Playwright Tom Smith, author of ESL , What Comes Around…, A Christmas Carol, The Wild and Wacky Rhyming Stories of Miss Henrietta Humpledowning and Johnny and Sally Ann, answers questions about his career, playwriting, and the theatre.
Q: What was the play you saw or read that made you think: “this theatre thing is what I want to do for the rest of my life”?
A: In fourth grade, I saw a production of A Comedy of Errors at Seattle Children's Theatre. It seemed magical. I can still remember the use of puppets and dolls in the first scene to explain the shipwreck that separated the twins, and how absolutely hysterical the entire production was. Keep in mind this was Shakespeare and I was 9 years old. Immediately after, I began looking for opportunities to perform.
Q: What was your first job in the theatre?
A: I worked a lot of box office, ushering and house management jobs while waiting for my directing and writing careers to take off. They proved really invaluable. Audiences rarely tell a director what they did or did not like about a show, but they'll always tell the person at the box office or the house manager. It gave me a ton of insight into what an audience wants and what elements spark their interest and imagination.
Q: I think we find inspiration in the work of others. I often find myself wishing I had written a particular play/moment/character, and that’s when I realize I have developed a playwriting crush (these are ever changing and different from your playwright loves). Who is your playwriting crush and why?
A: Craig Lucas has always been an idol of mine. His aesthetic mirrors mine: showing normal characters in abnormal situations trying to make their way home. His writing is smart, funny and sweet and even his darker work challenges the audience to consider their own biases. His play, Reckless, is wonderful.
Q: What’s your favorite line of dialogue/moment/character you’ve ever written? You can share why, but you don’t have to.
A: I've written a play loosely based on the life of Leni Riefenstahl, who was a documentarian who filmed some of Hitler's rallies and lived under the shadow of having done so for the rest of her life. In my play, Aunt Raini, the character representing Leni, is asked why she would ever accept taking the job of filming these events knowing who Hitler was becoming. She replies, "Because it was an opportunity to create. An artist who does not produce art is just a person. And I could never be happy being just a person." After I wrote that line, I felt it spoke not just to this character at this time, but to all playwrights and artists.
Q: How do you define success? What have you sacrificed for your career?
A: My definition of success has changed throughout my career and usually changed after achieving my goal. At first, it was to see one of my plays produced. Then it was to see one produced at a professional theatre. Then it was to get published. Most recently it was to see one of my published plays on a shelf in a used bookstore. Today it's to work with an actor who's performed in one of my other plays. I think, for now, success has to do with how long I've been doing this.
Q: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made? Give one piece of advice you wish you were given when you started.
A: There are two pieces of advice I wish I'd been given early on in my career. The first is: don't rush to publish because once you do, you can never re-publish. Some of my early work could use a little tweaking but, until I reach Tennessee Williams status, a publisher isn't inclined to publish an alternate version. My second piece of advice is to anticipate spending more time sending out your play than writing it. I still haven't mastered this yet. I have a lot of plays I wish were getting produced but they won't be because I spend more time writing than sending them out.
Q: How has your writing changed over time?
A: As I get older I'm interested in issues that affect my life today. I wrote a lot of relationship plays in my 20s, and a lot of issue plays in my 30s. In my 40s I'm writing a lot of plays about identity. Stylistically, I'm trying to write more adventurously but I still find myself drawn to writing for Middle America. One thing that has definitely changed is the amount of playwright's notes, stage directions, descriptions, etc. I used to have pages. In my latest work I have virtually none.
Q: If, for some reason, you were suddenly forbidden to write, what would you do to fill that void?
A: I love theatre, and if I couldn't write for it I'd direct or artistic direct. If I couldn't do anything in theatre at all, I'd open a little coffee shop that would serve all day and then at night I'd clear the tables, add a few more chairs, and make it a coffeehouse performance space.