David Tannous can usually be found front row center at just about every production produced in the Washington area. In theatre circles, he is known as the man who attends every show. And he sees each production not just once but two or three times. “I like to catch a show early in the run, and then later to see how it has evolved,” he told us. In nominating him for the Award, one company member said “How can the first award for most spectacular audience member not go to David Tannous?”
His taste in theatre is expansive. He is as enthralled with the latest Taffety Punk show – “There were no sets and the props were so minimal they were almost not there – almost a throwaway joke. And that was just fine because what counted was the play itself and the actors and the direction, the inventiveness.” – as he is with those on DC’s large stages and big touring houses.
When you see him, he’ll be carrying a black Shakespeare Theatre bag stuffed with brochures from his favorite productions, which he’ll gladly share with you. And he’d like nothing better than to have a chat about theatre and the people who make it.
David Tannous was born in Minneapolis. In the winter. “At the age of three months, I decided no more Minnesota winters,” the 2011 Gary Maker Award winner said. “And so we moved to DC.”
He’s been here ever since with the exception of a four-year stint at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he got his bachelor’s degree in American Studies. He now lives in Annandale, VA.
Tannous is a man of eclectic talents – as a young man, he was a writer, editor and did layout for the Amherst College student newspaper but had only one true passion: Art. When thinking back on it, he says “In visual arts it is the artist as a person with all the experiences and life that the artist has lived, looking at life in the world, responding to it, filtering it, and producing his or her own response through the medium of the work of art. In effect, saying this is what I think about life, what I think about the world. Always a message – not in the sense of being didactic – but the artist’s message in a bottle, being incorporated in the work of art.”
Tannous first began to unscroll those messages in Amherst’s Mead Small Arts Museum. (The “Mead” in this case is not the famous local theater benefactor, but the architect William Rutherford Mead.) “I spent a great deal of my spare time in that museum, teaching myself about visual art, which I still love,” Tannous says. “And I took a couple of art courses – a studio course in which I found I was not an artist and also a couple of art history courses.”
At the same time, Tannous played a series of supporting roles in a student production of Richard III. “It was a very enlightening and strange experience for me to be in costume and make up, realizing that though I didn’t have many lines, whatever I was doing there was in interaction in the audience,” Tannous remembers. “We were creating something on the spot.”
Tannous received an affirmation for his love of the arts from an unexpected source – President John F. Kennedy, who arrived at Amherst to lay the cornerstone of the new Robert Frost Library a month before he was shot and killed. Tannous remembers the visit: “(It was) in the rickety old track and field stadium. At the beginning of the speech they had trouble with the wires to the public address system because the wires were running under the balcony, and the weight of the people on the balcony caused the balcony to sag, and the weight of the balcony on the wires made them short-circuit.” Kennedy was patient while the tech people reset the public address system, Tannous remembers.
It was worth the wait. “I remember…that all of us on the paper were hoping that we would be able to scoop the world if he would give some momentous announcement at this speech. But he gave a speech about the importance of the arts and the importance of culture in the life of any nation. As we listened to the speech, we realized how important a speech it was, not in a topical sense, but in a fundamental sense of giving insight on what is important in not only American civilization but in any civilization.”
“Our national strength matters,” Kennedy said then, “but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much… The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state… If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” Some of these words are now etched on the walls of the Kennedy Center.
After graduation, Tannous returned to DC and wrote art criticism for Woodwind, a free-form arts review publication whose contributors included future Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales. Tannous calls Woodwind “a kind of an incubator paper.”
“I started not only writing for them, but I would also go down and help them lay out the paper,” Tannous recalls affectionately. “I loved working for a paper. It was like putting together a piece of visual art”
Tannous eventually joined the Washington Star as a junior art critic, became the Washington corresponding editor for Art in America, and taught at the Smithonian’s resident associate program. “I taught a course called ‘meet the artist’. Each week the class would assemble at a different studio and I would discuss the work with the artist, with examples there at the studio, and the class would ask questions about ideas, techniques, how art develops, what sort of decisions the class makes. I would always make sure there was a range of different art in each course.”
He also became a mentor to emerging artists. “I became a visiting critic at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana, at the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, (at the) Maryland Institute in Baltimore, at George Mason.” He particularly remembers working with Rae Seahorn, who he recognized as gifted both as an actor and as a visual artist.
Tannous came later to theater in DC than he did to visual art, but this was largely because theater itself came later to DC than did visual art. However later he came to theater, he is an enthusiastic supporter now.
“What draws me to the theater in part is the immediacy, the unpredictability, the sense of group activity,” he explains.
“Not only in the people putting it on or producing it but the group activity in the audience. Each performance is different. Each performance is unique. Each performance is constructed with the collaboration of that specific audience. There is a sense of continuous discovery as the performance occurs. That wonderful productive tension between the given of the script the rehearsal, the knowledge that each actor has of the lines, of the blocking, of the movement, of the pace, and the things which cannot be known until they occur which are as follows: the particular accidents of that performance, the unexpected reactions large and small, the nuances of the other actors, the unexpected light bulb discoveries that an actor can have in the middle of a line, a scene, a performance – oh, that’s what that’s about and the unpredictability of the interaction with the audience.
Each audience reacts differently; each audience bats the ball back across the net in a different way.”
And that’s where you’ll find him. Front row center. Taking in the action. Getting ready for the return serve.