Most of us are born with a seedling of art in our hearts—the desire to create our dreams on paper, in space or on the stage. But we’re taught early on that the path of an artist is hard, one that requires dogged determination and gumption, the kind of commitment to take-no-prisoners passion that stalls lots of us in our tracks.
This is especially true for performers, those makers of vanishing art, whose work depends on the confluence of theater and script and lights and sound, conditions that we only find in small slivers of reality.
John Davenport, a 15-year veteran director of a theater program for high schoolers in Oxford, Mississippi, knows this better than most.
“Even as a kid in college I knew I did not want to be a performer. I do not have that drive,” he says. “But I admire those who do, particularly those who want to be a professional performer. That is a difficult life.”
But a man who’s dedicated his career to making space for children to express themselves knows something else, too: Everyone deserves the chance to do it.
It’s an idea he sees reflected in, of all improbable places, the mythology-lite leg warmer-infused world of Xanadu, his directorial debut with Live Arts this summer.
“One of the things that sticks out to me [about the show] is the [theme of] nurturing the artist and the importance of that. Regardless of what kind of art you wish to make, everyone deserves the opportunity for that to be nurtured,” he says.
Though Davenport had neither seen the movie nor read the script before receiving an invitation to work on the local production, he says, “I knew what Xanadu was: the musical with roller skates.”
And basically, he was right. All semi-serious lessons aside, Xanadu is a playful, self-aware romp, a Broadway-born musical designed to gently lampoon the cult classic 1980 Olivia Newton-John movie of the same name.
The show follows artist Sonny Malone, who decides his chalk mural of the Greek muses is so lackluster he’s going to kill himself. Cut to Mount Olympus, where the youngest muse convinces her sisters to travel to Venice Beach (in disguise) to inspire him. Cue Pegasus and the Greek chorus on roller skates.
“The best way to describe it is nostalgic,” Davenport says. “Even if you’re not familiar with the movie, there are musical numbers, songs that are in the score, that are surprisingly familiar.”
Audience members can also look forward to the show’s cheek, a sort of mind-bath in silliness. “The whole show is a parody of the movie, paying homage to how poor the movie is,” he says.
While the show itself has whole-family appeal, its energy and raw entertainment value derive in part from its inclination to a teenage and 20-something cast—also Davenport’s directorial sweet spot.
“When I was a student at Ole Miss I directed a few of their musicals, and I fell in love with it. I liked that age group, that talent. They’re still so impressionable,” he says with a laugh.
One of Davenport’s commitments to students is their annual involvement in the American High School Theater Festival, an organization (operated by Charlottesville-based World Strides, incidentally) that hosts select high school groups at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest performance arts festival in the world.
After a school is nominated, it applies to bring a show to Scotland. “Each school finds out approximately 15-18 months ahead of time so fundraising can begin,” he says. “It’s a huge undertaking, but I enjoy it because the students that come back come back better performers. They grow so much through the process of those 15-18 months.”
It was at Fringe that Davenport first learned of Live Arts, which has provided tech services to the American High School Theater Festival for the last 15 years. Now that he’s spending the summer in Charlottesville, fully immersed in the Live Arts production experience, he’s seen the collaboration of the volunteer theater in action.
“There’s a misconception that directors are supposed to know everything,” he says, “but the overall vision starts out so big that not only one person can rein it in.”
On a show like Xanadu, he says, multiple perspectives are invaluable in the creation of a seamless audience experience. And for someone used to directing design as well as cast and crew in his program, Live Arts’ professional take on collaboration feels epic.
“We have a single designer for every aspect of the show,” he says. “We have carpenters and set and costume and lighting designers. And a staff. I’m not accustomed to having that luxury.”
This art-takes-a-village mentality supports more than technical nuts and bolts, he says. It fulfills the calling that unites them: giving artists the opportunity to try something, to express themselves through shows and uncover additional skills.
“Nurturing the artist is one of Live Arts’ missions, that’s my impression,” Davenport says. “And I think it’s wonderfully coincidental that that’s one of the underlying themes of Xanadu.”
See Xanadu performed at Live Arts July 18 through August 8.
Live Arts’ production of Xanadu pays homage to the 1980 cult classic film of the same name. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto