By Kenneth Jones
17 Dec 2010

Smith with Mead Center architect Bing Thom
photo by Scott Suchman

Was your love for new American work formed early?
MS: It was really early for me. When I was here in Washington, DC, New Playwrights Theatre was a theatre that I greatly admired and I read plays for them, so that was when I was 22, 23 and carried that love with me to Perseverance Theatre. We started commissioning writers immediately, because I was really interested in finding an Alaskan voice in theatre. That's what I wanted to find. We commissioned Paula Vogel for How I Learned to Drive. That was a commission for her. [We] commissioned a lot of interesting writers. And then I started really tracking the Canadian writers and brought them to Alaska…John Murrell is one of my favorites…we premiered a new play of his, Democracy. Michel Tremblay, we did a couple of his plays. And you know, I direct at [Ontario's] Shaw Festival, too. I have more of a [freelance] career, in some ways, in Canada, working outside my own theatres, than I have had in this country.


Being an artistic director means you have to be social. It's a big part of the job: shaking hands with people. Do you view this as a necessary evil, or is meeting people something you genuinely love? Do you hate it?
MS: No, no, not at all. Not at all. My family is either lawyers or psychologists, and my dad was one of the early innovators and experimenters in group therapy, and I've always felt that my life in the theatre has a connection back to his experimentation with groups, that even though theatre isn't therapy, it can be therapeutic. And I think relationships with audiences — because I believe that what happens with art is it can heal people and it can change them — is really part of my work as an artistic director, talking to people and having conversations, whether it's the board, the staff or the audience itself. And because our audiences have so many stories to tell, too — our patrons have stories to tell — their interest in the arts [has] been a natural extension for me. I'm both an extrovert and an introvert — I kind of cross the line. So I can show both sides. I'm an introvert when I'm working. I can be a little more internalized [then], but I can be very extroverted as far as speaking to people, speaking to groups, having conversations.

Is raising money the major obstacle that American theatres face?
MS: I think the major obstacle that American theatres face now is twofold. I'd say finances is one, I'd say the other is growing new audiences. Part of what's happened is, we had a period of about 15 or 20 years when young people were not being brought into the theatre, and because of that, we see our audiences dropping off at different points. I believe that young people need to be branded with the theatre at an early age: their investigation of the theatre, or the understanding that the theatre is for them. Unless theatres have open doors to our young people, they may never come to see what we're doing and see that it's for them. There's always a dropoff when people are in childbearing years — when they are not at the theatre. This is young people in their 20s, 30s, maybe 40s, but oftentimes when people start reaching their late 40s and their children have gone on to college, there's a period of time where people begin looking inwardly again, and the theatre is a perfect vehicle for looking at stories that are about their lives, and I think that's when audiences come back to the theatre if they've been gone during the years when they have children. But I don't think they come back unless they have come when they've been young. So if we aren't building new audiences in the theatre — and that means large organizations like Arena and small organizations — then we won't have audiences in 20 years.

Eleasha Gamble and Nicholas Rodriguez in Oklahoma!
photo by Carol Rosegg

Does Arena seek to program plays that speak to many generations at once?
MS: Absolutely. I think of Arena Stage as a feeder organization — that there may be many audience members who will come to see a production at an Arena Stage before they'll go to a smaller company. Our production, for example, of Oklahoma!, right now, is drawing audiences of all ages. I think it's really important, as a theatre that focuses on American work and American giants, that we produce brilliant geniuses like Rodgers and Hammerstein and are able to introduce a musical like Oklahoma! to a younger audience. Just a half an hour ago, I heard the matinee audience coming out for intermission, and the sound of young people laughing along with their teachers was glorious to hear.

I know musicals had been done at Arena before your time, but I was surprised that your relationship to musicals is fairly new.
MS: Yeah. The first musical I directed, the first really good book musical, was South Pacific with Kate [Baldwin in 2002].

Was it scary to you? Was it an adventure?
MS: Well, my friends Gil and Jaylee Mead, and my partner, Suzanne [Blue Star Boy], had been encouraging me to direct a musical. For years, I really shunned musicals as not serious theatre, and boy, was I wrong. Somehow, I had it in my mind, because I was a child of the '60s, that serious theatre was only in drama, and when I began directing South Pacific, I woke up one morning about a week into rehearsal and just said, "I love directing musicals." I believe they're the most subversive art form that we have — they're subversive because we can say things in a piece of musical theatre that would be very difficult to say in a straight play. I believe that the musical art form, because it's kinetic, has an audience brought into the world of the musical through their bodies and through their hearts, in a different way than a straight play can bring them in, so it's been a really exciting journey for me.

You directed the world-premiere musical The Women of Brewster Place. I know that new musicals carry their own challenges. Working with living writers not being the least of it, but did it work new muscles for you?
MS: Absolutely. Absolutely, it did, and I loved working with [playwright-songwriter] Tim Acito and the whole wonderful cast on Women of Brewster Place.

Are there world-premiere musicals in the future of Arena Stage?
MS: Oh, yes. Definitely. Definitely. None that I can talk about right now, but yes, there are. [Laughs.]

Living in a city, we tend to lose our connection with nature. That seems really hard for you to do in Alaska, because nature's right there. Is the natural world important to you? Do you have a country house? Do you leave DC?
MS: Yes. Suzanne and I are building a cabin in Alaska, and every year, I take a month and go to Alaska without my cell phone, without a computer. It is a beautiful little cabin that sits on the Lynn Canal, and last summer when we were there building, outside there were 40 seals barking at us, and they were teaching a young seal how to throw fish in the air. There was a whale that came up the channel, grizzly bears in the area — there's a grizzly path behind the cabin. It's spectacular, it's vast, it's huge and it nourishes my imagination and my soul like nothing else.

Do you take plays there and read or do you try to decompress there?
MS: I completely unplug. [Laughs.]

I love that the beams of the new Mead Center resemble timber.
MS: Yes! [Laughs.] They're totem poles! They're story totem poles. Yes, oh, definitely purposeful. [Architect] Bing Thom and I are both from the Pacific Northwest — he's from Vancouver, I'm from Alaska, and I think there are a number of elements in the building that are very much about that part of the country. This is the first time that Parallam, which is what these totem poles are made out of, has been used in America. They're 95 percent old timber and five percent glue. They built a 65-foot lathe to create them, and there are 18 of them. It's beautiful, structurally, as you know.

(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Write him at