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Downs, David, 1946-



  • Existence: 1946    


David Allen Downs was born on February 25, 1946, in Whitney, Pennsylvania, to John (Jack) Downs, a steelworker, and Wilda Downs. He went on to have a successful career in theatre. Downs most significant contributions to the field were in his role as an acting teacher and director, both roles he played at Northwestern University from 1973 – 2007.

Downs had two siblings, an older brother, John, and a younger sister, Jane. Enrolled in Saint Cecilia's school, Downs formed long-lasting friendships with some of his teachers (letters from Sister Roberta and others can be found in the correspondence section of the collection). Later, the family moved to the Lawson Heights neighborhood of nearby Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where Downs attended Saint Vincent's school for sixth through eighth grade. He was active in the Boy Scouts of America and earned the Serra Club Altar Boy Award in 1960.

Downs graduated from Latrobe High School where he was a popular and involved student. Theatre was a favored activity. While in secondary school Downs participated in productions of Love is in the Air (1960), The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1961), Spring Fever (1962) January Thaw (1963), Peck's Bad Boy (1963) and The Marriage Machine (1964). He was a key member of the Latrobe track team (establishing a long standing school record in the high hurdles and high scorer for the 1964 county meet), the national Latin honor society, French honor society, the school paper, and the Science Club of America. He won a number of awards including the school honor for Dramatics and figured prominently in competitions such as the Harvard Book Award for high scholarship and character, the Safe Driving Essay Contest, the Rotary Speech Contest, and the Kiwanis Extemporaneous Speaking Contest of 1964. Downs earned a National Merit letter of commendation. He was elected Senior Class President and was voted his home room's Noisiest Boy, Best Boy Scholar, and Most Likely to Succeed. His participation in school activities won him the Eidemiller Award for outstanding citizenship and, subsequently, a college scholarship from the Latrobe Steel Company.

Downs attended Allegheny College from 1964 to 1968. There, again, he was heavily involved in theatre. He was a member of the props crew in the 1964 production of The Rivalry, and his accomplishments in this task prompted the offer to stage manage 1964's The Fantastiks. He then went on act in Cyrano de Bergerac and to play Rob McKellaway in Mary, Mary (1966). In 1967 he played Max in Affairs of Anatol, Baron Belcredi in Henry IV, and Dorrance Medford in And People All Around. In 1968 he participated in The Ladies of Shakespeare and Telemachus Clay, and played George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Downs held interests outside of theatre as well. He participated in track, won letters for his involvement, and set the school record for the high hurdles. Downs won the Sarah Horner Essay Award and Allegheny named him an Alden Scholar for academic achievement. Active socially, he joined Alpha Chi Rho fraternity where he made many life-long friends. Downs was president of his sophomore class. He graduated from Allegheny with a degree in English in the spring of 1968.

Downs next attended Loyola University Chicago for coursework in English Literature. He was active in Theatre Department productions and took an M.A. degree from Loyola in 1970.

For a short while after his time at Loyola, Downs lived with friends in Chicago. Then, in 1972, he and some of his Chicago theatre colleagues relocated to Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, to study under the celebrated Alvina Krause, a former teacher of acting at Northwestern University. Combining his long enthusiasm for the theatre, his demonstrated talents, and the lessons he learned from Krause, Downs applied for a faculty position at Northwestern University in 1973.

Northwestern hired Downs as an instructor in 1973, and he began teaching the high-energy style of acting for which he became well-known: a mixture of the Krause's teachings and his own personal insights into the craft. As described in a student's senior thesis, Downs wanted his actors to evoke a real and honest physical response to their stimuli, not a pre-planned and ultimately hollow expression meant only to satisfy written stage directions. Downs taught Acting B43, C41 and C49, part of the three-year acting curriculum with emphases on sensory perception, imagination, and characterization. He occasionally taught C07, studies in gender and performance. Later, Downs also taught graduate acting courses. Northwestern promoted Downs to assistant (1976) and associate professor (1984).

In 1989 Downs's sister Jane died of cancer. This left him devastated and, for a time, disrupted his work. In 1995 his book, The Actor's Eye: Seeing and Being Seen, was published by Applause. Though Downs had begun the book during a leave from teaching prior to Jane's illness, her death slowed completion of the work.

Downs was one of the most popular and sought-after acting teachers on the Northwestern faculty. As students selected their instructors for the three-year acting course, they often wrote heartfelt letters asking Downs to admit them to his class. He maintained close relationships with many of his students, and displayed an interest in their well-being both inside and outside of the classroom. These students often became personal friends and correspondents. Many went on to distinguished careers in theatre, television, and the cinema including David Schwimmer, Zach Braff, John Logan, Greg Berlanti, Stephen Colbert, and Kim Williams. In 1976 a group of his students formed the celebrated Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble.

While on the Northwestern faculty, Downs worked on a number of productions outside the University. He acted in productions mounted by Evanston's Northlight Theatre, playing the roles of Brian in Joe Egg (1976), Nathan in Uncommon Ground (1991) and the Men in Three Women Talking (1992). He directed Arms and the Man for the Fort Lauderdale Ensemble in 1977 and worked with the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble as their director for Misalliance (1979).

Downs's signal contributions to the field were in his role as an acting teacher and director. At Northwestern, he directed numerous plays. From Greek dramas to the works of Chekhov to novel or controversial newer works, Downs challenged the actors under his direction. In recognition of this work he won the Northwestern Alumni Association's Excellence in Teaching Award in 1996. In 2003 Northwestern named him a Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence.

Downs made his mark in the local community as well. He gave well-received talks on theatre and acting in elementary schools and other venues and presented workshops at local theaters such as Chicago's Goodman.

In the late 1990s Downs began to act in Hollywood during breaks from his responsibilities at Northwestern. In 1998 he appeared in the film Since You've Been Gone, directed by former student David Schwimmer and featuring Schwimmer's Lookingglass Theatre cohorts, most of them other Downs students. He acted in the film The Broken Hearts Club in 2000 and, during the years 2000 and 2001, Downs appeared in television's Dawson's Creek as Mr. Kasdan, the English teacher at Capeside High School. In 2001 he made an appearance on The Guardian, and in 2003 he appeared in four episodes of Everwood as Mr. Ackerman. Downs was in the cast of Twenty Gay Stereotypes Confirmed (2004). In 2006 he played Mr. Bolger on Scrubs. During this period Downs also turned to writing. By 2006 he had completed four plays and was at work on another.

Downs retired from the Northwestern faculty in August, 2007.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

David A. Downs (1946- ) Papers

Identifier: 20/69

Downs most significant contributions to the field of theatre were in his role as an acting teacher and director, both roles he played at Northwestern University from 1973 – 2007. The David Downs papers are arranged in 51 boxes and span the years from 1927 to 2014. They are organized into five main subseries: biographical materials, correspondence, Northwestern University, publications and professional work, and oversize materials.

Dates: 1927 - 2014