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October 15, 2018

Faces of Fauquier: Ham radio led to arts career

Photo/Don Del Rosso
“We happened to drive through Warrenton several times and just kind of fell in love with the area,” Rick Davis says of the decision he and his wife made to move here two decades ago.
Education is fundamental to society, and I think arts, as part of education, are fundamental to unleashing people’s creativity and giving them a sense of hope and positive experiences.
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
In a pinch, his western Wisconsin hometown community theater needed a lighting board operator.

Rick Davis didn’t know a lick about staging a play but had a knack for electronics.

“I got my ham radio license when I was 10,” recalls Dr. Davis, a Warrenton resident who wears many hats at George Mason University, including executive director of the Hylton Performing Arts Center near Manassas. “My mother was a volunteer costume designer for our community theater, and they lost their lighting board operator for a summer theater show.”

Recognizing an opportunity, she volunteered him for the job.

“My mother just perked up and said, ‘My little Ricky’s only 10 or 11, but he knows electronics.’ So I got pulled into the theater that way and just never left.”

The La Crosse native eventually got a bachelor’s degree in theater and a master’s and his doctorate in fine arts.

After professional and college teaching stops in Pittsburgh and Chestertown, Md., and Baltimore, Dr. Davis in 1991 joined George Mason University as artistic director of the Theater of the First Amendment.

Rising through the university’s ranks, he became executive director of the Hylton Performing Arts Center in 2011 and four years later dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts.

“The great thing about George Mason is that we make a lot of it up as we go along,” Dr. Davis, 61, modestly insists. “So, I was tapped at various times to do jobs that I really never intended to do.”

As dean of the visual and performing arts college, he oversees a $30 million budget and a full- and part-time staff of about 530.

The performing arts center has a $3-million-per-year operating budget, with 15 full-time staffers.

> Video at bottom of story

In his wildest dreams, Dr. Davis hardly envisioned that kind of responsibility would be his someday.

“My career as an artist, as a stage director and as a dramaturg, you never imagine that you’re going to be sitting at the head of a $33-million operation,” he admits. “But, I have sort of grown with the university. When I came here in ’91, it was less than half the size it is today.”

Twenty-seven years ago, GMU had 17,000 students, he says.

Today, it has 37,000, Dr. Davis added.

While administrative duties claim a big part of his day, he finds time to direct.

“I do at least one show a year to keep active,” he says. “In practice, I end up doing two or three, and they vary from a fully, professional downtown opera, musical theater thing to student work at Mason to the Stone Hill Players in Rappahannock County.”

A tenor, Dr. Davis also occasionally performs in the Messiah production at Strathmore Hall in Bethesda, does solos with the university’s symphonic chorus and appears in musical theater and opera roles.

In his spare time, Dr. Davis flies a 1966 Piper Cherokee, which he co-owns with a mechanic at the Warrenton-Fauquier Airport near Midland.

He and his wife Julie Thompson take the plane to North Carolina’s Outer Banks — a trip that takes about 2-1/2 hours by air versus nine hours on the road.

But, “mostly I fly around the area — maybe go over to the Shenandoah Valley and do a little sightseeing. It’s just really beautiful.”

• Age

• Home 

• Work
Dean, College of Visual and Performing Arts, George Mason University, 2015-present; executive director, Hylton Performing Arts Center, 2011-present; theater school professor, GMU, 1991-present; associate provost, undergraduate education, GMU, 2007-11; artistic director, Theater of the First Amendment, GMU, 1991-2012; associate artistic director, Baltimore Center Stage, 1990-91; resident dramaturg, Baltimore Center Stage, 1986-91.

• Why do you do the job?
I really can’t imagine doing anything else. I love theater; I love music; I love the arts; I love teaching.

The particular job that I’m in right now — and it’s been true throughout my career — I’ve been able to somehow find a way to do all those things at the same time. It’s just so rewarding.

• Family
Wife Julie Thompson; Dickens, 8-year-old border terrier.

• Education
Doctorate, fine arts, Yale University, 2003; master’s degree, fine arts, Yale University, 1983; bachelor’s degree, theatre, Lawrence (Wis.) University, 1980; La Crosse (Wis.) Central High School, 1975.

• Civic involvement
Fauquier Community Theatre board member, 2015-present.

• How long have you lived in Fauquier?
20 years

• Why do you live here? 

We lived in Arlington, and we started to take long, lovely country drives on weekends. And we happened to drive through Warrenton several times and just kind of fell in love with the area.

• How do you describe this county? 
It’s a blend of rural and town life. I love the fact that we live right off of Old Town, and we can walk to the shops and restaurants on Main Street. In a 10-minute drive, you’re in the country and in the beautiful rolling hills.

My work often takes me into the District and to New York and London. I love cities. But, as far as a place to live, you couldn’t ask for a better fit than Warrenton.

• What would you change about Fauquier?
We need a great bookstore. When we first moved to Warrenton, there was a very nice local bookstore on Main Street. That’s a very embattled sector — the independent bookstore.

Somebody needs to take the bull by the horns and open a really great independent bookshop. I think the tide is turning, the pendulum is swinging back to that.

• What do you do for fun? 
The most fun thing I get to do other than direct plays and operas and teaching, for recreation, I’m a private pilot and an airplane owner at Warrenton-Fauquier Airport.

I’m a ham radio operator, though I’m not as active as I used to be.

I also do a little, tiny bit of watercolor painting, but only on vacation.

• What’s your favorite place in Fauquier?
There are some roads and some turns, and anybody who lives in this area will know what I’m talking about. You make a turn on a road and you get a new vista of the mountains and the farm fields and a pond and a fence line. And at the right time of the day, it all comes together.

• What will Fauquier be like in 10 years?
I think it’s not going to change very much.

Warrenton is on a really good path, with some of the improvements that are being made in the traffic area, the streetscape.

I’m interested in the amphitheater project that’s being talked about. I think it’s a neat idea.

I think the county is so beautiful and so well-balanced in terms of agriculture and small towns and tourism, it seems like it’s pretty much got it right. So now we have to not mess it up.

• Favorite TV show?
“Stranger Things”

• Favorite movie? 
“Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb”

• Favorite book?
The favorite book I read recently is “Lincoln In The Bardo” By George Saunders.

• Favorite vacation spot? 
Ocracoke, N.C.

• Favorite food? 
Any great seafood.

• What is the best advice you have ever received? From whom? 
I had a mentor in college who changed the direction of my career in the theater, with a very simple observation. He said, “Rick, I think you’re a dramaturg.” That’s a profession in the theater where you’re sort of a critic/theorist/production advisor.

I was doing set design and lighting design and not doing very well at it. My mentor pulled me aside one day — I had no idea what a dramaturg was — and said I think you should look into this.

That was the path that took me to Yale and on into a professional theater career.

• Who’s your hero and why?
I really admire the late 19th Century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. He used his art as a powerful agent of social change and progress on women’s rights and social institutions. He helped change the world through his art.

• What would you do if you won $5 million in the lottery? 
I would love to do some good things for the institutions that I care about, which include George Mason (University), Lawrence (University), Yale.

Education is fundamental to society, and I think arts, as part of education, are fundamental to unleashing people’s creativity and giving them a sense of hope and positive experiences.

I’d like to set up scholarship funds and program funds that allow people who otherwise might not have access to either study or perform or attend performances.

And then I’d probably buyer a bigger airplane with what’s left over.

Contact Don Del Rosso at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 540270-0700.

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