A high-school excursion to a Toronto production of Peter Shaffer’s play, Equus, is what triggered David Skelton’s fascination with theatrical design.
“The set and the costumes were just so evocative, so simple, so full of meaning, and just so functional. Scene starts, scene ends, move, move, move, quickly, quickly,” Nakai Theatre’s artistic director recalls.
“I remember thinking, ‘There is a visual theatre language happening there.’ So much is inherently expressed in the visual presentation.”
As an undergrad at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, Skelton served two seasons as a “production slave” in a summer-stock company in nearby Barrie.
Soon after, he talked his way into a job with the Trent-based Magic Circus Theatre.
He laughingly recounts how the artistic director asked him at the job interview what he wanted to do.
“I said, ‘I’d like to write the plays.’ He said, ‘Well, no, you can’t do that, because Samuel Beckett has that taken.’ So I said, ‘Well then, I’d like to direct the plays.’ ‘Well, no. I’ve got that taken.’
“Then I pointed over to the designer and said, ‘Hell, I would even do what he’s doing.’ And he said, ‘OK, consider that you’re his assistant.’”
His two summers with Magic Circus included “a pretty crappy” English-language version of Oedipus Rex in several ancient amphitheatres in rural Greece, aimed at the tourist crowd. The venture was less than a triumph.
“It would be unfair to say nobody came, but not a lot of people came.”
Still, his work on six plays – four as assistant, two as designer – yielded a design portfolio he could show legendary critic-turned-director, Urjo Kareda at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre.
Following Kareda’s suggestion that he get some formal training, Skelton headed west and completed a master’s degree in theatre design at University of Alberta in 1987.
He remained in Edmonton for the next dozen years, working as a freelance designer there and in other Canadian cities. By 1999, he felt he had hit a plateau and decided to change locale.
“I said, ‘Well, Vancouver is bigger, and it might be the same, so I went there and found out that Vancouver is bigger, and it’s not at all the same,” he says.
“The live theatre that is there, they’re not interested in hiring anybody. Or they weren’t interested in hiring me, so that was disappointing.”
In 2001, Nakai’s former artistic director, Michael Clark, invited him to design a production of 60 Below, by Whitehorse playwrights Patti Flather and Leonard Linklater.
Then it was back to Peterborough, where he met his wife Colleen and continued working as a designer-for-hire in Toronto. Along the way, he also directed three plays for De-ba-jeh-mu-jig Theatre Group on Manitoulin Island.
In 2004, he returned to design Nakai’s set for The Drawer Boy. After a stint as designer-in-residence, he succeeded Clark as artistic director eight years ago.
“Going from any artistic freelance endeavour to being an artistic director is a big jump, because you’re not doing your art; you’re an administrator.”
Instead of being involved in the “beautiful little details” that concern designers and directors, the AD’s role “requires a much broader kind of vision, and a level of pragmatism that doesn’t always exist in artists,” he says.
It also requires an ability to step back and resist micromanaging productions.
“If I’m hiring a director, I go with their choices, because it’s their vision I want,” he says. “It’s such a profound insult to the director if you have an artistic director hanging over their shoulder and asking for changes.”
At this point, an ill-advised question causes an unexpected turn in the conversation.
After being asked if this hands-off protocol sometimes forces him to bite his tongue, Skelton leaves a brief pause before answering lightly: “I have seizures where I bite my tongue, so my tongue is pretty used to it. My tongue is like leather.”
Skelton is not shy about discussing his epilepsy. He even jokes that a career in theatre is not an ideal choice for someone with his condition.
“Epilepsy is brought on by alcohol, by not enough sleep, not good eating, and stress in general. And that’s what theatre does to you.”
On the flip side, he claims his work has actually benefitted from his epilepsy.
“It has changed my esthetic, and that’s in no way exaggerating,” he says.
“The relationship of space and texture and scale and colour is all influenced by things that I’ve perceived during a seizure.”
Skelton is proud of initiatives such as the annual Pivot Theatre Festival, which introduces cutting-edge performances to Yukon audiences, and the company’s nurturing of new local playwrights.
Still, there a few options he might explore if, or when, the Nakai gig came to a close.
One would be to create a small company to work on long-term touring projects, supplemented by freelance design work.
If not theatre, “I think architecture could be fun, and landscape architecture specifically.”
For Skelton, the language of each clearly echoes the other.
“They are about space and texture and meaning. The space has a relationship to the person who is wandering through it. It’s an emotional space, and you pick and choose.”