Theatre Arts professor emeritus Dennis Smith has directed more than 30 plays during his 28-year career at Southern Oregon University. Currently he is directing Tony Kushner’s “The Illusion,” based loosely on the play “L’Illusion Comique” by the 17th-century playwright Pierre Corneille. It’s the story of a father who enlists a magician to search for his long-lost son. The play is filled with visions, transformations, time shifts and twists of fate. I visited with Smith at his office in the Theatre Arts Department one afternoon.
EH: Tell me about the qualities of the adaptation.
DS: The style is very contemporary. Tony Kushner has made the characters very accessible, highly articulate and in tune with our contemporary ears.
EH: “The Illusion” is a comedy?
DS: It’s a comedy that deals with serious subjects. The heart of a lot of comedy is called heightened reality, taking something that is mundane and trivial and blowing it up to huge proportions and finding a situation that makes this mundane thing become critical to the moment. The serious subjects in “The Illusion” have to do with forgiveness, redemption and the sustaining ability of love. Serious themes are dealt with in a humorous fashion, but there are some very serious moments in it.
EH: How does comedy differ from farce?
DS: A farce stuffs as much comedy into a small amount of time and space as is possible. It is all trivial to the point of silliness. And there is the delight of a farce. Farces are quite delightful, for me, anyway. I love the Marx Brothers.
EH: Aren’t the Marx Brothers rather serious, too?
DS: Only if you think Freedonia is actually a real country.
EH: What attracts you to this play?
DS: It is a play about theater. It talks about what theater is all about in a very subtle way, so that the other themes (redemption, forgiveness and love) override the theme of theater.
EH: You taught a class here at SOU on acting and survival. What was it?
DS: It was partly an auditioning class. Auditioning is a rite of passage. It’s a very stressful thing. There is an art to auditioning. It’s something that a young actor has to come to terms with. At some point you’re going to have to audition. You’re not going to get away from it. If you ever end up being a Tom Hanks, you’re fine; you don’t need to audition anymore. Most of us will spend our lives in theater going to auditions. That was about half of the class. The other half of the class was, if I called it anything, it would have been future shock: getting out into the real world, the business of the business. There are lots of questions. If you are going to go to New York to live, what’s it like in New York? How much does it cost to get into Equity or the Screen Actors Guild? How to get into them? Once you’re in them, do you want to be in them? That’s what the class was all about.
EH: Do thespians have character traits that are different from those of people who go into business administration or science?
DS: I think it has something to do with play, with communication, with a spirit that is willing to accept failure. The fear of failure is a very inhibiting thing.