How filling in for shows at Ball State shaped actor and alumnus E.M. Davis' career

<p>(left to right) E.M. Davis and Watson Swift record their lines for the audio drama &quot;Primer&quot; in the studio. “Primer” is Davis’ first drama as an actor. Spenser Davis, Photo Provided</p>

(left to right) E.M. Davis and Watson Swift record their lines for the audio drama "Primer" in the studio. “Primer” is Davis’ first drama as an actor. Spenser Davis, Photo Provided

Chicago-based actor E.M. Davis remembers entering their freshman year at Ball State as a “wannabe actor.” Davis wanted to major in acting in college, but they had some discouraging conversations about becoming an actor with previous high school teachers and family members.

“They would ask me, ‘But what else do you want to do with your life?’” Davis said. “They weren’t the best of conversations in terms of giving me hope.”

Davis, 2011 Ball State graduate, took up the safest option by pursuing theater education and opted to teach future students about the joys of theater in case they were not able to act as a career. 

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

As a student, Davis enrolled in a variety of theater education classes, but by their junior year, the educational path left them worn out with the same feeling they started college with. 

“I was miserable,” Davis said. “I realized it about halfway through. I did have a love for teaching and a love for learning, but that actor-itching bug was still there.”

In one of Davis’ directing classes their junior year, not many acting majors were available to participate in pieces performed in Davis’ class due to conflicts with their schedules. As a result, Davis got their own spotlight in three pieces.

“When we were trying to find people, there weren’t many options,” Davis said. “I ended up jumping in just to be an extra body.”

After class one day, Karen Kessler, professor of theatre directing, pulled Davis aside and asked if they had ever truly thought about acting — which Davis said they thought about it every day. They confided in Kessler about their love for acting and indecisiveness with their major because of the stress surrounded by student loans, time restraints and graduation. 

Soon after, Kessler gave Davis a foundation to start their acting career.

“She helped me get a wonderful internship at one of her home companies in Chicago, A Red Orchid Theatre,” Davis said. “I really got to see what true Chicago storefronts [for acting] sort of looked like, and I fell immediately in love with it.”

As a determined actor and student, Davis said they spent many of their last days at Ball State living out their dream and finishing their education degree. 

“I’d get up at 6 a.m. to get to [the high school], and I’d do that until about 2 or 3 p.m.,” Davis said.  “Then, I’d come home, have dinner and go into a rehearsal until 10 p.m. and still try to find time for [grading] homework. While it was exhausting, I knew that it was where I wanted to go.”

After graduation, Davis found themselves in a 10-minute production with the American Theatre Company as part of a hot dog festival in Chicago. The show, based on the idea that it was distasteful to put ketchup on a Chicago-style hot dog, was written by Spenser Davis, a fellow playwright — and E. M. Davis’ future husband. 

“I remember meeting [Spenser] very briefly,” E. M. said. “Then, a year went by, and we both got cast together in a show, ‘Kate’s Dates.’”

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

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

Through these roles, the two strengthened their friendship. 

“Before the show, we’d be sitting on the stage talking about our own aspirations, interests and things like that,” E.M. said. 

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

“He was going up to get our basket of fries, and I remember looking at him for a moment and thinking ‘Oh, I’m starting to catch feelings,’” E.M. said. 

Spenser knew E.M. was looking for an “artistic home” in the city after working together. He then recommended E.M. join his company, Broken Nose Theatre, which he was an ensemble member of since its founding. Now, E.M. serves as artistic director for the theater.

“We realized that they were the perfect fit,” Spenser said. “So we invited E.M. to become a part of the company [during the company’s second season].”

Eight years later, in the company’s tenth season, E.M. was cast in the audio drama “Primer,” written by Spenser. According to the company’s website, “Primer” investigates “looters smashing in a Michigan Avenue store’s front windows” and how the treacherous acts affect each person in the store, from the security team to employees at kiosks. It streamed from Nov. 15-Dec. 12, 2021.

“Primer” is a stand-alone sequel to “Plainclothes,” a show Broken Nose Theatre presented in 2018.

“As the theater world reopens, it felt like the right time to revisit some of these characters,” Spenser said.

Spenser, along with the ensemble, thought it would be best to present this piece to audiences through the art of audio drama because of the ongoing pandemic. 

“We put out an all-call to the ensemble to see if anyone had anything to play with or develop, and we’ve got our Zoom accounts,” E.M. said. 

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

“The moment I found out [‘Primer’] could be an audio drama, it opened up [the idea] of a police cruiser zipping down the highway. Now, we have a board room and jump to a store with glass shattered everywhere, which on stage would be difficult to pull off,” Spenser said.

As a member of the cast, E.M. said they were fortunate to participate in a virtual experience like this with Broken Nose Theatre and put their expertise to the test.

“I think it allowed the actors within our ensemble the ability to really play with something that they may or may not be exposed to,” E.M. said.  “[Audio] is in a completely different type of skill set because you are fully focusing on the sound of your voice with no [visible] emotions.” 

As Broken Nose Theatre prepares for its next season, E.M. is ready to welcome audiences from the stage, using the knowledge they learned from their work in “Primer.”

“We were treating [Primer] like true mainstages despite being in person,” E.M. said. “It was fun to have those come together after so much less artistic output … it was just incredibly invigorating.” 

Contact Grace Bentkowski with comments at gmbentkowski@bsu.edu or on Twitter @gbentkowski.

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