Set designer ventures into undiscovered country

Artist was unfamiliar with Shakespeare before working on production of 'Macbeth'

Posted: Thursday, January 15, 2004

One June morning last year, when Perseverance Theatre associate artistic director Anita Maynard-Losh and her son were in Sitka for the 28th Annual Fine Arts Camp, she looked up Southeast poet, artist and woodcarver Robert H. Davis.

She asked him to design the set for her all-Native adaptation of "Macbeth." Davis thought she was asking the wrong person.

"I hadn't read or watched any Shakespeare, and I felt like it was an entirely foreign culture," said Davis, who also had never designed a theater set before.

Maynard-Losh was undeterred. She was familiar with Davis' style and work, having seen his carving and art years earlier at faculty shows and performances during previous Sitka Fine Arts Camps. She was struck by the way his work seemed to be rooted in tradition, yet "new and living into the future."

Maynard-Losh spent the morning explaining "Macbeth" - the language, the theme, the plot, the symbolism and her ideas for a pan-Alaska Native presentation.

"After she explained things to me, I saw so many possible ways that the Tlingit tradition could be incorporated into the play and the Tlingit designs could represent a lot of the symbolism," Davis said. "I felt like I couldn't say no."

Their collaboration on the design of "Macbeth" began in June and continued through the fall, even as Maynard-Losh worked at ArenaStage in Washington, D.C., with former Perseverance artistic director Molly Smith.

"Robert and I would be e-mailing and on the phone for hours," Maynard-Losh said. "He would post things on his Web site, and I would look at them and give my remarks and comments. Just his insight into parts of the play and connections with the cultures have been helpful to me."

Davis began designing the very morning Maynard-Losh explained the story.

"It was a really interesting internal reaction, because it reminded me of when my father used to sit me down and tell me histories and legends," Davis said.

"The story has a lesson for an individual in the same way that a lot of the Tlingit legends had a built-in moral which was told to young people," he said. "The Tlingit clan and tribal system kept things tightly knit and any time one individual was out of whack and had personal interests instead of the communal interest, it affected the whole clan and the whole tribe."

A noted Southeast poet and the author of 1986's "Soulcatcher," Davis now teaches beginning English part time at Sheldon Jackson College. He traveled to Juneau twice to work with Maynard-Losh and costume designer Nikki Morris on the play's overall design. He downloaded his sketches and ideas onto his Web site. Perseverance's crew studied the designs and did most of the physical labor. Jonathan Brooke was the principal mask and prop builder. James Bartlett built many of the weapons.

Brooke's challenge was to turn Davis' sketches into three-dimensional objects. For many of the masks, he would prepare a clay model and cover the surface with papier-maché. Many of the crests and masks are made of cardboard and plywood. Brooke supervised 20 to 30 volunteers on some days. Originally from Baltimore, he caught Perseverance's attention with a mask he made for the annual Beyond Heritage festival.

Davis has been working with the cast and crew in Juneau for the last 212 weeks. Once the show is over, he plans to read more Shakespeare.

"I'm not an authority by far; I still carry my Cliff Notes around," Davis said. "But it's gotten to be very interesting territory for me. I want to read more, and I want to understand more than when I first read this."

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