By Pam Chickering
Seven years ago, The Mode Theatre was a memory, a dusty shell of what it had once been.
The projection room remained intact, along with the sloped floor and theater seats downstairs, but the building had been empty for years, since television and home video spelled the demise of the small town movie house.
While blockbuster movies have not returned to the historic building, theater has. And this time around it is live theater: original, interactive, challenging, and always, controversial.
The person responsible for this transformation is Jinx Davis, whose flamboyance and outspoken attitude have earned her as many enemies as friends and whose work had inspired a loyal following of thousands from the Waterloo area to around the world.
A native Wisconsinite who’d spent too much of her life apart from her roots, Davis returned to the Midwest after a failed marriage to attain her MFA, (equivalent to a PhD,) in theater, leaving behind a successful professional career in TV and radio and as a vice president of a CPA firm.
In the last three years, Davis has performed 18 one-woman plays and hosted many concerts, gatherings, and art openings in the renovated theater, which also serves as a home for Davis, her partner Andy Pizer, and their children, Thane Holland, Anthony Pizer and Drew Pizer.
“Andy and I met on a film,” Davis said, “I was hired to be a narrator for the film, and Andy was an extra. He’d just bought the theater, which was standing empty, and wanted to make mini-malls out of it. I saw it, and I said, ‘No-this is a theater.’”
And the idea for a performance space was born.
The renovation process took two years. In the meantime, Davis and Pizer opened a café in the little barbershop adjacent to the theater, as a way of keeping money coming in while they undertook the project.
The Barbershop Café served customers for five years, when Trek Bicycle Corporation built them a kitchen and invited the operation in-house.
In August of 1991, the Mode opened as a hall for gatherings, the first event being a 15-year reunion for the Waterloo High School Class of 1976. In 1992, the Mode started its art openings, featuring artists from the Waterloo, Lake Mills, and Madison areas.
“All this time, we were fighting for the custody of our children, Andy’s and mine, and when that finally came through, I had my first show,” Davis said. “I remember not knowing if we were going to make it back from Texas in time.”
Davis made the first show a tribute to her mentor, the historical actress Ruth Draper, a fighter for the French Resistance and the first woman to perform solo in 38 foreign countries.
“She too, refused to do ‘normal’ theater,” Davis said. “Every time she did, it flopped.”
Until she opened the Mode, Davis had done traditional theater as well—Shakespeare, Thornton Wilder, work by the South African playwright Athol Fugard, the Holocaust plays.
But Davis calls herself “a director’s nightmare” because she wouldn’t do the same play the same way twice.
“I was always hungry for something else,” she said. “I don’t like looking out and pretending something (the audience) isn’t there.”
“I found one-woman plays, for me, were the only way for me to grow emotionally,” Davis said.
“They make you face up to your flaws, and exercise your skills without being able to rely on anyone else: Not actors, not the playwright.”
“You have to expose yourself and trust, which to me is a metaphor for what we need to learn to do in life,” Davis added.
Davis said she’d always dreamed she’d run her own theater, but that she’d envisioned it in the inner city.
“I never imagined I’d be in Waterloo, but here I am,” she said.
Davis started out inviting friends to her productions, and has slowly built a mailing list of 8,000, some of whom are loyal fans who will come see the same show several times.
Almost every night, she said, the audience has someone from outside the U.S., but a lot of her audiences come from the small towns right here in southern Wisconsin.
In fact, about 50 percent of the mailing list addresses are rural, very atypical for theater, and many addresses on the lists are those of senior citizens.
All Davis’ shows have dealt with potentially uncomfortable subjects: Racism, abuse, the breakup of families, and the divides in our culture. She’s portrayed women pioneers, like Aimee Semple McPherson, a turn of the century evangelist who also raised hackles. Also uncomfortable, for people raised on more traditional theater, is Davis’ interactive approach—soliciting response from the audience and inviting them to participate in creating the show.
On show, “Miss Jinx Teaches School,” in which Davis challenges audiences to interact with the Hitler-like character she took on, proved so controversial that though it packed the theater every night and garnered critical acclaim from reviewers in Milwaukee and Madison, it lost her half the audiences who had been loyal up to that point, and gained her others.
“We’ll never make it big because of the issues we bring up,” Davis said.
Davis’ family background explains a little bit of where she’s coming from. Her father, a children’s literature, black literature and film literature professor in Madison, played a big part in the civil rights movement.
She didn’t merely grow up reading Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss: She knew them, thanks to her father’s position. She had a loving, supportive home and a comfortable living.
But because of her own secure background, Davis said, she feels it’s part of her responsibility to bring up those parts of human nature that make us insecure, some parts of human society which are more marginalized—whether it’s the physically or mentally disabled, or people challenged by their color or economic status.
Locally, she has done a lot of work with the developmentally disabled adults in the St. Coletta School, inviting them on to her stage and helping them put together their own show recently for their parents.
“Ideally, I’d like to go around to schools with a small group from St. Colletta’s.” she said. “They have such stories to tell, and they tell them so eloquently.”
Just off her held-over production of “The Winds of Heaven,” a play about “passing for black” in the American South, Davis is just finishing up her 1996 season with six shows of “Favorites,” a collection of various turn-of-the-century skits.
Next year, Davis plans a swing backwards towards the traditional, with a couple of tributes to historical women and an examination of Shakespeare’s women.
With the help of a Quaker woman in Fort Atkinson who has known the Zona Gale family for years, she’s begun researching the life of the famous Wisconsin writer. (Gale did the majority of her work in the 1910s and 1920s).
But whatever the topic, audiences can expect a colorful, emotional performance…and a certain amount of raised eyebrows in Waterloo and across the state.