Actor Makes Human Connection

The Capital Times – By Kevin Lynch, June 23, 1994

Waterloo—Jinx Davis acts with invisible people.  She acts with a phone and nothing else.  Or she acts with her whole world, by imaginatively reaching out and pulling in her life’s experiences and her patrons, in one swoop.

It’s a mode of theater that can be as focused and personal as it is expansive and inclusive.  It can be highly stylized and gut-wrenchingly gritty.

The Mode Theater is Jinx Davis, in a sense.  But it’s becoming considerably more, because of how her style and concept are developing in the second season of performance and visual art events.

Her wide-ranging current show, “The Faces Behind The Face,” includes a brief one-woman play by Jean Cocteau that could literally be phoned in, but artistic director Davis direct-dials “The Human Voice” straight into the hearts of her audience.

This helps to prime them to interact with her in semi-improvised routines after a first-half of written material.  This interaction is about bringing you right into a woman’s life, because as Davis declares to her audience, “This is my life!”  It’s as if she makes no distinction between “real life” and performance.  Sure, she sounds a bit like the obsessive-compulsive actor who’s always “on.”

And with a breathless whoosh of New Age rhetoric, the Mode Theatre brochure defines it as “Space to Rehearse the Art & Science of Mutual Transformation.”

What places her squarely within the modern acting tradition was her performance of Cocteau’s “The Human Voice,” an experimental play from 1930.

This work aimed to distill theater to its essence.  It’s about how the end of a relationship is conducted strictly via the human voice.  A woman is desperate; a telephone connection is a lifeline keeping her from drowning in emotional oblivion.

The man is trying to make a final break over the phone.  But her feelings are naked in her voice.  Several times he hangs up and then calls her back, in fits of guilt.  Each ring of the phone jolts the woman with hope, then toys with her sense of despair.

Finally she crumbles to her knees, clutching the receiver.  But her words come out—“I’m fine”—like those of a woman fingering a suicide knife with a sudden, inexplicable calm.

Yet as important as this actor’s artistry is to the Mode, so is the idea of an egalitarian community connection.

Though the theater is attracting audiences from Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago, Davis is proud that last year she attracted 500 of Waterloo’s 2,000 residents to her show.

That was “The Art of Ruth Draper,” a series of vignettes in the style of her career model, Ruth Draper, who innovated a modern dramatic monologue style for an actor’s own material.  Draper also blended florid classical acting technique with a spare and focused modernist style.

Perhaps the signature segment of the new Davis show is a sequence of new characters based on people she encountered during a recent trip to France: a doddering crone, a tourist from New Jersey, a Sunday afternoon painter at the Notre Dame.

As she transforms from one to the next, a new audience member or two is recruited to carry the moment along.  Most respond in a natural way, not as people suddenly forced to become actors.  This seems to occur because the actor seems to genuinely prompt human interaction.

Then she announces that she will do something in memorial to a close friend.  She quickly becomes a street person, a character developed by Madison performance artist Lois Nowicki.  What ensues is stunning and powerful, partly because Nowicki died a few months ago after a difficult life dedicated to her unconventional art.  Nowicki was a local pioneer in performance art, and an inspiration to Davis and many other area actors.

And otherwise, Davis’ background is unusual.  Her most important influence includes her parents, who were professors of children’s literature and film literature.  She was also shaped by the “great black voices of the 1960s,” from poet Gwendolyn Brooks to the street poets of the watts riots, she says.  So Davis developed a strong sense of America’s oral traditions.

For years, Davis traveled around the country as a storyteller, performing at 500 schools and 70 colleges.

“Storytelling is wonderful as it is,” she says.  “But to my taste I finally needed more craft.”

So she returned to school and earned a master’s degree in performance through the University of Wisconsin-Madison Theater and Drama Department.  “Without having to define what I do, craft still has to be the basis of it.  I’m doing work that’s in the shaman’s experience of community, with a story to pass on, information and instructions to share.  Even going back to the Greeks, the essence of theater was always the actors and the audiences.”

She helped focus her concept of art-as-life while spending 1989 on the islands off the Carolinas with the homeless, among the Gullah people, whose ancestors were African slaves.  “I learned from these people their great gift for storytelling.”  “I choose material based solely on what I think I need to learn,” she says, “on what part of myself I need to claim.  So I pick material that’s uncomfortable for myself and my image.”

A work such as Cocteau shows her commitment to artistic truth and real life, even with her strong feminist bent.  “I know some women don’t like this piece,” she says.  “But if we can’t imagine ourselves that frail and vulnerable when we are in love, then we miss out on a basic part of the human experience.”


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January 8, 2015