By Russ Bickerstaff   Published Nov 23, 2004 at 5:36 AM

{image1} When Montgomery Davis co-founded the Milwaukee Chamber Theater, there were only three major theater companies in the city. Since opening night of its first production of "Don Juan in Hell," on Father's Day of 1975, the Milwaukee Chamber Theater has been an ongoing part of an ever-growing theater community. Through it all, Davis remained the company's artistic director. And after nearly 30 years, he is retiring from the position.

OMC: Thirty years -- that's a lot of productions.
MD: Yes, it's far too many. If I've done at least three productions per year, I've done close to 100 productions.

OMC: And is it a completely new experience every time?
MD: Yes, you think, "The town police are going to find me out this time! They're going to find out that I'm just a sham -- a shambles. I'm as transparent as the Wizard of Oz. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." I always think it's going to be that way. Actors think that way. Any actor worth their salt always thinks they're going to be found out. That's what happens with art. That's why art is so exhausting.

OMC: Did that play into your decision to take less of an active role in the Chamber Theater?
MD: Actually, doing the work is not exhausting. Doing the work feeds itself and becomes exhilarating. Trying to manage the organization, that's exhausting -- to keep the money flowing because the thing can't support itself. It needs a vast influx of money to keep going. If we were going to support ourselves, we'd have to charge $60-$70 per ticket. Nobody in this neighborhood's going to pay for that except for some big bulls**t musical at the Marcus Center. That's exhausting. Trying to get the money all the time. And trying to get the board to get the money. And the board worrying about that. Staffing the board and keeping them interested. That's really exhausting.

OMC: So stepping down as artistic director is a desire to focus more on the artistic aspects of theater?
MD: Oh, yes. It's just nice to do a play and not have to worry about the administrative aspects of it. And do a little more acting. I don't think I'm the greatest actor to come down the pike, but I enjoy doing it.

OMC: How have audiences evolved over the years?
MD: Well, I wish I could say that they were getting bigger, but there's so much for people to see now. There's a great proliferation of theater. It was a very literate audience that we had -- that's why the literary form and the literary sort of thing in our mission was a big thing. I would say, regretfully, that we are now living in a post-literate age.

And people don't read. It's interesting trying to maintain this kind of theater in this kind of atmosphere. Theater that not only entertains but informs and stimulates conversation. We did "Homebody/Kabul" last year. It was so gratifying to have people say, "Oh, I hadn't thought of this," or "This really made me think." Some people came back, actually, because it was a play that gave them something to think about.

OMC: How do you see that (post-literate) trend playing out in the next several decades?
MD: I really don't know whether people will become completely MTV'd-out and theater (will continue to) contract or whether people will want to find a time when they can explore theater again. That it will be more expansive and people will take the time and look for ideas -- there won't be such a hurly-burly world where people say they're too busy.

OMC: Do you feel it is possible for a less literate theater to be just as provocative?
MD: Possibly. It depends upon what you mean by "literate." I think people these days pick up ideas a lot quicker than they used to. People get to ideas quicker because we're so loaded with information. And we weren't 15 years ago. You could take three acts to build up a story. Now the three-act play is basically the sitcom. It does the same thing, but it does it in a much shorter time.

I don't know how it's going to evolve. I'd hate to see Shakespeare shortened because you lose some of the text. Yes, you tell the story, but you can take that story and make another story of it if you want. Or you can do it the way Shakespeare wrote it. It's the difference between going into a pre-fab house and going into a palace. In a pre-fab house -- yes, you can live there and be comfortable, but if you go into a palace you can see things that you haven't seen before. Do audiences want to take the time to be curious? I would hope that they do. I would hope that they would -- that they would take the time to hear ideas.

OMC: Do you think you can change the types of productions you do to meet the demands of newer audiences?
MD: Well, in 30 years we have been changing. We are still doing Shaw this year and we did Noel Coward, but we also did "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," that's something way off what we normally do -- something that 10 years ago we wouldn't have even thought of. Bialystock right now is doing a play that I really wanted to do (Caryl Churchill's progressive drama "Far Away"). The production I saw (in New York) I really loved. I've been going to the theater since Euripides and I'm never shocked (because) I've seen so much. I'm never over theater at all, but I was shocked. I'm looking forward to seeing it here.

OMC: So you're not opposed to changing your own tastes to fit the . . .
MD: I don't think that's a change in taste. I mean, to do "Far Away" is anything but a change in taste. I mean, that's just an amplification . . .

OMC: Because there's a definite evolution from say, "Macbeth," to "Far Away."
MD: Yes. It's more concise in drama. It plays on our knowledge. The Scottish play is more schematic than most of [Shakespeare's] tragedies. It's a short play. If you play it straight through you can get it in two hours and five minutes. And that's short, because most of his plays are three-and-a-half hours. It's pretty schematic because it trades on what people knew in that day-you know, the whole knowledge of witchcraft and things like that.

But they understood that, and I think "Far Away" is just a further advancement of that. It's playing on things that we understand. Caryl Churchill's trading on things that are offstage; it's trading our basic fears. She's just done it more schematically. It still has its effect. And I think drama should be that way. It should maintain that kind of edginess. In this age, it's very difficult because people don't want that. When we did "Hay Fever" people said, "Oh, thank you for doing a comedy!" We were besieged by local productions of "The Crucible," and "Afghan Women." They wanted something lighter. But I think there's got to be a place for drama to have that edge -- that hook to make people think.