Artist Spotlight: Sabrina Hykes-Davis

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Deciphering the one thing that makes Pittsburgh theatre unique is like looking for the crabby patty recipe. While scenic designer Sabrina Hykes-Davis agrees, with her personal experience and her kind, gentle manner, she also gives credence to a pattern I’ve noticed.

“I don’t know what makes it its own community. Most other places I’ve worked, I’ve worked for just one theatre. Here, there’s this weird interconnecting web. For example, you and I have been working forty feet from one another for the past three weeks.”

It’s true. It was difficult for the two of us to meet as we both were juggling tech week rehearsal schedules. Turns out we didn’t even realize we were working for the same theatre company! I’ve been working on South Park Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park, closing this weekend, and Hykes-Davis’ most recent design handiwork can be seen in South Park Theatre’s Exit Laughing by Paul Elliott. Exit Laughing runs through August 23rd, check out our review of it here.

Between both of us juggling jobs, rehearsals, meetings, research, and a baby on the way for Hykes-Davis and her husband, it’s not surprising that we missed each other in such close quarters. The more professionals I meet in Pittsburgh, the more I learn that everyone is not only connected, but that everyone – no matter what area of theatre you’re interested in – is balancing myriad projects at once.

Sabrina tells me that this 2015 year alone she has designed and worked on twelve separate productions, performed for such companies as South Park Theatre, Stage 62, and Pittsburgh Savoyards. She has also designed Seneca Valley High School’s productions for years and continues to do so.  Upcoming, Hykes-Davis’ schedule is even increasing in activity, thanks to her recent hire from California University of Pennsylvania. She is thrilled; watching students grow from timid explorers to confident handlers of the scene shop is one of the best parts of being a design professor, she says.

The opportunity to leave an impact on a developing artist is not something she takes lightly. Her own undergraduate experience is compiled of architecture major credits from Carnegie Mellon University, until she realized it wasn’t for her, and transferred to Point Park.

“I can remember sitting in a friend’s kitchen and trying to figure out what I was going to do next… she said suggested I try theatre since I really missed it. And that was that.”

Her degree is from Point Park College, before it became a university, and though it was chaotic, she tells me how beneficial it was to learn under various technical directors as the school was in a state of transition at the turn of the millennium. COPA or Point Park’s Conservatory of the Performing Arts, had, and still has, excellent connections with the technical needs of professional Pittsburgh companies. Therefore, Hykes-Davis was able to work for Gemini Children’s Theater in Wilkinsburg, Penn Avenue Theatre, and Apple Hill Playhouse while she was still earning her degree.

Upon graduation, she filled me in on so many locations where she worked on theatre that it’s impossible to remember them all, even for her. She says her resumé is well over two pages and she’s had to start cutting items. Sure enough it only covers work done in the last three years and it’s two pages long.

Her list of theatres from her twenty-something days includes: West Virginia Public Theater; Memphis’ Playhouse On the Square; and the California Repertory Theatre in Santa Rosa, California. She’s worked in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and interestingly: Germany. (Not that Oklahoma and Kentucky aren’t interesting.) It’s more that the experimental work she did overseas couldn’t be done anywhere else. She worked for a company called Das Letzte Kleinoid, which in German means, “The Last Treasure,” or The Last Small Precious Thing.” Their work was site-specific. Once, they created an original piece, specific to a small island that used to be the site of a concentration camp. Their writers interviewed survivors and created a performance based on their accounts of what happened there, and how a boat would take Holocaust survivors from the camp and into Canada. Hykes-Davis tells me they worked with a cast that was half Canadian and half German and did half of the show on that island and half on another port in Canada. From the emotion in her retelling, it’s clear that the experience affected Hykes deeply, even though – and she laughed as she told me – that her personal work involved peeling potatoes and coordinating the light design with local shipping signals so they wouldn’t interfere with port traffic.

After injuring her collarbone, her years of travel were at a standstill as she moved home to Pittsburgh from Kentucky to heal. Soon after, she earned her M.F.A. in Technical Theatre and Design from West Virginia University. She commuted to Morgantown from Pittsburgh almost every day and, looking tired as she remembered it aloud, “listened to a lot of NPR.”

Morgantown’s theatre climate is similar to Pittsburgh, she says, albeit smaller. Her work for her M.F.A. introduced her to Morgantown’s theatres and also introduced her to teaching for the college level. I don’t think she expected to like it so much. But, considering that she can still remember a Robert Edmund Jones’ description from an undergrad textbook gift, I’ll say I’m not surprised.

“One of my professors from Point Park gave me one of his [Robert Edmund Jones] books as a graduation present. We studied him again in grad school, and I’m reading it again now, because I’m going to make the students at Cal U buy it.”

Our whole discussion, Hykes-Davis has been cheerful, but relaxed from all of the exhaustion. When discussing Jones’ and teaching, though, she sits up straighter in the booth, “There’s a whole great chapter in there on costume design, called ‘Notes to Costume Designers’ and they’re talking about – I think it was Shakespeare, maybe, or Moliére – and there’s a whole paragraph talking about how a woman enters the room. It’s flowery, describing how she enters the room like a ship with sails unfurled or something. He breaks it down and says, ‘Ok, what does this mean about her costume? Does it mean you should put a ship on her? No. But then, how does that inform the design? How can you make it appear that when she’s walking on stage, she becomes a ship?’”

Seeing opportunity and creative design options in a script requires training your eye and imagination, and getting a classroom full of students to see that seems like a daunting task to me. I suddenly have sympathy for my own undergraduate design instructor. Though, I don’t think that’s what instructors like Hykes-Davis want. I think all they want is an open mind. They crave a blank slate and the willingness to collaborate.

“I think when people are more open…people trying to do a concept tend to be the more collaborative ones. [The process works best in places] Where someone has set the tone, whether it’s the director or the stage manager…where they kind of welcome everybody’s input. And they come to the meeting with very specific ideas, but not like ‘I want the staircase to be three foot wide.’ Instead, they say, ‘I want it to feel like their world is falling apart” or “the happiest days these people will ever experience.’ It’s very specific, but it’s a jumping-off point. As opposed to someone who walks in wanting ‘white curtains.’ That drives me nuts.”

It’s excellent for an educational environment, certainly, but I wonder. Does that really work on the professional level? How separate are all of the job responsibilities? What if your ideas aren’t the ones the director goes with? Her response is remarkably humble.

“I try to put them out there, but I also try not to be personally offended when it doesn’t work out. It’s not about what I want. Just because I think something would be really cool, doesn’t mean that it best serves the production as a whole.”

Being humble, apparently, is being practical and a key component, I think, of being a good collaborator and finding success in the theatre. How different is this point of view from our mainstream capitalist perspective.

“I tend to back down fairly often unless it’s something I think is going to be very unclear to the audience, or unsafe, or you don’t have time/budget to make it happen. That’s something I have a fight with a lot. There are a lot of places I work for who don’t have huge budgets or a lot of time. So, they try to figure what the most important thing is to put on stage, and that’s sometimes an issue. Distilling down what is best going to tell the story, and what we can live without.”

No matter where you go, Broadway or Pittsburgh or Oklahoma, she says, budget will always limit your design execution. It doesn’t seem like such a bad thing, though. It gives a designer their parameters, and if you prefer simplicity, like Hykes-Davis, then your goal is to find the most effective storytelling pieces.

Sabrina is a Bertolt Brecht fan. “I like that whole idea of taking things from the set and having them turn into something else,” and like the cart in Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. Seeing the set as almost another character creates strong, active concepts. Influenced by her Point Park professor, Hykes-Davis maintains that she is a big Robert Edmund Jones’ fan as well.

“He was a designer, stenographer, and I think he was in the 1920s,” she explains to me. “His big thing was: when you walk into a theatre and see the set, you should just know what the play’s about. The whole play. Just from looking at the set. I think that might be a little bit of a stretch, but I think it can capture it. It should be so tied in with what’s going on that it’s not scenery just because it’s scenery.”

However, she clarifies that, metaphor abuse notwithstanding, “Don’t try to fit too much metaphor into one object. If it takes more than four steps to justify it, you’re probably stretching.”

She’s learned from designers all over the country, in different cities, theatres, from undergraduate and graduate degree settings, and from her own peers, but she credits her parents with being her most influential mentors. “My parents set me on this course. Most people have parents that want them to have a ‘real major’ and mine just think it is cool that I do theatre. For better or worse, money wasn’t anything they were too concerned about us having growing up, so they don’t measure my success that way.”

Sabrina Hykes-Davis and her husband dined with me in the afternoon like friendly neighbors, shared stories with ease, and complimented each other like happy married couples do. Her voice doesn’t obnoxiously project over a crowd like mine; she’s softer-spoken, but no less quick-witted or funny. Considering her traveling experience and all of the straight-up design credits she has accumulated, she is surprisingly humble and kind. Indeed, I think that description alone says something about the unique quality of Pittsburgh theatre in a nutshell: we should be proud that we’ve created an environment in which a warm-hearted and hardworking person like Sabrina Hykes-Davis measures as a success.

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