Dennis Smith, Theatre Arts professor emeritus at Southern Oregon University, is the director of “Lucky Stiff,” a hilarious musical comedy currently playing on campus. Smith and I chatted in his small shared office at SOU.
DS: I’m semi-retired now. I was in charge of the Performance Program for about 26 years. When I was hired in 1985, we had about 45 Theatre Arts majors. Now we’ve got in the neighborhood of 250.
We are still in the same building that was designed for 60 students. The faculty has more than doubled, and the student body has quadrupled. Classes are taught in hallways. They will use restrooms as rehearsal space. We’re busting at the seams.
EH: What does a degree in theater prepare you for?
DS: If you graduate in theater, and you don’t make it in theater, you should probably go into the Diplomatic Corps. One thing that theater does teach you is how to work cooperatively.
EH: What makes a good actor?
DS: To be a good actor starts with being a good human being: being able to comprehend empathy, willing to share sympathy, and understanding the nature of hope in the human condition.
EH: What is difference between acting in theater and film acting?
DS: The process is very much the same: the analysis of the character, the analysis of the situation, the relationships, and the sense of striving towards a goal, of overcoming obstacles and of employing tactics.
The approach is exactly the same; but the technique in expressing that is completely different. Everything becomes more minute. On stage, you might have to take a breath, stand up, and turn your head for people to understand what you’re thinking. In film, you might have to raise an eyebrow.
EH: What makes great direction?
DS: It starts with a very solid vision of the story that you want to tell and a director who is willing to unify that vision. Plays such as “Hamlet” or “King Lear” are so multilayered; they can be about a number of different things. The director is the unifying element of a lot of different artistic disciplines, including sets, costumes, lights, sound, choreography and acting style.
EH: How does a university theater select plays to produce?
DS: In the choice of productions, there is a responsibility that is three-fold. We have a responsibility to our students to present plays that have merit. We try to give them a wide view of the theater of the world to enhance their education, making them more knowledgeable in theater, also giving them opportunities in performance, in design and development.
We have a responsibility to the broader academic community. Classes in anthropology, psychology and literature can draw on what we have to offer. We often will put on a play because it’s timely and will resonate with the History Department or the Sociology Department. We will bring in guest lecturers; we will cross-pollinate as much as we can.
We also have an obligation to our patrons to present plays that they are going to appreciate. “Lucky Stiff” is pure entertainment. There are times in our society when we just need to laugh. I think that we’re in one of those periods right now. There is something therapeutic about just getting away from everything and laughing.
“Lucky Stiff” continues at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, with 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays, through June 3. For tickets and information, call 541-552-6348 or visit www.sou.edu/theater.
Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director living in Ashland. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre and is a founding member of San Francisco’s Magic Theatre.