An Interview with Actor/Playwright Chris Davis: Bringing His ‘Drunk Lion’ to 59E59

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Philadelphia-based dynamo Chris Davis returns to the Edinburgh Fringe in August with his hilarious and poignant 2012 solo hit Drunk Lion, an absurdist bi-lingual fantasy about the intoxicating power of life and love (and the impulse to drink too much when they’re not going so well). Presented as a rapid-fire conversation between the high-energy writer/performer and the eponymous anthropomorphized imbiber in a Mexican cantina, the one-man show will make a three-day stop in New York at 59E59’s annual East to Edinburgh showcase before heading over next month to the world’s largest performing arts festival in Scotland.

Just back from the Dallas Solo Fest in June, Chris, a native of Oakland, California, took some time from his active international touring schedule to tell us about himself and his highly-acclaimed performance, in which he embodies a total of 21 colorful characters, speaking both Spanish and English, while directly addressing and interacting with the audience.

Chris Davis. Photo by Emilie Krause.
Chris Davis. Photo by Emilie Krause.

Deb: Tell us a little about your background and inspiration for Drunk Lion.

Chris: The story was inspired by the experiences I had when I lived in a small town in Chiapas, Mexico, for a year with a home-stay family. I only spoke English when I arrived to live with them, so I had to start learning Spanish in a completely unfamiliar environment. It all came from that. 

The upcoming production is a part of 59E59’s annual East to Edinburgh festival. Is this the first time you’re performing there?

It’s my second time at 59E59. Last year I performed another of my solo shows, One-Man Apocalypse Now, in the East to Edinburgh festival. Because I know them now (Artistic Director Val Day and Managing Director Brian Beirne), I submitted again for this year. The showcase fills up very quickly, on a first-come first-served basis, so I was very happy to get in, as one of the thirteen featured shows going to Edinburgh.

You’ve presented other solo shows in the Edinburgh Fringe. What do you appreciate most about the festival there that keeps you going back?

The energy of the Edinburgh festival is unparalleled. The organizers, artists, and audience are all excited about experimental work, and they make you feel like it’s so cool to be doing it! With my show, because I use different languages – most of the Edinburgh Fringe is Anglocentric – it stands out. We have a worldwide appeal and we tend to get an international audience, which I appreciate.

Your longtime friend and collaborator Mary Tuomanen is directing the show. What does her directorial eye bring to your work?

She directed the show when I first did it in 2012, and she was responsible for all of the physical movement. The text is all me, but, for example, when I mime walking upstairs, that’s Mary. Her Lecoq training in Paris was great, because there are only about three props in the show, so she came up with all of the miming.

Will she be a hands-on presence in NYC and Edinburgh, traveling with you for the productions? 

No – I wish! She did come with me last year, but it’s a busy time for her, so she isn’t able to do it this year. Summers used to be a bit of a hiatus for the theater, but not anymore, we’re doing a lot of work year round.

Chris Davis performing Drunk Lion. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Chris Davis performing Drunk Lion. Photo courtesy of the artist.

You’ve created many one-man shows, which are often semi-autobiographical. What do you find most compelling about the format and about performing your own original work?

I like the ownership and the freedom to produce my own shows anywhere and anytime I’d like, and being able to perform them in a variety of different venues. I don’t usually get to the venue before the show is about to go on – sometimes I arrive from right off the plane! But even without the usual rehearsal or tech time, there’s an honesty that the audience can connect with, because it’s my show and it’s about me. I’m not really an actor performing a role, so there’s a greater level of truth in it, and the audience feels that.

As a Philadelphia-based artist, do you find any significant differences between your hometown audiences and those in NYC and Edinburgh? 

Yeah! In Philadelphia, more than half of the audience knows me; that’s not the case when I’m traveling my shows out of town or out of the country. You learn a lot by getting out of your safe space, not just playing to your own community. But if the show has quality, all of the audiences respond to it, wherever they are; so, ultimately, they all feel the same.

What’s your first creative memory – the one that provided your earliest impetus for a life in the theater? 

Mine isn’t just one specific time. When I was a kid, my best friend and I would play for hours and hours, just using our imaginations. We would pretend to be different people, like soldiers or cops, but we wouldn’t always use toys, we would make sounds and mime make-believe guns or props that went with who we were pretending to be. One day, by the time we were around eleven or twelve, we decided that we would play like that for one last time, because we felt like we were getting too old and we shouldn’t keep playing like children. But I did! I still use my imagination to make things up for my work in the theater. That ongoing childhood imagining of being different people and miming different toys is the memory that made me realize what I love to do and what I wanted to continue doing.

Are there any specific playwrights or actors whose work you admire or who particularly inspired your style? 

So many! Edward Albee for one; I’ve always loved his plays and their absurdity. I got to hear him give a talk once, and he spoke to me about experimental theater; that was definitely a huge inspiration. And there’s Samuel Beckett, and Eric Bogosian – I saw him in college, before I was doing solo work. Tarell McCraney – though he’s contemporary, I think he’s outstanding. And I also read a lot of fiction, so even though it’s not specifically performance, I take a lot from that.

After New York in July and Edinburgh in August, what’s up next for you?

I have a new original show coming up in the Philadelphia Fringe in September, running for the entire festival, called The Presented. It explores what it means to be a “chosen artist” today, and considers the intersection of art and money – especially how they really shouldn’t mix! I’ll also be doing a one-night performance of One-Man Apocalypse Now in November, in a festival in Germany. I was invited by a woman who saw the show when I did it last year. She’s flying me out for ten days, so that will give me some time to prepare for the show, as well as to enjoy the town, without just rushing in and out.

Thanks, Chris, for giving us the background on Drunk Lion, and for bringing your terrific work to New York audiences. Wishing you continued success with this, and with all of your outstanding shows.

Design by Chris Davis.
Design by Chris Davis.

Drunk Lion plays Friday, July 13-Sunday, July 15, 2018, at 59E59 – 59 East 59th Street, Theater C, NYC. For tickets, call (646) 892-7999, or purchase them online.