Saturday, 8 March 2014

Teddy Davies - Theatre director who changes lives

(Written in February 2012)

“Am I mad to suggest this?” The hesitant look in Teddy’s eyes and the manner in which he somewhat withdraws, reveal that he knows that he is now asking for the impossible. Yet, the fact that there is profound merit in his suggestion causes Tina to fleetingly consider it before she replies with a candid smile: “Yes, a little bit mad…..but go on, it helps!”

Cape Town based theatre director, Teddy Davies, is reviewing the set design for The Yeomen of the Guard, the Gilbert and Sullivan Society operetta which he will be bringing to the stage. With more than 30 years of experience as a theatre director mainly in amateur or community theatre and having directed productions such as Cabaret, Carmen, Annie Get your Gun, H.M.S. Pinafore and the musical Fiddler on the Roof, Teddy’s focus is now on the new challenge that lies ahead. Even though others would say that he could direct the new performance with eyes closed, this seasoned director still prefers to approach every performance with the same intensity and dedication as he has done when he first started as director.

With Teddy is set designer Tina Driedijk. Their focus is the first scale model of the set which she has designed. While slowly turning the dinner plate size platform on which a solitary cardboard castle wall stands proud, Tina explains how this feature transforms from the primary focus in the first act, to something different in following acts. Assorted textures and colours cleverly adorn the simple, yet dramatic design. Their discussion is a gentle ballet of input and response, of concepts and practicalities, of dreaming and realities. Not often does one see two creative minds in such intense unison. They are professionals who already live the thrill of a stage performance still to come when they discuss where each actor will be performing on the set. They spontaneously pool their creativity and take hands to ensure that the set design is of the same artistic standard as the operetta that Teddy will be directing.

‘Taking hands’ is perhaps the best way to describe Teddy Davies. Being highly respected in the world of theatre, one would expect of him to come across as important, even be prepared to forgive him if he is slightly arrogant. But no, this modest man who cares intensely about the people that he works with, is at his best when he can reach out and take hands to involve people to create something special.

Although Teddy is modest about his achievements in the world of theatre, he is extremely proud of the people from all walks of life that he has trained and built up and, in so doing, created splendid performances. "I cannot hit a nail into wood, but I have a visual talent and the skill to work with people. This enables me to get exactly what I want on stage. The satisfying part is to mould these amateur performers and bring their talents together to culminate into standing ovations,” says Teddy.

Teddy’s experience is that people become involved in amateur theatre for the love of it, as a hobby or they may have had strong ties with the theatre in the past. Theatre is a dicey occupation and often professional actors look to engage in other more ruminative occupations. Amateur theatre, therefore, offers the opportunity to still draw on the wonderful talent of the actor while he or she is employed elsewhere.

As in professional theatre, the director auditions and selects the best available talent. Amateur theatre, though, has its own challenges. It is easy to miss out on getting qualified people as the actors do not get paid. But then directors often discover talent at auditions to develop and perform to a professional standard.

There are two sides to Teddy when he directs a show. When he conceptualizes and plans the performance, he does it with precision. His detailed planning is evident in his comprehensive working manual. This enables him to still see the full picture during rehearsals, even if a player is absent for some reason.

On the other hand, Teddy also relies on his feelings while doing rehearsals and would make adjustments to his original plan based on his feeling of what is right.

Teddy acknowledges that it sometimes unnerves him if something on stage does not work as planned and immediate changes are required. “But then these are often the most creative moments during a performance,” he concedes.

There is an ongoing build-up in a play from basic beginnings and rehearsals, to opening night and the final curtain. “The players’ expectations vary so much,” says Teddy. “Players may start to feel inadequate and I then need to give them confidence. A lot of excitement happens when the cast starts to work with props and when costume fittings take place. Showing the model of the set on which they will be playing usually leads to lots of discussion. The opening night applause is always the cherry on the top.”

It is clear that Teddy is passionate about the people part of the work. When asked why, he replies: “Without them there is no show! Because it is their hobby, I want them to have fun while rehearsing and performing.  In this atmosphere of trust I often get to hear of personal problems. I am an excellent listener and always try to give support and sound advice.”

A big part of his success is his ability to listen. Being empathetic by nature, he is the one who would notice when a player is feeling down and offer encouragement where needed.

Teddy’s experience is that theatre itself is therapeutic for the players. He recalls how the father of one of the actors unexpectedly passed away during rehearsals. This forced her to leave the cast as she now had other, sad priorities to attend to. However, she soon came back, looking for the healing that the theatre offered her.

On a lighter note, Teddy recalls at least three female actors who had problems to conceive and who fell pregnant while doing a show. He relates this to the fact that the theatre environment is conducive to relaxing and taking the mind off the actor’s primary concerns. Needless to say, because of this, Teddy’s rehearsals are now also affectionately referred to as Teddy’s fertility classes!

When asked how he interacts with the bigger team such as stage managers, lighting and sound technicians, orchestra conductors, chorus masters, and others, Teddy’s answer is simple and to the point: “With the utmost respect. They are the top people in their field - I could not do their jobs.”

Bronwyne Scott, a seasoned amateur theatre stage manager who has often worked with Teddy in the past, says that Teddy is a strict director who demands perfection. He is a hands-on person who comes prepared and who believes in a disciplined approach.  “He knows exactly what he wants. He is extremely good at conceptualizing his ideas and he already knows every move before he comes to the rehearsal.”

“At the same time he is patient, soft, caring and loyal. He realizes the strength of people and understands the value of teamwork. His sense of humour is a big part in his success,” says Bronwyne.

Ferdi Oosthuizen who performed under Teddy’s directing before, values his old school approach to theatre. He refers to Teddy as a purist, yet able to successfully introduce modern technology into his work without deviating from the intention of the originator of a play. “He is innovative, yet conservative. His use of original techniques furthermore emphasizes the fact that theatre is a unique form of art in its own right,” says Ferdi.

Graham Boxall who has been working with Teddy for more than two decades now, echoes Ferdi’s viewpoint. He is, furthermore, of the opinion that Teddy’s approach is conducive to making theatre more relevant, thereby attracting younger people to become part of it.

Both of them agree that Teddy’s careful selection of the cast and his balance between being directive and non-directive, successfully allows him to give actors a particular freedom to interpret their roles.

Lead soprano Liesl Hartje in her role as Elsie Mynardt in the forthcoming The Yeomen of the Guard operetta, is extremely excited to be working for the first time under Teddy as director. Based on her experience of Teddy during auditions alone, she already refers to him as an honourable and incredibly devoted person. “There is humour, joy and a beautiful energy in everything that he does,” says Liesl. “I cannot wait for rehearsals to start! I can’t believe it’s real!”

Does Teddy ever get upset? “Yes, I do. It usually happens when I’ve tried everything else and it did not work. There is usually shock when I unexpectedly start to fume, but from then on things run smoothly, even better than expected.”

Teddy recalls an incident one evening when he hurled a chair into the air out of pure desperation when the players did not do as they were told. The next evening someone had lined up a row of chairs on the stage. When he asked what the chairs were about, the reply came from the cast: “It is your ammunition for the evening, Sir!” 

And then there are the ‘Teddyisms’ – the numerous Teddy Davies trade mark peculiarities that have become part of his directing over the years. “Show some zooch, people!” would often be heard when Teddy urges his players to put more zest into their performance. And ‘Doctor Stage’, according to Teddy, is the phenomenon that takes possession of the cast when needed most to ensure that they rise to the occasion.

When asked if he had won any awards in the past for his work, Teddy becomes silent, looks around to make sure that nobody else can hear him, bends forward and with big eyes whispers: “Lots!”

Several professional artists have started their careers under Teddy’s guidance. Comedian Mark Lottering, for example, started in amateur theatre with Teddy in a singing role. So did Angela Killian who performed in the role of Madame Giry in Phantom of the Opera at Artscape in Cape Town. Another successful artist who was first introduced to amateur theatre through Teddy is Craig Downs who went on to become the leading tenor of the Welsh National Opera.

Does Teddy perhaps consider scaling down?

It doesn’t seem so! For this energetic director The Yeomen of the Guard is only yet another new beginning! Following its performance in Cape Town, Teddy will be pushing the limits even further by taking the cast to perform at the annual International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Buxton, England. During this highly-acclaimed three week festival of Gilbert and Sullivan performances, they will be competing on an international level against eleven amateur Gilbert and Sullivan Societies from around the world. And it is not without challenges. They have less than a day to unpack, prepare the stage and to rehearse before the evening’s performance. Furthermore, in line with tradition, they will also stage a cabaret directly after the show as a bonus performance for special guests. “Madness! Wonderful!” exclaims Teddy, while rubbing his hands together in sheer excitement!

But in the end when the thrill of the show is over and the cast and audience have gone home, what remains is a man with a passion for what he is doing. The combination of the theatre, the cast, the set, the performance and the standing ovations is only the end result. The engine that drives all of this is Teddy Davies, fuelled by his vision, enthusiasm and love for people to make a difference in the lives of those that he touches with his talents, modesty and gentleness.

“Am I mad to suggest this?” Teddy asked.

“Yes, a lot. But go on – being mad is when Teddy Davies performs at his best!” Tina could have replied, knowing that those who know Teddy, will fully agree.

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