Will Davis is no stranger to making history. Less than 10 years ago, Davis became the first transgender person to lead a major nonprofit institution without a defined LGBTQ mission when he stepped in as artistic director of Chicago’s American Theater Center in 2016. Now he’s the first-ever trans leader of an Off-Broadway theater, the esteemed Rattlestick Theater. Davis started his new job in May, after its longtime artistic director Daniella Topol stepped down to become a nurse.
As a director, Davis has mounted productions at New York City Center, Manhattan Theater Club, Roundabout Theatre Company, Soho Rep, and also teaches directing at one of the nation’s most prestigious theater arts schools, Carnegie Mellon University.
The only thing more impressive than the resume of this daring Off-Broadway darling is his values. Rattlestick is a beloved Off Broadway incubator for boundary pushing new works, like Arturo Luís Soria’s Ni Mi Madre (which won an Obie Award) or Martyna Majok’s Ironbound.
Rattlestick and Davis have a lot in common. The company’s impressive history, and commitment to serving its community, is what excited Davis when their courting began: “Rattlestick in particular has this incredible combination as an artistic entity—it has this legacy of making really really groundbreaking innovative subversive new work—and then the engine inside of that, it has this service engine, it’s totally community oriented.
“The very ethics of this company are about making work by and for the community. And so, it felt like: that’s a spot for me. Because that combines the two things I’m interested in: artistic excellence and service to the field.”
While Rattlestick’s 2023-24 season is locked in per the programming of former artistic director Daniella Topol, Davis is eager to begin leading the less-than-100 seat theater (with renovations planned for the near future) into success.
“I am in this really lucky moment where I’m in the kitchen, you know, I’m collecting ingredients. I’m figuring out what we’re gonna make and I have time, I have time before, we actually have to cook. So, what I’m doing [in the meantime] is, I’m building partnerships with organizations and artists who are similarly interested. I’m offering resources and space and access, and just a platform generally to queer and trans communities.” In terms of programming, this means Rattlestick’s new work development footprint, as well as later productions.
When it’s finally time to cook, Davis has a commitment to “joy forward” spaces, including and especially behind the table. “As a director, part of my responsibility is not just what’s on stage, but who’s doing the world building? Making sure that care is authentically going both ways. That people’s experiences, and needs, and what harm can look like is legible to everybody.”
A “stone throw’s from Stonewall,” Davis is also seeking to cement Rattlestick as a beacon for LGBTQ representation. He wants queer and trans artists at Rattlestick, and everywhere to “be on stage in work that isn’t topically about our identities … I often feel like I see my community on stage when it’s like a topical-trans-trauma narrative. It’s very important to me as a trans person in in this curating position not to feed that to an audience. I’m very, very interested in showcasing the fullness of who we are.”
A necessary role model for LGBTQ theatremakers, Davis has one final message to those looking to break in: “Do not wait for an invitation.”
This piece was originally published via Playbill.com on June 26, 2023.