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The passing of Heidi Helen Davis

December 20, 2011

Director, teacher and actress Heidi Helen Davis known for her work in Los Angeles at the Theatricum Botanicum, Mark Taper Forum, East West Players and Ensemble Studio Theatre has died. She was 60. Ms. Davis died December 15th at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles after a yearlong struggle with breast cancer. Her son and ex-husband were by her side.

Known for her innovative work as a director, she began her career as an actress at the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in San Francisco where she appeared in several productions including “Peer Gynt,” “Heartbreak House” and “The Little Foxes.” She also played Isabella in “Measure for Measure” at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria and Solvang, California in 1980. She was revered by her numerous acting and directing students over the years at many schools, most recently at the Howard Fine Studio and the Los Angeles Film School. She also worked as the acting coach on the Showtime mini-series “Fidel” in 2000, and on the feature film “Memoirs of a Geisha” in 2003.

Born in 1951 in Wichita, Kansas, the second of four children of Robert A. and Nana Tomita Davis, she grew up in Palo Alto California. She trained with Phillip Pruneau of the Poverty Players and at ACT under the direction of Bill Ball and Allen Fletcher. In 1984 she married cinematographer Lloyd Freidus. They had one son, Benjamin, and were divorced in 1991. At the time of her death she was directing a class production of “Loose Ends” at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, where she had taught for the past three years.

Since 1985 she had staged more than twenty plays at Theatricum Botanicum. Artistic Director Ellen Geer said, “She had a way of working with actors that allowed risk and complete exploration guided by instinct. A rare gift for a director. I saw a piece of hers about Japanese internment camps in the late 80s. Remarkable direction. I asked to meet her and she was my compatriot in art from then on.” Memorable productions at Theatricum included her adaptation of “The Cherry Orchard” set in the old American south, a superb “Our Town” and her heartbreaking production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

James Pasternak, a colleague at the Los Angeles Film School where she taught from 2001 to 2010, said: “She taught film directors how to direct actors. Her mastery was immediately recognized and she was given her own studio at the school. She was fearless in her quest for dramatic truth. She had an uncanny diagnostic talent, derived from her own successful directing, that helped other directors find a unique vision of their movie, and a way to collaborate with the actors and crew to realize that vision. She had a fierce intelligence, moral strength, tough love mothering, a quick laugh, a teasing manner, and a big heart. The whole school is in mourning.”

After staging its world premiere at [Inside] the Ford in L.A. in 2010, Ms. Davis directed and championed the UK premiere of EM Lewis’s “Song of Extinction” at Venue 13 for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The play revolves around a teenage son coming to grips with his mother dying of cancer.

She is survived by her son, Benjamin Lyon Freidus, 22, her parents and three siblings.

In lieu of flowers, Ms. Davis requested that donations be sent to Theatricum Botanicum. It was her wish that the funds be dedicated to mentoring the next generation of theater artists. As a person of mixed race, she strongly endorsed the Theatricum’s mission to expose all races to the great works. Donations may be sent to: The Heidi Helen Davis Intern Fund at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, P.O. Box 1222, Topanga, CA 90290. A public memorial at Theatricum Botanicum, which had been her artistic home over the past 26 years, is planned for next spring.

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