Eric Davis sat by the window of the Side Door Deli, talking about the dreams he chases on behalf of the theater across the parking lot. He was in rehearsals for The Pirates of Penzance, his mashup of Star Wars, Star Trek and the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.
Most days, this is his lunch spot. He gestured as he described the challenges of running Freefall Theatre, where he is producing artistic director. One hand periodically flew backward as the other worked on a chicken salad sandwich.
As Freefall's primary artistic voice, and a discriminating consumer of some of Tampa Bay's most singular works, Davis is used to answering the questions on any reporter's checklist.
Biggest challenges? Balancing the money against the standards he requires, putting a half-dozen union actors or more on stage.
Why does he get neck deep in a show's technical aspects, contributing to costumes and sets and designing the video display?
"You are asking somebody to spend $50 on a seat," Davis said. "It's not like you can say, 'I invested this money in this great work of art, but then I have it.' It disappears. And if you have something that just sort of passes down like a baked chicken breast, and you say, 'That's nice.' Well, what are we here for?"
Only one topic seemed to stop Davis cold. The dreaded g-word.
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Davis, 42, started Freefall with Kevin Lane, his former partner. The first production, The Wild Party, ran in 2008 and at the [email protected], as did other shows in the theater's early days. Freefall opened in 2011 at its current location, a former Christian Science church on Central Avenue. A relentless ambition has kept him moving ever since, infusing every part of productions.
Timothy Saunders, the theater's patron services manager who also lectures on Freefall's plays during the season, said Davis approaches his shows with a laserlike focus.
"He has created garments, fabricated things, built scene pieces and costume pieces and properties himself, sometimes because we're a small staff but sometimes because his vision is so specific," said Saunders, 33. "He is a drawer, painter, sculptor and author all in one package, and that is the thing that makes his work really stand out in this area."
The approach has created the best kind of fan in the performing arts, those who come even if they have never heard of the work being performed.
"Freefall's primary supporters are along for the ride," said local actor Becca McCoy. "They trust Eric. Freefall has found its niche, and they are creating something in the community that wouldn't exist without them."
Davis grew up in Reno, Nev., the son of an engineer and a teacher. He always knew he wanted to spend his life in the theater and acted professionally for years. A classically trained singer, he also taught music for five years at Tampa's Blake High School, an arts magnet. He spent four years as part of a resident theater company at what is now the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, where he sang the bass role in Forever Plaid.
One of his former students at Blake, Hayden Milanes, went on to play Frankie Valli in the national tour of Jersey Boys. But despite having a lead role in a major tour, he yearned to perform for his former teacher inside Freefall's modest black box.
It happened. A decade out of high school, Milanes studied sheet music before a rehearsal of The Pirates of Penzance, in which he played the Pirate King. Pirates ends its run today.
"I've always had my eye on doing something here," Milanes said. "It's a dream of mine, doing this show with Eric."
Davis wrote the adaptation on the assumption that studios would release another Star Trek or Star Wars movie. It was simply providential that Star Trek Beyond came out around the same time Pirates did. That's perfectly appropriate, Milanes said, pointing a thumb toward Davis across the set.
"If there is someone who can put The Pirates of Penzance in space and make it work, it's that guy over there," he said.
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People have been calling Davis a genius for years. The word pops up even more frequently when Davis does his thing, which is throwing together some unlikely concepts and making it seem preordained. There was the time he played 22 characters in The Tempest, reconfigured as a story about a Cuban refugee; his Oscar Wilde adaptation, The Importance of Being Earnest With Zombies; and now Pirates.
Asked about that label, he frowned. His nostrils flared, as if reacting to ammonia capsules.
"It's nice that they say that, but I just can't let that affect me," Davis said. He doesn't have the time to invest, he said, can't get caught up, and it wouldn't go him any good if he did.
The opinions of others, good or bad, "don't help me do my job."
That job never really ends. The last show of the summer leads directly into the fall. An eternal quest, not only to stay afloat but to continually improve, sounds more like the way Davis describes his work than any label, even a complimentary one.
"You are reaching for your goals," he said. "You're striving. And then just when you get there, the goal seems just out of reach."
No matter who else is coming or going, Freefall's office at 6099 Central Ave. is usually staffed by Cooper, Davis' mutt, and Brian, a Westie that belongs to actor Matthew McGee, the theater's outreach coordinator. With Davis gone after lunch for a rehearsal, executive director Cheryl Forchilli reflected on the theater's driving force.
She was at the Side Door earlier and saw Davis cringe at the g-word. She "could have predicted exactly how Eric would have reacted." The reticence comes out of humility, she said, and the lack of any meaningful choice for Davis.
"He does this work because it's who he is," Forchilli said. "The reason this team of people puts in 80 or 100 hours a week of blood, sweat and tears is because he is a genius, and it is remarkable. He could work anywhere in this industry. To have him here and doing the work that he's doing is phenomenal."
That singularity might also be a drawback. Davis has directed nearly all of Freefall's shows, leading to a certain sameness or recognizability.
Those shows deserved all of the accolades they got. But imagine if an art museum exhibited the same painter's work, month after month. You might get tired of it, even if it's Picasso.
"There is a possibility it gets wearing," Saunders said. "Eric is not a megalomaniac in terms of thinking he must direct everything. ... He would like Freefall to grow into a haven for other directors."
The theater plans to bring in a couple of guest directors this season. But Davis said it all comes down to money. By taking on most shows himself, he said, "I don't have to pay a director."
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Davis stood with arms folded, studying his actors as they repeated a number in which Frederic leaves Mabel to return to the pirate ship.
Just an hour earlier, Kaylin Seckel, who played Mabel, had whipped out the g-word about her director.
"I think he's a genius," Seckel said. "He has an organized vision. He knows exactly what he wants."
Soon she and Lerew were rehearsing a sad duet in the second act with straight-faced, Gilbert and Sullivan silliness.
Davis tweaked the choreography as if it were all part of a conversation, and each adjustment heightened the humor — a drop to one knee here, a piratelike slash of the hand there.
"So super cheesy," Davis said.
Several times, the director and both actors broke up laughing. Within a half-hour they had nailed the duet, its ending sharpened to an exclamation point.
"Cool," Davis said.
And then, "Do the whole thing again."
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.