At Waterloo Theater, School’s in Session

The Capital Times -By Anna Marie Lux, February 1994

Actress, Jinx Davis is screaming at the audience.  “You are young, stupid and you don’t know anything about life” A vein bulges in the temple of her flushed face.  She takes a deep breath. “You know nothing.  If you knew something you would not be here.” A man in the second row throws a paper airplane at her when she’s not looking. “Who did this?” Davis demands, “Who?” The man snickers.  “You sit there and laugh.  But I will shame you.  If I do not do it in this classroom, I will do it in the halls.”

On this night at the Mode Theater in sleepy Waterloo, the audience has become students in an American high school.  Davis is their seductive, disturbing teacher who slaps her authority around like a heavy ruler.

“Miss Jinx Teaches School,” written and performed by Jinx Davis and the audience, explores the dynamics of power and the pain of power misused. Before the show begins the 44-year old actress tells the audience that “the evening will go where you take it.” With that declaration, the traditional fourth wall of the theater, separating the actor from the audience disappears.

Davis plunges forward without a script, only an outline in her head, feeding off spontaneous, and unpredictable interaction with strangers.  She doesn’t know until intermission how she will wrap up the second half.  Audience members embrace their roles as students.  First they cooperate by raising hands to ask questions.  Then, they rebel against Davis with so much fervor that they threaten to walk out. Their defenses break down.  They forget where they are.  They spin out of control with sophomoric giggling and back talk.  Davis launches audience members into intermission by screaming at them to get out of her classroom.  Along the way, some people leave.

“This isn’t a pretty show.  It strikes the deepest chords of how we abuse each other in society,” Davis says a few days before her opening night performance. By her own admission, she calls the play “a bigger and bolder risk,” than anything that she has performed at the unusual theater since she and her partner, Andy Pizer, opened the doors 18 months ago.

But Davis embraces the challenge because she prefers acting, and living, completely on the edge.

From the street, the 1937 Mode Theater looks like nothing more than a movie house from the past, which it is.  But step inside. See how Pizer, who’s a contractor and Davis transformed the filthy building, which had no plumbing, inside walls, or electricity, since buying it five years ago. Downstairs is the 90-seat theater.  On surrounding walls, rotating artists hang evocative pieces throughout the season. Just off the theater is a small dining space.  Here Davis offers gourmet desserts, including chocolate chip cheesecake, at intermission. Davis, Pizer and their three children live upstairs. You’ll hang your coat just off the couple’s bedroom when you arrive.  Don’t be shy about looking around.  Davis prefers it that way.

“I want people to know who I am.  Sometimes after a show, audience members sit in our living room.  We choose to trust them…We believe that our vulnerability is our strength,” she says.

In the rural Jefferson County town of 2,700, Davis, who lived for many years in the inner city, often packs a full house.  People come from far and near. She’s produced 12 one-woman performances, many of them original, has had 12 art shows and has had 12,000 people visit her home and theater since opening.  “I think I’ve done some of the best theater in the country in this space,” she says, “We don’t advertise, we don’t have to.  People come because they are all hungry for art.  We talk to them.  They talk back to us.  This is their space.”

For many years, Davis worked as a storyteller and in traditional theater.  Later, she returned to school for a master’ degree in performance at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  “You can’t break the rules until you’ve learned them,” she says.

Five years ago, she and Pizer found the empty space at the Mode Theater.  In the aging building, Davis saw a theater and chances to do her own interactive pieces.  “I knew if I didn’t do this, I would be abandoning everything that was important to me.  We’ve done work her that is far too risky for other theaters,” she says.

Ruth Draper, the unrivaled queen of one-woman theater until her death in 1956, provided Davis with a model.  Davis performs Draper style drama every six months “to reground myself.”  Also influencing Davis were her professor parents, who often took her to Chicago as a child.  The first night, they’d attend an opera and eat fine food.  The second night, they’d sleep in a flophouse and dine at a soup kitchen.  “I learned that if you bow deeply to everyone, they are kings and queens,” Davis says.  The great black voices of the 1960’s, from poet Gwendolyn Brooks to the street poets f the Watt’s riots, profoundly moved her as well. Says Davis, who has gone to great lengths to integrate life and art: “People have always told me that I am too intense.”

Since opening night of “Miss Jinx Teaches School” on Feb. 10, Davis says the phone has being ringing off the hook.  Davis, clearly in her acting prime, says she not interested in preaching or teaching lessons.  Instead, she wants her work to engage and unite.  “We’re trying to build a community.  ‘We’ is everyone who comes into this theater.  Everyone co-creates with us.”

“We hope that the good energy that people find here will expand beyond these walls.”


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January 8, 2015