Set designer gets Playhouse ready for summer shows

When Billy Davis decided that “acting wasn’t quite my thing,” that didn’t mean he turned away from t
Billy Davis, set designer for "Spamalot."
Billy Davis, set designer for "Spamalot."

When Billy Davis decided that “acting wasn’t quite my thing,” that didn’t mean he turned away from the theater.

Instead, Davis, an Albany High grad, has become a set designer, and while he’s based in New York City most of the year, this summer he’s in his hometown of Albany helping Park Playhouse prepare for its 25th season in Washington Park with a production of “Spamalot,” opening Friday.

“My first year here was 15 years ago, and I was just 15 years old,” remembered Davis, who went on to study graphic design at the Pratt Institute in New York City.

“I did some acting, and I also did a few things at the Capital Repertory Theatre. But then I got more interested in architecture, drawings and paintings, and I think the natural progression would be working as a designer.”

He works in the fashion industry in New York as a stylist, “putting clothes on models,” as he likes to say, and also does commercial photography work for clients such as Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue. He enjoys that and it pays the bills, but it’s not what he’s really passionate about.

Monty Python’s ’Spamalot’

WHERE: Lakehouse at Washington Park, Albany

WHEN: Opens Friday at 8 p.m. and runs through July 28; performance times are 8 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday

HOW MUCH: Reserved tickets, $22-$14; general admission, free

MORE INFO: 434-0776 or

“Doing stage design and scenery for the theater is truly what I want to do,” he said. “I have done some of that in New York and I did do a show that is opening at the Canal St. Theatre on July 18. When I was asked to come here for the summer and work for Park Playhouse I knew it’d be a great opportunity for me.”

Double duty

Davis will be designing both sets for the two main productions this summer. After “Spamalot” concludes its run, “Shrek” will take center stage Aug. 6-18. In both Broadway productions, the set design was by Tim Hatley.

“Designing both shows is something I wouldn’t normally do, so it is a bit of a challenge,” said Davis. “Fortunately, the sets were designed by the same guy on Broadway, and they both have that medieval 15th century look to them. In some ways I was a little wary of doing two shows and having to change everything over. But with these two shows, we’ll just be making a few small changes here and there.”

According to Park Playhouse Producing Artistic Director Owen Smith, recruiting Davis for the job of set designer was one of his better ideas.

“I knew that he acted with us a while ago at Park Playhouse 2, and I knew that he had been working in the fashion industry in New York,” Smith said.

“I thought he might be itching to get back into some stage design work and we’re glad he did. The set is great and beautifully painted. What Billy has done is turn it into something that looks like a pop-up book with two walls that are like book binders. It’s as if you’re looking at a bookshelf, and within that shelf is a toy theater. He’s done a great job.”

While Davis said he enjoys actually putting together the set, most of the actual physical labor and props are supplied by Upstate Scenic, owned by another Albany native, Andy Smith.

“We’ve teamed up a few times now, and Andy is the one who actually constructs the stage and the scenery,” said Davis. “What I do is design everything on paper, draft it onto the computer, and then we have meetings. Then it gets sent to the director, he looks at it, and then they start building.”

Getting directions

The director for “Spamalot” is Michael LaPorta, who initially met with Davis last month.

“It’s Michael who gives me my initial direction and tells me what he thinks his concept of the stage should look like,” said Davis. “I’ve seen ‘Spamalot’ on stage a lot, but I’m not nearly as familiar with ‘Shrek.’ But, anyway, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t look at any other production to see what they did. I read the script, talk to the director and figure out what are the needs of our show.”

This summer’s audiences might not recognize them in their “Spamalot” or “Shrek” costumes, but a number of Park Playhouse favorites will be on stage in Washington Park, beginning with Steven Earl-Edwards. Earl-Edwards played King Arthur in “Camelot” 15 years ago at the Park Playhouse, and he will be playing him in “Spamalot” this summer.

“It’s a very different King Arthur, but I was very glad he decided to come up and work with us again,” Smith said of Edwards, who has also played Captain Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music,” Professor Higgins in “My Fair Lady” and Professor Harold Hill in “The Music Man” at Park Playhouse. “He’s an actor first, which is what you need for this role, but he’s also a very good singer.”

Saratoga Springs’ Molly McGrath, who was Annie Oakley in “Annie Get Your Gun” in 2010, will play the Lady of the Lake, and Vincent DiPeri, who played Edna Turnblad last summer in “Hairspray” and Roger De Bris in “The Producers” in 2011, is back as Sir Bedevere. New York City-based actor Jeremy Geller will play Shrek.

Dual productions

This is the second summer that Park Playhouse has produced two full-scale productions in one season.

“It allows us not to market to just one audience,” said Smith. “Having a different show in the month of August gives people a reason to come back. It worked out very well for us last year, and we’re hoping that will happen again this year. ‘Spamalot’ is a little bit more adult-oriented, with some silly and naughty stuff in it, and ‘Shrek’ is more family friendly. I would love us to do three or four shows a season in the future.”

Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]

Categories: Entertainment

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