Jeff Davis has spent several decades behind the scenes in the world of theater.
He has built sets, designed lighting set-ups, run sound systems and managed production crews. In short, he has handled the hundreds of elements that go into a successful stage performance, including those at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
This summer, he’s going international as lighting operator for the concert tour of Alison Krauss, a Grammy-winning country-bluegrass singer and musician, and Robert Plant, former lead singer in Led Zeppelin.
“It’s been a very interesting experience trying to not be a fanboy in front of them,” said Davis, an assistant professor in the UTC Department of Performing Arts.
“They have been very approachable and kind to me and to everyone that I’ve seen. I mean, they are who they are and they are choosing to be kind when I’ve heard horror stories of people who aren’t.”
Davis will run the lighting console for 40 concerts on the summer leg of the Krauss/Plant tour, including the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, on June 17 and a jaunt to Europe with shows scheduled in England, Norway, Sweden, Italy, Germany and Poland.
Lighting designer and technical director are among the lessons Davis has taught for the past four years in courses at UTC. Along with lighting direction, he shown them how to use power tools to build sets and sewing machines to make costumes. On the high-tech side of things, students are taught how to properly run a sound system to ensure that vocals are understandable and instruments are bright.
He acknowledged it’s a lot to take in, especially for students fresh out of high school.
“I would say they’re overwhelmed at how much prep it takes to get a show off the ground,” he said, “because we really strive for professional-level quality. That jump from high-school level to college level is a big change.”
Along with his teaching duties, Davis has been the lighting designer for most UTC theatre productions during his time at the University. For the past two years, ongoing renovations of the Dorothy Ward Theatre in the Fine Arts Center have prevented performances there. The difficulty factor soared even higher when COVID-19 came along. Combine the two and you’ve got shows that must be produced in different locations on and off campus.
Some shows were held in the University Center Auditorium, but “Cats,” a collaboration with Chattanooga Ballet, took place on Chamberlain Field. “The Wolves” was in the gym at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences. “Love and Information” was performed in the wedding chapel at Lindsay Street Hall.
“As a lighting designer and as a technical director, you have to always be ready for the curveball and be prepared to make changes once the drawings and plans become a reality,” Davis said. “There has never been a show that I have done where I did not have to make some adjustments based on the real world.
“I tell the students all the time that they can’t get married to their artform so that they can make the changes needed based on what happens once it becomes a real thing.”
Steve Ray, associate head of the Department of Performing Arts, said meshing Davis’ personality with his understanding of the technical elements of theater production is invaluable to students.
“Jeff brings a huge amount of knowledge about both the concert world and the theater world to our program,” Ray said. “This is important because many of our technical students will go on to work in jobs outside the theater such as concert tours, industrial performances, technical sales and churches and other non-theater venues.
“The touring scene is intense and Jeff brings that intensity to his work. He wants things done well, while at the same time he wants the students to enjoy their projects. It’s a good combination for a life of working in technical theater—intensity and fun.”
For concerts on the Krauss/Plant tour, Davis is responsible for setting up the lights in the proper locations for each concert, a challenge since shows move from theater to theater from night to night.
“Every day, I have to make sure the lights are aimed in the correct spot as they were the night before,” he said. “All of that is to ensure that the show that happened last night in, say, Rochester is the same show that’s happening tonight in Chicago.”
Along with running lights at the recent Kane Brown show at Finley Stadium and the Heart Strings for Hope fundraising concert in Memorial Auditorium, he has worked with country artists Travis Tritt and Confederate Railroad, Christian duo Shane and Shane and long-running hair-metal band the Velcro Pygmies.
Davis often collaborates with Chattanooga’s Harmonic Production Services, which provides audio, video, lighting, staging and technical assistance to, among others, music and arts festivals, concerts, conventions and nonprofit events.
He said he landed the job with the Krauss/Plant tour through connections he has made with Harmonic. His theater background helped get him hired.
Krauss’ and Plant’s songs blend folk, country, rockabilly and blues. Their last album, “Raising Sand,” won five Grammys in 2008, including Album of the Year. Their brand-new “Raise the Roof” continues the musical theme.
With that in mind, the duo didn’t want “whiz-bang, oh-wow lighting” for their tour, Davis said.
“They want it to feel very mellow and theatrical and not a lot of flash,” he said. “When they saw all the theater work on my resume, I think they were very interested because it’s a different kind of vibe.”