Tuesday, July 16, 2024

After 70 productions, Thalian Association artistic director bows out

Chandler Davis will step down as TACT’s artistic director March 3. (Courtesy Thalian Association Community Theatre)

WILMINGTON — After seven years leading the helm artistically for Thalian Association Community Theater, Chandler Davis announced her departure earlier this week.

Her last day will be March 3. Davis told Port City Daily the timing felt right.

READ MORE: ‘The Prom,’ ‘SpongeBob the Musical’ among 7 premieres coming from local theater companies

“It’s also good for artistic leadership in most organizations to rotate,” Davis said.

During her reign, she produced 40 performances for adult theater and 33 youth shows — mostly musicals.

“Since Chan joined TACT, we have been called ‘community theatre on steroids,’” Thalian’s executive director Susan Habas said. “She put her heart into everything and it showed onstage. We are very fortunate to have the legacy and foundation that Chandler built to move forward.” 

It was the first theater company Davis auditioned for after arriving in town roughly a decade ago. The Emory and Henry College graduate had worked in various jobs in the arts, from being a cowgirl at Tweetsie Railroad for three years to a stage manager and performer with Roanoke Children’s Theatre in Virginia.

Her move to Wilmington came with the stage manager position of the now-defunct City Stage Co. In 2016, Davis began working at TACT. 

Throughout her tenure, she has been recognized through 2015’s Women to Watch in Wilma magazine and StarNews’ 40 Under 40 in 2020.

Davis also received numerous awards while at TACT, including former arts magazine encore’s Readers’ Choice for Best Theatre Company 2017 through 2020, and for Best Production for “Young Frankenstein” in 2018. The musical ranks as the most stressful Davis has worked on during her time at TACT.

“It was an excellent show but with lots of moving parts and I hadn’t quite found my voice as a leader yet,” she said.

Over time, she said she began taking to heart three main points to help guide her as a director — one being, take care of yourself in order to take care of others.

“I quickly learned that my priority was to make people feel welcome, at ease, and valued,” Davis said. “A lot of us were raised with the mentality that you have to show up and give 100% at every rehearsal unless you’re bleeding out. Well, that’s not always possible. People have lives. They run late, their kids get sick, they have a bad day. You have to have grace. You have to respect people’s time. You have to understand that there are more important things in life than theatre (gasp).”

This led to another high priority: Don’t treat people only like useful commodities. “They are real humans who exist outside of the job I need them to do or the role I want them to play,” Davis said.

She also homed in on advice that others don’t have to fail for her to succeed. The growth paid off in creating a fun atmosphere but also was recognized in the quality of the show. Thus, more accolades rolled in.

StarNews’ Wilmington Theatre Awards recognized Davis work in 2017 for Best Musical for “Rock of Ages” and Best Children’s Theatre Production for “Hairspray” (2017) and “Godspell” (2019). She scored Best Director at the 2019 awards for the musical “The Bridges Of Madison County.” The production is a standout particularly due to its collaborative success.

“I felt like the entire production team was on the same page and I was really pleased with the final product,” Davis said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better cast.”

“Something Rotten,” which Thalian produced last fall, was one of the more fun projects, Davis indicated: “Every moment felt very joyous.” It also hit all the marks technically, a fundamental aspect to pulling off productions audiences can connect with.

“I really enjoy working with Joshua Zieseniss as a lighting designer and Ben Fancy as a scenic designer,” she said. “I feel like our brains are all on the same page.”

Habas said Davis also went the extra mile to learn and grow in the position, well beyond curating a roster of up to a dozen shows every season, finding directors and casting roles.

“When we decided to build our own sets, she took a construction class at CFCC and started building herself!” Habas said.

“While TACT is a community theater, it’s a community theater operating on a very large scale,” Davis said, so learning to hang and focus lights, fly rigs and, yes, even build sets felt necessary.

Habas said she ensured newcomers always were represented in every production and remained staunch to TACT’s mission of being inclusive and accepting. This meant avoiding typecasting, giving roles to more people of color, not pigeonholing someone’s size or features, and always being open to gender fluidity.

“I absolutely abhor the idea of casting a ‘type,'” Davis said. “I hope that as the theatre companies grow in Wilmington, they continue to become more open-minded and inclusive.”

She also streamlined the casting process for the association through an appointment system. Habas said it helped everyone get the most out of their time, especially auditioners who weren’t left waiting hours on end.

Habas praised Davis as a great communicator, especially in how she ensured all actors felt seen and heard.

“She gives everyone a pep talk and makes sure they know we are always excited to see fresh faces,” Habas said. “Chandler notifies everyone who auditioned if they were cast or not, and gives daily rehearsal and production reports.”

Davis oversaw seven premieres during her position, including one of the trickiest she had to endure to date: “Mister Roberts.” Based on the 1946 novel, it became a Broadway play in 1948 and film in 1955, which takes place during the final days of World War II. Davis staged it on the USS Battleship — the first ever to be produced on the fantail — in scorching temperatures for its July 4th debut in 2017.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, “Elf” remains one of the easiest, Davis said, scaled by TACT three times now. “It’s a big show, but I love the holidays and everyone was in such a good mood,” she said. “I’d do that show 100 more times.” 

The thirtysomething isn’t sure what lies ahead — aside from hiking during her upcoming downtime. She will be staying in town, she assured.

“It sounds like a greeting card, but everyday with Chandler was a success,” added Habas, who has worked with three artistic directors and one youth director since starting with TACT in 2011.

The search will begin this month for Davis’ replacement, with the posting listed on local, state, and national arts sites. Habas said they’re looking for someone with experience in youth theater, arts education and technical production experience; the person also must have strong people skills to work with diverse ages and populations. The goal is to have a new director in place by summer.

Davis will continue consulting on all productions through the end of 2023 as the new assistant director transitions into the role. She also will direct the 2024 production of “Beauty and the Beast.”

“I am not the best director in town, but I do believe in encouraging artists and I know it’s possible to put on a stellar show while remaining kind,” she said. “I’ve learned when to believe in and assert myself, and when to listen and know I’m not the smartest person in the room. … I also acknowledge that I have a lot of learning and growing to do.”

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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