David Hicks: Enlightened Spaces

by Ross Jackson
David Hicks
David Hicks

David S. Robinson Hicks is a Stage Manager, Actor, and Writer based in Los Angeles. David's connection to the arts was fostered by his family, who operated a network of non-profit efforts to deliver enrichment to underserved youth. David had the honor of assisting in the expansion of these efforts, which provided scholarships and vocational training for rising artists and at-risk youth in Greater LA and New York City. After re-discovering his love for technical theater in high school, David set about working with stage management teams at theaters such as The Pasadena Playhouse, Geffen Playhouse, and Theatricum Botanicum.

How has being as a person of color harmed and/or helped your career?
Well, in the way that it harms, it’s often if I’m hired by a phone interview. There’s always some confusion at the first production meeting. That’s not something that’s a product of our field specifically, and while it is amusing, I can’t wait to see it change. Most concepts people have about people of color, usually don’t represent the outliers of us that participate in the theater. So combating oppressive notions from my own corner of a larger racial base is another factor.

However, it’s helped because it’s allowed me to be a sounding board for artists of color. As the connective tissue between departments, there’s comfort for a creative person. Often, creatives of color are made more sensitive due to the inherit demands of the job, in addition to systemic challenges. Their thought process may be “I wouldn’t be asked to move on this if I were white” and my presence and input may contextualize it differently. Whether that can be attributed to myself individually, or simply my race.

How has your race/ethnicity influenced your career journey?
Celebrating everyone’s culture and what they are. Sometimes the shows I end up working on present cultural aspects that I had shied away from in a different way—allowing me to embrace them. Availing myself to learn more about myself and others through the work we do is influencing because it inspires me to do my job better.

It goes back to how I want people to be able to take ownership of this career. Everyone in my family that I run into, I have to urge that this is a valid career path. Their reaction; “Oh, we want to see you on stage!” tells me that we need to continue to push technical theater forward for people of color. The idea of being a stage manager doesn’t often exist for us. In the industry that we have, if there can be a space made for me to be on stage, they can make a space for me to be next to them working toward their same goal. 

It’s an assumption of effort and personal demand, how the interactions of a Stage Manager are coded that make it difficult to know if people will be willing to receive them from a person of color. That’s one of the reasons I think that this isn’t a career path that’s often recommended to us. When I saw other people do it and all of the modes of leadership enacted, working under these people, I was always leading with empathy. “How would they approach this?” To show continuity in a team, reduce friction, and to learn their leadership styles. The information I picked up passing through those challenges demystified the idea that I couldn’t do it.

What would you like for people of color considering—or in the early stages of—a theatre career to know?
Instead of contending with the idea that they don’t understand you, lead with empathy and do what you can to learn about them.

Know that there’s always a mental place for yourself. Whenever I had a tough moment, I always knew that theater was a part of me. Knowing that I was almost born on the floor of the Shubert Theater during August Wilson’s Seven Guitars. The first Broadway show I saw was Caroline, or Change. Where this doubt is coming from does not pre-date your right to be a part of this community. The closer you remain to people that are working on themselves, the more inclined you are to improve yourself as well.

I came to stage management at a time that I needed direction. The self-improvement aspect has kind of rested in that. There are always living examples of how to do this job and remain human. The more we arrive in our work, the less people will perpetuate the assumptions of our job. Our community is unique and that’s its strength. Artists are responding as close to real-time as we can to what’s happening in the world and what they’re seeing and putting it into action.

Who was it that helped formulate who you are as a person of color trying to express your art in a white-dominated field?
Sheldon Epps. The stories he’s championed and coming in under his leadership gave me a balanced working environment where my input is all I was judged on. Kiss Me Kate, my first show with Sheldon, reimagined through the lens of a troupe of traveling performers akin to the Negro Ensemble Company, was my first time getting in touch with that level of talent. The manner in which he had handled it was all the illustration I needed going forward. His calm assurance that there was something beyond what was initially being given on stage was particularly inspiring.

The work he was doing was happening at a time that I had to let go of my previous service outlet, working with children through social outreach. What he did with that show let me know that I wasn’t really leaving service behind going into theater.

David working backstage.Where are you from and how has that influenced your work?
I was born in New York and that influenced my work because my family was already working adjacent to it. Sheldon was a part of my vocabulary growing up. My parents work in group sales. They told me all about my Seven Guitars birth story and also Play On which Sheldon and Rahn did together. The stories of theaters were always told to me in my low moments, so of course I gravitated to them. When I moved to Malibu, which is mostly where I grew up, the ways in which I had to seek community were often roundabout and I found myself sort of nursing a cultural identity in the back of shop, as it were. As I ended up testing ideas that would bring personal fulfillment without betraying that cultural idea that I had of myself, I started to develop the diagram that I would use today in theater, which is usually a similarly enlightened space.

How has working with a company that has leadership of color differed from more white-dominated companies?
The positive experiences that I’ve had come from working with people that are guided by a positive mindset working within a company that’s already liberated. People are allowed to lead with their artistic sense and mindset. It feels less like a corporate environment. It feel more like I’m brokering a passage of ideas that will come to affect people. The conversations that have already been had, the freedom to work, and the creation of new talking points all help make it a unique experience. If we aren’t hung up on the risk of violating what’s already known to be out-of-bounds, we have the opportunity to look back on processes with greater ease. That leads us to greater opportunities for our future as well.

When barriers exist, they don’t always allow us to be seen in our entirety. Working with an artistic staff that knew who I was, there was no obstacle to find a path to make myself better.

Tell us about the nonprofit your family owned.
The organization was called Brotherhood Through The Arts Foundation. Their work began in the 80's, with a core model of instruction in Drama, Dance, Music, and Visual Arts. Brotherhood’s grassroots efforts paired its resident artists with educators who came to the Foundation with their class’ set of needs. Through acquiring scholarships for local instruction, producing socially conscious original content, and connecting youth in transition with job opportunities, Brotherhood sought to bring creative fulfillment to artists with a holistic approach to the community.  

Exposing youth to entrepreneurial concepts sat at the core of Brotherhood’s enrichment activities, the goal was to remove any possible barriers to access for the youth they served. Operations started in New York City at the Oberia Dempsey Building, upon branching their services to Los Angeles, Brotherhood earned the endorsement of Mark Ridley Thomas, and a close partnership with LA’s Best Afterschool Programs. Moving into the 2000's, Brotherhood continued to fill voids for youth while introducing them to emerging media. In addition to the touring performances of Brotherhood's original programming, participants joined the crew and contributed to the score of a number of filmed works, such as a celebration of Jackie Robinson's life entitled Youth In Salute 

Do you believe that theater can be an effective means of protest?
Absolutely. I think it’s the most effective. We have an audience making a conscious commitment to share. In my recent experiences, it’s been a real test of character. Is anyone in the audience in my personal circle? Are they going to put out two hours of time to receive a message from something that stands to be the most balanced of anything currently being produced? Those are all questions I have to ask myself. Not to say that I’ve lost all of my friends because of theater, but it has been a great measure of realness. As a young person, I can see that as a gift from theater itself. It can pull the lid off of a lot of people that haven’t yet figured out how they want to express themselves in life. Since we always seem to shy away from what helps us most, it stands to reason they should see more shows, right?

In the General Public, what do you think is the definition of “Stage Manager” and how does it differ from our reality?
When I say Production Assistant in public, the definition doesn’t go much further to “gopher”. When I say “Stage Manager” they don’t see anything more than someone on a stool with a clipboard.

The reality is that I’ve been able to be the best in my position as a PA when I was empowered to look at it as an Assistant Stage Managing position. The Stage Manager’s role is just that. To imply importance to every aspect of the production. To ensure that everyone has been heard. It’s perhaps the greatest victory and casualty of how the Stage Manager is defined by the public today.

In being a stage manager through work-study growing up, it was just a lot of shouting at kids for me. When I learned that it was very much life on a submarine, keeping everything running, I then learned that everything had craft and purpose in addition to the yelling. I then felt that I could settle in to it. Now I do a lot less yelling.

Do you have a favorite type of production you like to work on?
I really do love musicals. Which goes back to my first show. But it’s also the New Musicals I’ve been able to work on. Refrains get stuck in my head that only a small amount of people have heard. The connection when the musical gets revived and moves on, there’s pride in others being able to enjoy the piece and hear the work.

Was stage management your first theater-love?
While I did end up falling in love with it, on my first theatrical process (Kiss Me Kate), I was actually the music assistant. While working with Rahn Coleman, the skills I learned have directly transferred to how I approach stage management now From him, I took the people skills and the strength of being a filter for everyone in the process and brought that into my approach as a Stage Manager.

How did you get involved with Kiss Me Kate and Pasadena Playhouse?
It started with the Actors’ Fund’s Looking Ahead program. I had been involved in that for numerous years. It focused on providing additional outlets for young actors. The education director who pretty much raised me through the program referred me over the Seema Sueko and Joe Witt when the job posting came up at the Playhouse. That served as a bridge between one great support system to another.

What is one of your biggest goals when you look ahead to your career?
To continue improve my skills and transfer them to other previous outlets I’ve had through my life. From service to film production and let the generous nature of the theatrical environment guide me through those and perhaps improve me wherever I am.

Do you find a specific fulfillment or charge in working on stories of color?
Last year I went to New York to work on Port Chicago 50 with the NBT. Which was about a tragedy shouldered mostly by the black community in the Bay Area that most people don’t know about.  Dennis Rowe, the piece’s writer/director, puts it up in repertory multiple times a year and has earned himself a really loyal base. Being able to advance stories like that, that highlight moments of history and perspective that would otherwise be lost, that is very fulfilling.

There’s been an examination on nostalgia, the saying is “It’s the 80’s as we would have like to have seen them.” The attention we’re giving to Stranger Things etc. it’s really the same emphasis we’re putting on theatrical projects saying “We want to examine this world, too.”