By Kenneth Jones
17 Dec 2010

Smith with Kenny Leon

Did you have a director's eye from the beginning?
MS: I was an actor, and it was when I was at American University that I realized that every time I was acting, I kept going out into the house to watch what the other actors were doing, and I kept sitting further and further back in the house, and I had thoughts about the way in which they should be performing their roles. So that told me — when I was about 25 years old, the last role that I did — that really told me that I was really moving quite quickly into being a director. And I think, as an actor, I was limited. Mostly, my range was narrow. I was mostly interested in being just about who I am [laughs], which is not good for an actor but is very good for a director. I was not a chameleon.

You were on an acting track, but inside of you, you knew that you wanted to run a theatre or open a theatre, correct?
MS: Yes, I knew I wanted to open a theatre. So I was 19 when I made that decision. I don't think I knew how I would do that, but I had this idea in my head that I wanted to do it. That's why I ended up on the East Coast, going to school here, because I knew I'd get the training I needed to start this theatre in Alaska. My friends, of course, thought I was completely crazy.

By the time I was 21, I started directing. I was directing and I was acting and I was stage managing concurrently, so on some productions, I'd be doing one or the other or the other, but really, by the time I started directing, my focus pretty quickly was turning toward that.

And why Alaska? I know you grew up there, but why did you say, "I want to go back there and form a theatre?"
MS: Because I knew people would say yes to me, and because there wasn't any [professional theatre there]. Here I was in Washington, DC. It was very rare that a woman would be given a role as a director here. My first professional job was with the Washington Area Feminist Theatre. It was very difficult to convince any theatre that, as a woman, I would be a good director. And so that was something that was also clear to me, that in order to do the kind of work that I wanted to do, I would have to start my own [theatre]. I also loved the idea of doing it in Alaska because there wasn't anything like it in Alaska. And so that gave me the ability to create, with other people, the kind of theatre company that I wanted to create.

I founded the Perseverance Theatre. I went back to Alaska with the purpose of starting the theatre and began gathering people around me that would help me make this happen. One was a person that my mother introduced me to and another was somebody that I met at a hot dog stand and another was someone that I taught in a class. And very quickly, it happened. I thought it would take five years to start the theatre, and within six months — boom! — we were there. My former husband and I brought 50 used theatre seats across the country with us to start the theatre.

The view outside the Perseverance Theatre

Was money the challenge, as it is at every theatre?
MS: Yes. My mother and I fleeced $10,000 from my grandmother to help make this happen, and then I made all the people who were working with me in the theatre sign a contract that said that they would pay her back $50 a month until we paid it off. [Laughs.] The first show that we did was called Pure Gold, because my sister had said to me, "Why don't you do something about old people?" And I said, "Well, I really don't want to do Gin Game," but that set me off thinking. We were walking in the woods, and I said to her, "Oh, I could do something on the pioneers of this area. Maybe I could go out and interview people who are in their 70s and 80s and find stories about why they came to Alaska, bear stories, stories about the Chilkoot Trail, stories about the Native Americans, the Tlingit people," and just took off with that idea. So I interviewed about 35 old-timers, and then a friend of mine put it together in a reader's theatre piece, and I cast the six best storytellers, and eventually ended up performing, I think, over 300 times, did a statewide tour. It just caught the zeitgeist of the moment, because Alaska at that time — in the late '70s — it was really a young person's state. People were in their 20s and 30s, and there was a real hunger to hear from people who had lived in Alaska for years and who had basically founded it. You know, "How had they done it?" It was as if people were sitting around a camp fire listening to their grandparents, and it had a profound effect on people. We performed it in a church social hall, and the first night set up 50 seats and the next night 70 and the next night 90 and the next night 110, and pretty soon, there were lines around the block, and it was a phenomenon. And the night we closed it, I kept saying to one of my friends that a theatre needs a place to be. We've got stuff, we have to have a place. We can't be nomadic in church social halls. And she said, "Well, there's a space that's open across the water." It had the best pool table in town; it was an old bar. And we drove over that night and looked at it, and the guy said, "Okay, I can give it to you for $800 a month," and we said, "Sold!" And within 18 days we transformed it into Perseverance Theatre. And now it's still operating 32 years later.

So rare to have a permanent home that early.
MS: Yeah. Well, I think that's the Alaskan piece of it. I would say to people, "I want to do this," and people would say, "Yes!" or "Try it!" or "Why not?" I think that that's very much a Western mind. It's all about, "How do I make history?" whereas in the East Coast, it's more, "How does one fit oneself into history?" I don't know if Perseverance Theatre could have started any place else, and so quickly.

Do they own their own space now?
MS: Oh, yeah. We owned it within probably three or four years and then built another theatre on the back, a 180-seat theatre, and since then, there are apartments that have been built a few miles away for interns and for visiting artists and a shop. Yeah, it's just continued on.