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How replacing shows at Ball State shaped the career of actor and former EM Davis




Chicago-based actor EM Davis recalls entering his first year at Ball State as a budding actor. Davis wanted to major in acting in college, but they had disheartening conversations about becoming an actor with former high school teachers and family members.

They asked me, But what else do you want to do with your life? Davis said. They weren’t the best conversations to give me hope.

Davis, who graduated from Ball State in 2011, took the safer option by pursuing an acting degree and opted to teach prospective students the joys of acting in case they weren’t able to pursue a career.

If I can’t be an actor, then I’ll be a drama teacher, and I’ll be [encourage] future theater artists, Davis said.

As a student, Davis enrolled in a variety of theater education classes, but during their freshman year, the educational journey left them exhausted with the same feeling they started college with.

I was miserable, Davis said. I realized it halfway through. I had a love for teaching and a love for learning, but that itchy acting bug was still there.

In one of Davis’ conducting classes their junior year, few acting majors were available to participate in plays performed in the Davis class due to conflicts with their schedules. As a result, Davis got his own three-piece projector.

When we were trying to find people, there weren’t a lot of options, Davis said. I ended up jumping just to be an extra body.

One day after class, Karen Kessler, a theater directing teacher, pulled Davis aside and asked if they had ever really thought about acting, which Davis said they thought about it every day. They told Kessler about their love for acting and their indecisiveness with their major due to the stress of student loans, time constraints and graduation.

Soon after, Kessler gave Davis a base to start his acting career.

She helped me get a wonderful internship at one of her original companies in Chicago, A Red Orchid Theatre, Davis said. I really got to see what the real shop windows of Chicago are like [for acting] looked like something, and I immediately fell in love with it.

As a determined actor and student, Davis said they spent most of their final days at Ball State living their dream and finishing their education.

I get up at 6 a.m. to get to [the high school], and I would do it until about 2 or 3 p.m., Davis said. Then I would come home, have dinner and go into rehearsal until 10 p.m. and always try to find time to [grading] homework. Even though it was exhausting, I knew this was where I wanted to go.

After graduating, Davis found himself in a 10-minute production with the American Theater Company at a hot dog fest in Chicago. The show, based on the idea that it was unpleasant to put ketchup on a Chicago-style hot dog, was written by Spenser Davis, a fellow playwright and future husband of EM Davis.

I remember meeting [Spenser] very briefly, said EM. Then a year passed and we were both cast together on a show, Kates Dates.

Ironically, EM played the lead role of Kate, who goes on many dates and blogs about them throughout the show. All 17 dates were played by Spenser.

The funny thing is, we were great friends, but we had no interest in each other that way, Spenser said.

Through these roles, the two strengthened their friendship.

Before the show, we sat on stage talking about our own aspirations, interests and things like that, EM said.

EM vividly remembers sitting in a Mexican restaurant with Spenser a few months after the show, they said, and that’s when they started to see him through a different lens than the one before.

He was coming upstairs to get our basket of fries, and I remember looking at him for a moment and thinking Oh, I’m starting to have feelings, EM said.

Spenser knew EM was looking for an artistic home in the city after working together. He then recommended EM to join his company, Broken Nose Theatre, of which he had been a member of the ensemble since its founding. Today, EM is artistic director of the theatre.

We realized they were the perfect fit, Spenser said. So we invited EM to be part of the company [during the companys second season].

Eight years later, in the company’s tenth season, EM was cast in the audio drama Primer, written by Spenser. According to companies website, Primer investigates looters smashing the windows of a Michigan Avenue store and how the treacherous acts affect everyone in the store, from the security team to the kiosk workers. It aired from November 15 to December 15. 12, 2021.

Primer is a standalone sequel to Plainclothes, a 2018 Broken Nose Theater show.

As the theater world reopens, it was time to revisit some of these characters, Spenser said.

Spenser, along with the ensemble, thought it would be best to bring this piece to the public through the art of audio drama due to the ongoing pandemic.

We put out a general appeal to see if anyone had anything to play or develop, and we have our Zoom accounts, EM said.

Without any in-person performances until later this year, the company took this opportunity to bring Primer to life virtually for the public while recording in a studio without the pressure of a budget.

The moment I found out [Primer] could be an audio drama, it opened [the idea] of a police car speeding down the highway. Now we have a conference room and jump into a store with broken glass everywhere, which would be difficult to pull off on stage, Spenser said.

As a cast member, EM said he had the chance to participate in a virtual experience like this with Broken Nose Theater and put his expertise to the test.

I think it allowed the actors in our set to really play with something that they may or may not be exposed to, EM said. [Audio] is into a completely different type of skill because you’re focusing entirely on the sound of your voice without [visible] emotions.

As Broken Nose Theater prepares for its next season, EM is ready to greet audiences from the stage, using the insights they’ve learned from working on Primer.

we treated [Primer] as actual main scenes despite being in person, EM said. It was fun to get them back together after so much less artistic production, it was just incredibly invigorating.

Contact Grace Bentkowski with comments at [email protected] or on Twitter @gbentkowski.




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