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‘Ooh, my eye’: Actor Giles Davies explores the written word

Bill DeYoung

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"My job," Giles Davies says, "is to fall in love with what I’m doing. If I don’t love what I’m doing, the audience can’t love it in return." Photo by Bill DeYoung.

With Georgia Mallory Guy in “Constellations.” Pritchard Photography.

Tall, rail-thin and angular, with dark eyes deep-set behind a hawkish nose and ears like Curious George, Giles Davies may be the most recognizable actor in Tampa Bay.

Yet he completely disappears into every character he plays.

In Constellations, Nick Payne’s drama onstage now at Jobsite Theater, Davies and Georgia Mallory Guy are a couple trapped in an endless loop of what-ifs, key scenes from their life together played out over and over again in one parallel universe after another. His Roland is mild-mannered and tender … most of the time.

“The Tempest” (with Roxanne Fay).

Ah, but Davies’ thespian heart belongs to Shakespeare. As Iago in Jobsite’s January take on Othello, he was all serpentine villainy; before that, he’d given Caliban, the half-human island creature in The Tempest, a musky, animalistic dignity.

At freeFall, he transformed Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a slithering shaman; Broadway World called his Malvolio in Jobsite’s Twelfth Night “one of the area’s most memorable star turns of recent years … an eye-popping, slam dunk of a performance.”

Not long after that, in the Caryl Churchill satire Cloud Nine, he played a boorish officer in British Colonial Africa in the first act, and a hyperactive little girl in the second.

Davies calls it “the freedom to be someone else. Part of my joy in playing different characters is to find other mannerisms, find other vocal quirks. Or thinking ‘That’s something I’ve never done with my body before!’”

All he characters, their quirks included, live inside him. ‘It’s not that I don’t, it’s just that I’ve chosen not to do those other things, because Giles doesn’t do those other things. Until of course I’m onstage and I can find those other choices.

“Cloud Nine”

“Which is why non-human characters are something I’ve returned to, and excelled at, and really loved to do. Then, the only limit is the imagination and the physical capability. ‘I can see something in my imagination; can my body pull off this particular maneuver?’”

Although Davies resides in Tampa, he still spends part of each year in Ohio, where he performs with the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, the group he joined (in its infancy) in the 1990s.

Among his personal favorites, both done in the Midwest: John Merrick in The Elephant Man, and every character in Frankenstein (“you embody the doctor as well as the monster,” he recalls with obvious glee).

“I love a good challenge,” Davies declares. “Because the higher the challenge, the greater the output. My work is better when it’s challenging to me.

“I’m an actor who makes my life as difficult as possible onstage. Never go for the easy out – go for the out that’s going to make for something spectacular.”

He was born 48 years ago in Hong Kong, when it was still part of colonial Great Britain. His Welsh father and English mum were schoolteachers who divorced when Giles was less than a year old.

He was 5, he says, when his bossy older sister “volunteered” him for a small part in her class’ after-school speech and drama club. He played a one-eyed cat. “I don’t remember the name of the play,” he laughs, “but one of my lines was ‘ooh, my eye, my eye.’”

Davies’ mother was active in the local community theater. “I grew up watching her onstage,” he remembers. “Hanging out in green rooms, doing my homework. Or I’d get taken to rehearsal and told to sit in the corner.”

Mum met her second husband, an American civil engineer, during a production. “There’s no English-speaking professional theater in Hong Kong, so for anybody who wanted to do it, community theater was the highest level,” Davis reports. “So there was a good amount of money, and a good amount of talent.”

The newly-created family relocated to Indianapolis when Giles was 14. He fell in love, he says, with the written word, with reading, speaking, elocution and delivery. Although he got involved in high school theater, just “doing plays” in the traditional sense didn’t appeal to him that much.

At his parents’ insistence, Davies enrolled at Ball State University, in Muncie, and to everyone’s surprise (especially his) earned a degree in history. This coincided with his punk rock, smart-ass rebel period, during which he sang in a band and wondered – well, a little – what to do with his life.

“Othello” (with Robert Richards Jr.)

Theater, of course, was always a possibility. “It was really the only thing I’d ever done,” he says. “But it was really about the doing of it, not the pursuit of it. Which freed me from any desire either to climb a professional ladder, or to get famous.” The idea was to “create an easy life that would allow me to do theater, as opposed to moving to New York or L.A.”

After five nomadic years, seeing the world and supporting himself through one-man shows and readings on beaches and streetcorners, in bars and student hostels, he found himself at Ohio State University, enrolled in a new theater program designed to foster and develop original work. As an MFA student, he also learned about the parts of stagecraft with which he was unfamiliar.

Next came the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival and total immersion into the world of the playwright’s playwright.

“I really love doing modern plays as well,” Davies says. “I just love doing theater in all its manifestations. Whether it be solo work, or poetry readings … give me a novel, and I’ll read it to you. It’s just the performance of the written word. That is it for me. Characters are fun, acting is fun, but the performance of the written word. So I’m not an improv actor.”

After nine years with Cinci Shakes, and weary of the brutal Midwestern winters, Davies once again went walkabout. It was 2007 when he stopped in Florida, with a climate that reminded him, in a sweetly nostalgic way, of Hong Kong.

He got the first job he auditioned for, with the now-defunct Gorilla Theatre, and has since performed on just about every professional stage in the bay area. The old “big fish in a small town” thing has never entered his mind – he isn’t ambitious, in the usual sense, so he’s happy simply to work where he lives (“I just want to do theater”), go back to Cincinnati every so often, whatever it takes to stay challenged. “There’s not a lot of money,” Davies says. “But I’m good at living cheaply. I’ve had a lot of experience doing it now.”

As “Richard III” (another favorite role) with Cinci Shakes.

Jobsite reminds him of the earnest, early days of Cinci Shakes. “In that it’s run by dedicated theater practitioners who are young-ish and interested in more the art of it, less the success of it.”

In other words, the audience follows what the theater does, as opposed to the theater catering to those who write the checks.

“It’s more about ‘How can we do shows and plays and art that serve the community? Whether the community will like it or not, it will be good for them to do it. ‘Ah, this is a good play for people to see.’ And that’s the reason for people to see those plays.”

Davies and Guy are the only actors in Constellations – a daunting task, compounded by the fact that the dialogue and scenes virtually loop and repeat, sometimes minimally, sometimes in total overhaul, over the course of 85 minutes.

In the shows’ plural, parallel universes, the characters’ interactions – both verbal and physical – can and do spin off in many different directions.

For an actor, Davies laughs, all that “where are we now?” can be a tad scary. During tech week, “we got to the last scene. We’re tying it up, good, good, we’ve done this. And then … we couldn’t get out of the scene. It just kept going round and round in circles …  two or three words are what makes it take off in another direction. And if you don’t get those two or three words …”

Once they got themselves out of that particular black hole, Constellations went astronomical. It’s a majestic tour de force for both actors, and it sold out its opening weekend. Tickets are available here.

“I trust Giles completely with our 85 minutes on stage,” says Guy, who’s making her fourth career appearance with Jobsite. “We give each other a squeeze each night before heading onstage, and a high five at the end of the play.

“It’s easy to be comfortable in a performance atmosphere, even with the most difficult material, when you have someone who’s got your back every moment, and you know they have the same trust in you.”

Together they’re “a mixed doubles tennis team,” she suggests.

“I’ve had a blessed career, and the privilege of doing an amazing amount of theater,” says Davies. “So to find something that scares me is healthy and good.”

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