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Versatile actor honed his stage skills decades ago at Davis High

Matt Edwards Much AdoW

Matt Edwards (Benedick) and Susanna Risser (Beatrice) star in "Much Ado About Nothing." Daniel Salas/Courtesy photo

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From page A1 | July 18, 2014 |

Check it out

What: “Much Ado About Nothing” and “She Loves Me”

When: Presented in repertory on Thursdays through Sundays through Aug. 3; discounted tickets to “Much Ado” are offered Friday night to Davis Chamber of Commerce members

Where: Veterans’ Memorial Theater, 203 E. 14th St.

Tickets: $20 general, $18 for students and seniors, $15 children 12 and under

Info: www.shakespearedavis.org

Actor Matt Edwards, who is featured in both of this summer’s Davis Shakespeare Festival shows, got his start in the profession at Davis High School.

Edwards grew up in Davis, attending the old West Davis Elementary (now César Chávez Elementary), the old West Davis Intermediate (now Willett Elementary), the old Emerson Junior High (now the Davis school district’s Susan B. Anthony office building at 526 B St.), and Davis High School.

“I’m a proud product of the Davis public school system,” Edwards said.

And what he learned as a teenager helped launch Edwards in his career. While a student at Davis High (Class of 1979), Edwards enrolled in theater classes taught by Dave Burmester.

“We did musicals, plays by George Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare,” Edwards recalled. “Dave also had an improv company; we became very nimble. We were always thinking on our feet, and that helped a lot” when Edwards became a professional actor later in life.

Edwards also took music classes taught by Dick Brunelle.

“He led a Madrigal Choir, and I was in that,” Edwards said. “He taught me to sight-read (sheet music),” a skill that came in handy when Edwards auditioned for roles in musical theater productions.

Looking back on the skills he honed as a young performer under Burmester and Brunelle, “It was a sort of boot camp for professional theater. … As a kid, you have no frame of reference, we just did what the class did. But in retrospect, I realize how incredibly awesome they were.”

After graduating from DHS, Edwards went on to Humboldt State University, where he continued to be involved in theater. He also took a summer job in the Grand Tetons, “and stayed for about a year. … I kind of became a ski bum.”

Edwards pursued further studies at the Old Globe (at the University of San Diego), earning a master’s of fine arts degree.

And he was inspired by the now-legendary 1984 production of “Henry IV, Part I” at the Shakespeare Santa Cruz festival, which featured Royal Shakespeare Company member Paul Whitworth as the rebellious crown prince Hal (costumed a la the androgynous English pop star Boy George, hugely popular at the time) making his grand entrance riding down a hill and onto the outdoor stage astride a loud motorcycle.

Edwards took master classes taught by internationally known Shakespeareans Ian Richardson (who did the original BBC “House of Cards” series), Ian McKellen and Ben Kingsley.

And as his career took off, Edwards developed skills in stage combat; he is a member of the Society of American Fight Directors. As an actor, he appeared in two Broadway shows, several off-Broadway productions, a number of regional theaters and Shakespeare festivals, and several films and television shows. He’s also done voiceover work, and is a member of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association.

He lived in New York for years, and — having been raised in Davis, and being fond of bicycles — he pedaled around Manhattan.

“You can take a kid out of Davis, but you can’t take Davis out of the kid,” Edwards quipped.

But bicycling in the big city leads to bumps and scrapes. Eventually, Edwards got hit by a gypsy cab that was making a tight U-turn, and he ended up taking a ride in an ambulance.

“My wife said ‘That’s it, we’re moving.’ ” Edwards recalled. “Now I’m a big proponent of helmets.”

The couple eventually settled in Davis, and Edwards appeared in the role of the melancholy Jacques in last year’s Davis Shakespeare Ensemble production of “As You Like It,” which was performed outdoors in the gazebo at UC Davis Arboretum. Edwards also auditions for roles in various parts throughout California and the nation: “You work where you can work,” he said.

He’s pleased to be in this summer’s new Davis Shakespeare Festival at the Veterans’ Memorial Theater, a project that grew out of the local ensemble’s summer shows in the gazebo over the past few years. In the Shakespeare comedy “Much Ado About Nothing,” Edwards plays Benedick, the male lead. And in the musical “She Loves Me” he plays Kodaly, one of the employees at a high-class perfume shop in Budapest.

Edwards enjoys working with the young artists who organized the Davis Shakespeare Festival, including co-artistic director Rob Salas. Salas did his undergraduate work in English and dramatic art at Harvard, earned an MFA in directing at UC Irvine and was assistant director on a production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland last year.

Co-artistic director Gia Battista, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English and theater at UC Davis, created a show last year titled “Nightingale” that won honors at the San Francisco Fringe Festival. And musician/composer Richard Chowenhill, who did his undergraduate studies in music at UCD and is now a Ph.D. candidate in music composition and theory at Brandeis, composed music for “Much Ado About Nothing” and last year’s production of  “As You Like It.”

“Rob and Gia produce, they direct, they each do about a million things a day, everything from organizing the box office to changeovers between shows,” Edwards said. “And Richard’s music adds so much to the productions.”

Edwards said he also enjoys working with veteran actress and theater educator Susanna Risser, who plays Beatrice, his opposite in “Much Ado.”

“She is a gift from the theater gods,” Edwards said. “There’s good chemistry between us, which makes it so much easier” to present the famously barbed remarks between Benedick and Beatrice.

The Davis Shakespeare shows continue through Aug. 3.

And what of the future? Edwards said he wants to keep doing Shakespeare, whose plays contain prominent roles for men at various stages in their lives.

“I’ve probably missed the chance to do Romeo, or Hamlet, at this point,” he said. “I would love to play the Scot,” he added, honoring the longtime custom among actors not to utter the name “Macbeth” in conversation. “And I’ve always wanted to do the histories. … I love all ‘the Henrys.’ ”

— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or 530-747-8055.

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