Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.
Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)
Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.
Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.
M. Graham Smith is a San Francisco-based Director, Educator, and Producer. He is an O’Neill/NNPN National Directing Fellow, an Oregon Shakespeare Festival FAIR Fellow, and a proud Resident Artist at SF’s Crowded Fire.
He grew up outside of New York City and has been based in San Francisco for the last fourteen years. He’s directed in New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Portland Oregon, Washington DC, and venues in San Francisco.
Graham directed the West Coast Premiere of JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA in SF and TRUFFALDINO SAYS NO at Shotgun Players, winning Best Director for the Bay Area Critics Circle.
Recent credits include the World Premiere of Obie winner Christopher Chen’s HOME INVASION in SF, DEAL WITH THE DRAGON at ACT’s Costume Shop & Edinburgh Fringe & NCTC, Mia Chung’s YOU FOR ME FOR YOU at Crowded Fire, and James Ijames’ WHITE at Shotgun.
His two upcoming projects include the world premiere of BONE ON BONE at NJ Rep, and the first workshop production of HOMOSEXUAL CONDUCT at Occidental College in LA, a play he co-created with playwright Sarah Kozinn about the Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court decision.
He spent five years as Producer of Aurora Theater’s new play development program and festival The Global Age Project. He teaches at A.C.T.’s actor-training programs, Berkeley Rep School of Theatre and at Barcelona’s premiere Meisner Technique program in Spain.
You can visit him online at www.MGrahamSmith.com
ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?
GS: In general I believe that theater is a space where weirdness and every variety of behavior should be allowed without judgment. I hate the weirdness of audience members shushing other audience members for laughing and responding to the play.
That feels like a very weird behavior to me. After all, we came to the space to meet the play with our whole selves.
ASR: Which person has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?
GS: There have been a lot of folks who’ve helped me developed my professional career, almost all of them my peers, like the extraordinary Mina Morita at Crowded Fire, who is a trusted advisor. Like Marissa Wolf, now the AD at Portland Center Stage. The Actor/Creator Kevin Rolston whom I’ve spent several years developing work with.
It’s funny that I have been unsuccessful for most of my career in finding a mentor.
Tommy Kail, the director of Hamilton, whom I went to college with, jokes with me about this phenomenon: “Are you my mentor, are you my mentor?” – Perhaps because I’m inherently not a joiner, I’ve never enjoyed that kind of relationship.
To indicate that I was too “cool”… I wore sunglasses. It was a revelation...
ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance of a play?
GS: I happened to be on stage at the time, and an actor was supposed to enter the scene through the door of the set, but the door was stuck, so the actor had to open a window and enter the scene that way, which was bizarre and hilarious.
It was an early lesson for me about playing the moment!
ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what are three things you would tell them are essential to know?
GS: Let me think…
- The best ideas don’t have to be yours; encourage a space where everyone feels excited to contribute.
- Art is about experimentation, so do things you don’t know what the outcome will be.
- Don’t attempt something that doesn’t scare you a little bit. Otherwise, you’re not stretching yourself.
ASR: What would be the worst “Buy One, Get One Free” sale of all time?
GS: A suicide kit.
ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make The Rules. What are the first three rules you put into place?
GS: Hmmm…. ok here goes…
- No shoes!
- Good food ONLY!
- Happy hour is at 5 pm every day of the year!
ASR: How do you relax before a performance?
GS: A great meal with good friends.
ASR: You have been given the opportunity to create the 30-minute TV show of your own design. What is it called and what’s the premise?
GS: I really like shows about food.
So maybe something about food and dogs.
But not dogfood.
ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, what would your friends and family assume you had done?
GS: Somewhere between civil disobedience and jaywalking. I’m a snooze.
ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?
GS: It’s hard to narrow it down to one person. I think we are blessed in the Bay Area with a strong community that really looks out for each other.
I can always call Dawn Monique Williams to have a long serious talk about a play we’ve just seen. Or Chris Herold about educational pedagogy. Or Lisa Marie Rollins who has always been there for me in ways big and small. Ely Sonny Orquiza has been such an incredible co-pilot with me on some of my favorite projects.
We have a strong community here that I’m so grateful to call home.
ASR: What three songs are included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?
GS: The People Have The Power sung by Patti Smith. Because we do. Sam Cooke, the entire album of Night Beat because it’s just the best music ever made. The Book of Love by the Magnetic Fields – we played it at our wedding.
ASR: Which one fashion accessory do you like better than others?
GS: I love a really good pair of shoes.
ASR: Which play would you like to see put into the deep freeze for 20 years?
GS: To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe more than 20 years.
ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, name an actor on a Bay Area stage who you think is doing amazing work?
GS: Jomar Tagatac. Every one of his performances is a revelation. He’s a shapeshifter with a dedication to being present and making the moment live.
ASR: Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?
GS: I love Winter’s Tale. The first half is like Othello, the second half is like As You Like It. It’s a story of cruelty and healing, and the problems you need to solve in directing it are very exciting to think about.
ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing one of the following technical theater roles: Light, Props or Costumes which would it be and why?
GS: Light. I love telling stories with light. The transformation that you can create with that department is so rich. I spent a long time when I was younger doing light design and light board op. I love the technical attention to detail.
ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?
GS: A snail!
ASR: Shark diving, bungee jumping, or skydiving?
GS: Bungee all the way!
ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?
GS: At Church, we did this church musical called It’s Cool in the Furnace about King Nebuchadnezzar attempting to murder political enemies in a furnace. You know, really great children’s musical theater material.
I played Daniel, who performs some sort of miracle. To indicate that I was too “cool” for the furnace, I wore sunglasses.
It was a revelation.
ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?
GS: Two lines. Same movie…
Actor 1: “Inconceivable!”
Actor 2: “You keep using that word, but I do not think it means what you think it means.”
— The Princess Bride
Kris Neely launched Aisle Seat Review in 2015. He is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of ASR. Mr. Neely is an SFBATCC Best Director Award Winner (2013). He is also the founder and publisher of Cresting Wave Publishing, LLC at www.gocwpub.com