatre program, there was another teacher who wanted to do it. But Mr. Duke called me into the office, and he said, ‘I want you to teach this.’ And I always say that he saw something in me that I didn’t even know was there. I had helped out in the drama club up until that point doing some stuff – I directed a couple of shows and that kind of thing. He had confidence in me and I started the program,” Davis explained.
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Following his retirement from teaching in 2001, Davis went on to direct productions with theatre companies across Waterloo Region, including every summer at The Singer’s Theatre as their resident director. Amanda Brunk, who founded the group in 2002, explained why Davis was a good fit as director.
“I got to do a show with Gord with him directing and I loved how he worked. I loved how he used everybody. He used the strengths of all the actors so impeccably, and so I had a really good experience with him there. So when I was thinking about who I wanted to direct this program, I knew because it was going to be high school students and I knew that he had so much experience teaching high school theatre,” Brunk explained.
The Singer’s Theatre does a “senior intensive” and a “junior intensive” every year. After April auditions, the cast and crew perform a full-fledged production after two weeks of preparations, something Davis was unsure about when Brunk first asked him to join.
“I thought, ‘are you kidding? Two weeks for a full production?’ So once we started, it kept growing,” he said.
Since those humble beginnings, the theatre has done performances of a wide variety of productions, including well-known musicals such as Rent, A Tale of Two Cities and Les Misérables. Davis showed a lot of pride in his work at the theatre, Brunk said.
“He would always help load the set on and off the truck and up and down stairs onto the stage and he was always there. Directors aren’t expected to do that stuff, ever. Gord was always there. Partly because he probably wanted it to be done the way he wanted it, but he was always helping in any way possible,” she said.
Davis would also push the cast to do better, asking a little bit more of everyone involved than they thought they were capable of, Brunk said
“He believed that there was more inside of every person. He really, truly believed there was more. He asked a lot of everybody, and sometimes that was intense, but what happened is that he got such incredible results. He got such beautiful art from these kids who maybe didn’t know they had it in them,” she said.
Former cast member Ella Latta Suazo, who was in six productions at The Singer’s Theatre, said although Davis had high expectations, they were well-founded.
“He knew what we were capable of, and that level of trust that he had in us and respect for our abilities really made me feel like he was treating us as professionals rather than like we’re just doing this community theatre, which can sometimes be seen as less professional. He really pushed us to learn and to grow and to really improve [despite] the short two-week time period,” Latta Suazo said.
According to Latta Suazo, Davis made an effort to have every cast member involved throughout the show, no matter how big or small the role.
“I felt very included in the storytelling because of Gord’s directing philosophy around keeping people on stage even if they’re not saying lines, which I know is a bit unconventional. That way he has the cast on stage for most of the show, and having them reacting to what’s going on and helping him tell the story with their body language and with their presence,” she said.
“A lot of directors will say the common expression is that there are no small roles, only small actors, but he really embodies that belief,” Latta Suazo added.
While it is hard for Davis to choose a favourite production, he had many memorable moments throughout his directing career.
“What I enjoyed the most would be working with people to create a production that an audience can get lost in. I always used to talk to the cast members before they would go on… I would always tell them that their job was to take the audience away from their own life and immerse them in the life of what was happening on the stage. That they had to do that too – they had to forget about all the stuff that goes on in their own life and become these characters,” Davis explained.
Latta Suazo can see Davis’ legacy continuing in her current work with St. Jacobs Arts Abound, which is owned by Shelley Martin, a former student of Davis’.
“It’s very interesting because both of us have a bit of that Gord touch from having worked with him, and we really like it for our purposes of being a very inclusive space. We’ll block a scene, and we’ll be like, ‘Oh, that was a very Gord thing of us to do.’”
Although The Singer’s Theatre will go through a transition under its new director, Davis’ presence will still be felt, said Brunk.
“I think 20 years is a long time to sort of set some roots, and I can’t imagine that will stray too far from those roots because he set them so beautifully.”
While Davis had a “wonderful career,” he knew it was time to retire.
“When Merv Duke asked me to teach that drama program at the high school, he gave me the greatest gift I’ve ever had,” he said.
The Singers Theatre will host a gala on February 19 to celebrate their 20th anniversary and Davis’ time as director. Former cast members are asked to submit their memories at www.thesingerstheatre.ca/gala.