It's not an unusual beginning. It's how a lot of theater companies arise--a young actor/director has a specific work they're itching to do. No one's doing it. Said actor/director realizes their artistic progress is at the mercy of others; comprehends that the only way they can truly follow their personal path is to step off the paths of others; toils to create their own company to translate their visions into reality. Standard story. What makes Smith's trajectory extraordinary is that the 68-year-old Smith co-founded his first company with more years of theatrical experience under his belt than many commencing artistic directors have had birthdays.
Smith came from a theatrical family. His father spent his spare time acting and directing with local theaters (in Chevy Chase, Md.), his mother helped with publicity. Scripts were all over the house, and it was in the living room that Smith made his earliest appearances. "I'd pick one up and act out the show," he recalls. "I'd play every part, I'd even act out the stage directions." Consequently, his father suggested he take his talents out of the house and onto the stage. Smith made his debut, in 1948, at the age of 13, appropriately enough, in Life With Father.
He estimates he's done 100 shows since, with a 15-year break immediately after graduating from law school (he's never formally studied theater, saying it never occurred to him; instead he pursued a long career in scholarship which finished with a stint as Professor of American Constitutional History at UNC) in which he "went to work, had a family, didn't do anything."
For those who know how busy he is (Smith is usually juggling two or more projects), that seems a low appraisal. In the past year, he's produced one show, appeared in staged readings of two others, and performed in 10 full productions, not only with Ghost & Spice, but with Shakespeare & Originals, Manbites Dog, Streetsigns, Wordshed, Emerald City Productions,
University Theater, and at Jo & Joe's bar and restaurant. Despite a schedule that would make most go completely out of their skulls, Smith claims he does it to unwind. "It relaxes me to do a show and rehearse after a long day," he says. "People say why don't you go home? I'd get too bored."
His next project, Sea-Marks, will be presented by Ghost & Spice in conjunction with Wordshed, and marks a migration. Originally working out of the Carrboro ArtsCenter, the company encountered stringent schedule limitations. When Wordshed invited them to occupy their Swain Hall space on UNC's campus, Smith jumped at the chance. "I was flabbergasted," he says. They won't be returning to the ArtsCenter, and now plan their production schedule according to available venues.
It took him more than 50 years to journey from performance to administration. "I hadn't thought about it, I had no burning ambition to run a company," he says. "But sometimes you say, dammit, I'm tired of working on someone else's schedule, I'm going to make my own rules." While he says the business end is "not my first love," it's a field he's interested in exploring. He directs, and enjoys it, "from time to time," but describes himself as a director who "needs a lot of help. You see directors out there climbing up ladders and hanging lights, but I need a competent stage manager and if there's something wrong with the lights and the sound, for somebody to fix it."
He's primarily an actor, and has no intentions of letting his work with Ghost & Spice interfere with his projects with other companies. "I'm always looking for stuff that's going on," he says. "I'm interested in what's happening, what can be done."
On being a producer and artistic director, he says, "It gives you a freer hand. You're not just sitting around waiting." And while there may be dream roles Smith is still waiting for, it's doubtful, with his monumental track record, you'll ever find him just sitting around.