#243 – E. B. Smith
E.B. has over twenty years of experience as a director, performer, coach, producer, and teaching artist in the worlds of theatre, print, film, television, and voice-over, with a mission to inspire and encourage passionate storytelling. His goal is to empower as many diverse voices as possible so that we may all learn from one another just how vast the spectrum of identity can be. As an artist of colour, he brings a special recognition of the power of experiencing one’s own history and world view manifest on stage as well as furthering connections to the stories of others. It is his mission, therefore, to facilitate the cultivation and cooperation of artists from every cross section of our society, and across artistic styles and traditions.
He received his training in the BFA Performance program at Ohio University, as well as two years at the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre at the Stratford Festival where he served for six years a text and acting coach and is currently in his tenth season as an actor.
E.B. Smith, Phil Rickaby
Phil Rickaby 00:01
Welcome to Episode 243 of Stageworthy I’m your host Phil Rickaby. Stageworthy is a podcast about people in Canadian theatre featuring conversations with actors, directors, playwrights and more. If you like stage worthy and you listen on Apple podcasts, I hope you will leave a five star rating and a comment. Your ratings and comments help new people find this show but you know what, even better regardless of where you’re listening to Stageworthy if you know someone that will like the show, tell them about it. Some of my favourite podcasts became my favourites because someone I know told me about them. And remember, you can find it Subscribe on Apple podcast, Google podcasts and Spotify just by clicking the handy subscribe button. So if you tell someone about Stageworthy let me know about it, you can find Stageworthyon Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @stageworthypod and you can find the website with the archive of all 243 episodes at stageworthypodcast.com. And if you want to drop me a line you can find me on Twitter and Instagram @philrickaby and My website is PhilRickaby.com. My guest this week is E.B. Smith. E.B. is an actor, director and teacher he has been seen on stages at the Stratford Festival as well as London, Ontario, the Grand Theatre and Chicago Shakespeare and so many more. He is also a co founder of Ghostlight, where he is also business and marketing advisor. E.B., thank you so much for talking with me today. Can you tell me a little bit about what is ghostlight? What’s the elevator pitch in what what’s your role? Within ghostlight?
E.B. Smith 02:02
Well, I am a co founder and creative strategy director at ghost light. And our goal is to develop an online theatre training platform that’s going to bring it it’s going to bring offerings that that, that people aren’t going to experience in theatre school or sort of currently existing professional training scenarios. I think our strength is that we can build because we have such a reach strategies for approaching the work that are going to in some ways revolutionise the framework under which we enter rehearsal.
Phil Rickaby 02:51
Now you’re now you’re also, you were mentioning in our earlier conversation that you were sort of heading up the summer camp for for Ghostlight. So what does what is summer camp look like? Especially as a digital entity? What is summer camp look like?
E.B. Smith 03:09
Well, it’s, it’s, it’s an interesting exercise really, we’re trying to figure out ways to keep theatre training alive and sort of vital while employing socially distant methods, teaching over zoom and google classroom and things like that. But I think one of the one of the really great things about the platforms that we’re employing, lately is that we can maintain a level of social connection while we maintain that social distance. And so I think we’re we’re really hoping that, that our summer camps are going to help foster a sense of community while still digging into the fundamentals of performance and, and theatre making. Hmm,
Phil Rickaby 03:56
yeah, I mean, of course, if it’s if it’s young people they’ve already had had some experience doing the digital classroom thing, although probably not as an acting class, and I’ve spoken to a couple of people about teaching theatre and related arts, through digital through zoom or whatever the platforms are, what what are the challenges that you’ve that you’ve seen in terms of, of using digital to try to teach people something that we usually do in a room together?
E.B. Smith 04:33
I think one of the the tough things to adjust to is the fact that it feels like a film exercise somehow, you know, you’re in front of a camera. And, and the tendency is to want to play to the camera, but you know, it’s it’s a bit of an imaginative exercise to try to break out of that and remember that we’re, we’re doing this training for a theatrical venue. I think that’s that’s sort of at the heart of that. The challenge of this work at the moment. And also, it’s easy to get distracted on a computer. I think that’s, that’s kind of the other, the other end of it where it’s kind of it’s it’s tough to stay focused on a computer screen for hours at a time. So we’re trying to create curriculum that’s gonna break people out of that and do some independent work and come back to the screen. So it’s not as staring into the blue light as it can be.
Phil Rickaby 05:31
One of the challenges for me is because in my day job I spend a lot of time on on digital meetings. And the big problem is the fact that I can see my face. Yes, I sort of become distracted by my own face in a way that I’m not when I’m in the room with somebody. And that’s a challenge for teaching acting, because when we’re doing theatre, we’re not supposed to look in the mirror when we’re doing our lines. We’re not supposed to worry about that sort of thing, but it’s right. It’s right. there. Yeah. Any thoughts about how to encourage especially young people to ignore their face?
E.B. Smith 06:09
I think it depends on the the style of class you’re you’re working in. You know, it helps I think to to be in speaker view as much as possible so that you can have if you’re on zoom, or blue jeans or platform like that, so that you’ve got at least someone else’s face much more prominent than your own to stare at. But also, I think making friends with that face is a good idea as well. You know, it, there is something important about getting used to your own reflection and enjoying your own reflection. I think that’s something we have to work on as as a society a little bit actually. Because it is, you know, it is the it is the sign that you were as you meet the world and I think, I think The more you The more you The more you come to meet yourself, the more effectively you can meet others.
Phil Rickaby 07:09
Now, how familiar with you were, how familiar were you? When this all started with digital platforms?
E.B. Smith 07:20
I’ve been I’ve been dabbling for quite a while, you know, I’m, I’m a transplant in Canada and from the States Originally, I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and I lived for a long time in Chicago, Illinois. So my life is long been an exercise and how to keep in contact through whatever means necessary with home. Whichever home I’m currently referring to, because I seem to have several in my past, but but I think what’s been really exciting for me is sort of taking that that teleconferencing, technology taking taking these platforms that were made together. have whole business meetings and webinars and applying a narrative framework to what they’re capable of, because we don’t usually use them for the purposes of theatre making. But But we can’t stay in zoom windows, if we’re going to tell a compelling story just doesn’t, it just doesn’t work for for very long. So that’s been really exciting. You know, there, there are numerous platforms that are available and more coming out every day and more functionality is being added. And I think as, as we, as we dig deeper into this medium, it’s the possibilities are just going to sort of start multiplying exponentially. It’s really exciting. Yeah.
Phil Rickaby 08:43
It’s interesting because as part of my day job, I work in the events and conferences industry. And so a lot of that has been transferring to, I mean, the only option for the for those just in the same way theatre has been to transfer over to digital media. And trying to use things like zoom. And that industry has also been grappling with, how do we make this interesting and not just a random Brady Bunch grid of faces? Right. And it’s, it’s, it’s a challenge that I think is still being worked on. But there’s sort of new interesting things coming along all the time.
E.B. Smith 09:21
Yeah, for sure. For sure. I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s been one of our sort of running imagination exercises it ghostlight since we started because what we’d really love to do is develop what we’re calling him digital stage. And we’re working with several theatre makers now to to create experiences that that sort of bend the confines of each platform so that they all work in concert so that experiences will enter real life and come back into a live stream via YouTube. YouTube or Vimeo and then and sort of branch out, again into an interactive portion on a platform like zoom. And then I think one of the great things we can do with this technology is that we can we can unshackle ourselves from the sort of three hour linear play structure, right? So we can, we can have an experience that happens over a week, you know, 15 minutes here an hour here half an hour here. And really kind of make it more immersive in a digital framework.
Phil Rickaby 10:32
Hmm, yeah. I think I think early on in the, the, the pandemic, we saw, at least I did, I saw a lot of work. This is all we have. This is just what we’re gonna do. And now I think people like you say are grappling with, with how to make it. feel more like theatre with like, as much as you can, when it’s a screen,
E.B. Smith 10:57
right? For Sure.
Phil Rickaby 10:59
You mentioned – No, you go ahead, Please
E.B. Smith 11:02
Well, I think I think there’s there’s been this debate about, you know, whether or not this online work is theatre, or if if we have to consider it something else and
Phil Rickaby 11:11
Hmm. I mean, that’s, do you have a particular area way that you fall on that?
E.B. Smith 11:18
Yeah, I do. I mean, I, I think we’re being way too strict about what we consider theatre. I think we’re being really pompous and exclusionary? When we talk about theatre being this sort of hallowed practice, I mean, it strikes me that that the the traditional paradigm that we think of when we think about theatre is a building with a certain set of conventions and audience and performers. Frankly, it’s a very Western and colonial framework. You know, if you if you look at performance practices from around the world, they’re not all like that. There’s no fourth wall and many of them And also there’s there’s the question of access. It strikes me the technology is way more pervasive than access to theatre. And if we’re going to, if we’re going to expand audiences, if we’re going to talk to people cross culturally, from various walks of life in various geographic locations, we really have to figure out how to reach them, how to go to them. You know, we can’t, I’ve worked at Strafford for the last 10 seasons, and you know, you can’t come see a play at Stratford unless you have 150 bucks in your pocket. It’s just not possible. You got to get here, you’ve got to eat something, you’ve got to go see the play. You know, and tickets range anywhere from 75 bucks to what is it? 150 hours? Something? You know, unless you’re under 30. There’s some deals, but it’s, it’s, it’s hard to. It’s hard to have access to that, depending on what your situation is. And I think I think one of the benefits of this kind of technology is that it allows us to reach into You know, people’s sphere, wherever they are, you know, you can turn on your phone and experience something, you can turn a computer and see something, you turn on your smart TV and see something. And we can deliver it at a much lower price point because, you know, we can, we can reach a lot more people. So we can afford to say, you know, for 15 bucks, you’re gonna have this experience.
Phil Rickaby 13:25
Yeah, I think I mean, I think I think you’re right. I do think that that the attitude of, you know, this is not theatre does come from a place of fear. It’s that fear that is, you know, people have been talking about the death of theatre since the birth of radio. And, you know, I think that the idea of people saying that, that, that this is not theatre try to hold on to theatre can only exist in this. This setting comes from fear that at some point, somebody might say, well, we can do this video thing. I guess that’ll replace theatre. Mm hmm.
E.B. Smith 14:00
I mean, I don’t think anything’s gonna replace theatre. I’m, I’m a theatre animal myself and, and I miss it terribly. But I also think, but I also think that theatre needs to break out of its boxes. I think we need to augment our practice with something much more inclusive.
Phil Rickaby 14:24
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, why why not offer a live stream of a theatre experience? That’s the thing that we’re missing. Now we do. You know, we’ll do like a, you know, I might do a one performance of a live thing. And then I leave it online for however long I decide to leave it online for. But you know, what if I could be in the room to borrow the line from Hamilton in the room where it happens, but without having to be in the room where it happens,
E.B. Smith 14:52
for sure. I mean, and not just not just as a replacement for the room where it happens, but what about an augmented experience? An experience to augment what happens in that room. You know, if, if, if, if your if your interaction with that narrative doesn’t stop at the door of the theatre? How much more can we get out of that kind of that narrative? Right? How much more? How much more audience engagement can we gain by staying in contact? And continuing the narrative on through, you know, and it can be personalised?
Phil Rickaby 15:27
Yeah, that is that is absolutely exciting. Yeah, you think about the people who go to Sleep No More again and again and again. Because they’re, they’re immersed in something. But then to be able to and because of digital, you can personalise it in a way that you can’t in person. That’s pretty exciting.
E.B. Smith 15:49
Indeed, and, and then also striking to that, you know, if if there are ways to know how people are interacting with the story, for example, I mean Sleep No More is a good example. You know, you follow a character around the place If we have a way to measure that nowhere, you know who you were interacting with in the story, that character can reach out to you personally. Right? And say, I have, I need you to do something. So next time you go back to the, to interact with the story, in real life, you’ve got a mission, you’ve got another, you’ve got another mandate to that is, that is pretty exciting actually.
Phil Rickaby 16:21
Like that kind of that kind of enhancement, to a live theatre experience to personalise it in a way for an audience member is, is pretty exciting. I’m kind of getting goosebumps over here, as you describe that. So.
E.B. Smith 16:36
That’s great. I think it’s really exciting to I mean, the applications kind of go on and on, you know, into the world of virtual reality and, and sort of Choose Your Own Adventure as you interact with a live narrative could be really exciting.
Phil Rickaby 16:49
I think that is, the longer that that we are separated from our buildings of theatre from being able to gather there. I think innovation happens As people sort of grapple more and more with what is and start to think about what what it could be and start pushing it in interesting directions like that,
E.B. Smith 17:09
Phil Rickaby 17:11
Now you mentioned growing up in Chicago
E.B. Smith 17:15
I grew up in Cleveland
Phil Rickaby 17:17
and then living in Chicago and then eventually finding your way to the Stratford Festival. So what what does that path look like to get you from from there to where you are now?
E.B. Smith 17:30
Phil Rickaby 17:32
Well consider this your your, your superhero origin story. This is like the origin story.
E.B. Smith 17:37
Well, I I went to Ohio University for my undergrad theatre training, and a did a BFA in acting there. And then coming out of school, you know, all of my classmates were going to New York, Los Angeles, straight to Chicago, you know, big markets, and they were gonna take the world by storm and I kind of felt you know, I’d seen older stories Go and work in hotels and restaurants and things and, and I just thought I don’t I want to make art man, I don’t want to, I don’t want to have to just get a day job and slog it out all the time, you know. And Cleveland where I grew up happens to be a pretty reasonable place to live in terms of cost of living and stuff. And so, you know, I had a day job obviously, and I worked but but I was able to find people to make theatre with in Cleveland because there wasn’t a whole lot It wasn’t it was an oversaturated place in terms of making theatre so so I actually managed to to do some pretty exciting work and to work in some pretty big houses and cut my teeth in a way that I probably wouldn’t have been able to do quite so quickly had I gone to a major market. So I was in Cleveland for about four years after Well, two and a half years after university and I managed to get my equity card and and I didn’t go to Chicago. Until I had a show to go to Chicago with and that made kind of all the difference. You know, I hit the ground running with the show, I got another I got an agent from that show. I got another show sort of subsequent because I got an agent and then things grew from there in 2009. I got a phone call, I was working on Macbeth at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. And I got a phone call from a representative from the Stratford Festival and they said, the Stratford Festival like to see you audition, and I said, Okay, how’d you get my number? And she said, We have people. Anyway. All right, then I’ll be there. That’s terrifying. So I auditioned for Stratford, and I heard nothing. After the audition for a year I’d auditioned for Martha Henry and Beth Russell. And I heard nothing for a year. Almost a year to the day later, I got a phone call and they said, Are you available for a call back in a few weeks?
Phil Rickaby 19:59
long wait between audition and callback
E.B. Smith 20:02
It really was but but they called me back and they flew me to Stratford and they they put me through the wringer again and a week later I got an offer to join the conservatory in 2010
Phil Rickaby 20:16
before you went to Theatre School and studied theatre was there something that you remember there was your entry into being interested in theatre that wanting to be an actor What was your what what what? What did you see your What made you want to to do that?
E.B. Smith 20:39
Doing this as a career kind of felt like a flying leap off a cliff with no parachute. I didn’t. I didn’t have I didn’t have a whole lot of faith that this could become a career at first. And so I initially wanted to be a pilot, and I learned how to fly when I was in high school. And that was sort of my, my path and I’d applied to the US Naval Academy and I was dead set on going and and as I thought more comprehensively about it, I realised I really didn’t want to be part of the military industrial complex and decided that theatre was a much safer and and more constructive way to spend my time. But I guess I guess if if we’re talking influences my my desire to tell stories was born at a really early age, my parents. My parents had a friend named Hugh Morgan Hill, Dr. Morgan Hill. And he lived in Boston he taught at Harvard, but his, his sort of nom de plume or stage name was was Brother Blue, and he would every day, put on his storytelling, rags and pin Butterflies all over himself and he would stand in the middle of Harvard Yard or in Cambridge somewhere and tell stories to people on the street. This man knew every word that Shakespeare ever wrote by heart. He had sort of the compendium of black experience, from the moments the moment that the Africans arrived on the shores of North America, in his brain, and he would just spin yarns and he was, you know, he was he was the embodiment of the trio. And I, I remember hearing him tell stories around our dinner table when he would come to visit he actually predicted my birth to the day when my mother with me before my parents had told anybody she was pregnant.
Phil Rickaby 22:47
E.B. Smith 22:48
Um, he was a very special human being. But but that lit the spark for me. Because I had, I think because it’s such a young age. I had been privy to the power of story and what it could do and how it could hold a room sort of wrapped. And how important it was to hear you know, stories that related so intimately to me, modelled by someone who was memorialising them in story. So I, I think that that really did sort of like the, like the fuse for me and I just sort of flew from there, I guess.
Phil Rickaby 23:28
Hmm. And then at some point when you decided that you didn’t want to be involved with the military industrial complex, you decided that theatre was the quote unquote, safer option. Did when you made that choice? Did anybody try to talk you out of it? Or did Where’s everybody really supportive?
E.B. Smith 23:44
My high school college guidance counsellor stopped talking to me. When I said I want to go to Oh, you they went okay good luck to you. Goodbye. You know, it was not it was not the the lesson choice as far as they were concerned, um, but I mean, my parents were kind of thrilled. I think especially my mother It was like, oh, nobody’s gonna be shooting at you fantastic. But But yeah, you know, my parents are both very big believers and following dreams and and I you know, I wouldn’t be sitting here today if it weren’t for them like they they have always been enormous supports. You know my father, my father followed his dreams played pro baseball. When in his in his formative years, he played for the Chicago Cubs. And my mother is a music educator and arts and crafts kind of run in her veins as well. She She now has a business that sells needlepoint supplies, and she does a lot of needle arts. But it’s all but what I do for a living has always sort of excited them I think because because they have always been aware of the power in it. I mean, they took me to theatres. A kid all the time too. And we would have long conversations about what we just seen on stage and what it meant culturally and how to, how to interact with it and where its limitations are. So, I mean, at the end of the day, I was probably bound to do this on some level.
Phil Rickaby 25:21
It’s interesting because, you know, having having parents who follow their dreams is like a, it’s like that’s a model for any child, you know, to see rather than somebody who, you know, killed their dreams, they could have a steady job, somebody who kept pursuing their job is their their dream, I think is a that’s a formative ideal for a child to grow up and see.
E.B. Smith 25:46
Yeah, for sure. For sure, and, you know, my parents also, and my grandparents all have this sort of entrepreneurial spirit as well. And I think that’s necessary for an artist. You know, you have to be able to self generate Because at the end of the day, you know, gigs are not promised. And if you want to get something, sometimes you just got to make it yourself. And I think, I think growing up with that model as well was was super impactful for me because they they’ve been running a business together my mother, my mother and father for close to 40 years. And so, to see that commitment to their work to see that come in to each other, you know, I mean, they, they sleep in the same bed, go to work or do the same office, come home, make dinner and do it all again the next day. And they’ve done they’ve done that my entire life, which is which is humbling to see because that’s, that that’s, that’s modelled to kind of stick to itiveness and a kind of dedication that that I hope to live up to.
Phil Rickaby 26:50
Now, since you’ve been at Stratford, has Canada been your primary residence since for 10 years or have you gone back and forth when you’re not Working
E.B. Smith 27:01
Canada is pretty necessarily been my primary residence. I mean, I the Stratford season, from start of rehearsals to the end of the contract is sometimes upwards of eight or nine months. So and especially during conservatory my first couple years here, I don’t think I didn’t have more than a couple weeks off at a time to go anywhere. So. So yeah, I’ve been in Canada, the lion’s share of the last 10 years. The first show that I’ve done in the States, since coming to Canada was actually this past winter. I did a show in Maryland, ironically, for a Canadian company. That was the show but but yeah, it’s I’ve been I’ve been thoroughly immersed in Canadian theatre for the last 10 years and I’ve I’ve been lucky enough to work across the country as well. You know, I’ve been working in Stratford. I’ve done shows in London, Ontario at the Grand where I’m actually now a board member. And I’ve done shows in Winnipeg, and I’ve worked in Toronto a little bit. So I’ve gotten to know The Canadian scene beyond the festival circuit, which has been really eye opening and really wonderful This is the theatre community in Canada is so robust and so alive and so thoughtful. And it doesn’t have a lot of the trappings that I, I found in the States, you know, before I came here, it doesn’t feel as cutthroat or, or oversaturated. And so I think there’s a real sense of community here that you don’t find on the macro level in the States.
Phil Rickaby 28:34
I mean, one of the questions that I was sort of most curious about is as an American who came to Canada to work what was there something that you found most shocking about the about coming from Canada to start from the US to Canada to work or was Was that it? Um,
E.B. Smith 28:54
that was a big part of it. I you know that there are some things that I felt felt a little odd about I guess in Canada the there’s a big difference in the way that actors sort of collectively bargain in Canada and how we how how actors equity functions as an entity up here that is very different than the way it feels and functions in the States. So that was a bit that was a bit of an adjustment to get used to. Canadians call breaks at weird times, freaking rehearsal. In the States, it’s much, much stricter, it feels like there’s there’s sort of a there’s a much more codified you must take 10 minutes now. You’re in Canada, it’s like, you know, you get 10 minutes every two hours, however you want to split that up is up to you kind of thing. I actually quite enjoy that. I find it I find that flexibility really helpful when you’re when you’re working. You know, everybody’s everybody’s pretty respectful of when we need to step away for a second but But it’s nice to be able to sort of finish finish a bit of work before you have to before the stage manager stands up and blows the horn. Yeah. And and generally I find I find another difference is that the, the way Canadians approach tough conversations. It can be a dual, it can be a double edged sword up here a little bit, I think because because Canadians are on the whole more polite Americans that is not a stereotype, but well, it may be a stereotype, but it
Phil Rickaby 30:40
is it is. But it’s also kind of true,
E.B. Smith 30:42
but it’s also kind of true. And so I think in some ways, it’s harder to have some of the really tough conversations up here than it is in the States because in the States, you know, people aren’t afraid to throw a few rocks but I also find that one As conversations happen in Canada, there’s a much more thoughtful approach to them. I think because I think because Canadians don’t have the same tolerance for impassioned argument, maybe or they don’t have the same tolerance for conflict in communication. When conflict happens, they they bend over backwards to fix the problems so that we don’t have to engage in conflict again.
Phil Rickaby 31:28
I would sort of, I would ask sort of a follow up to that. And and, you know, it’s sort of interesting, you know, talking to you as somebody who sort of grew up with an AI that is different, who saw from the from the US side, are we resolving the problem? Are we fixing the problem, or are we just sort of like, throwing a rug over it just so we don’t have to look at it?
E.B. Smith 31:49
Depends. Depends. I mean, this this past few weeks has been a very interesting time because at the festival at least, we’ve We’ve sort of we’ve sort of set in motion something that that has been a long time coming. The black actors of the festival were we organised to create a livestream broadcast, I guess was almost three weeks ago now called Black like me. It was a two hour discussion about what it’s like to be a person of colour in theatre. And what we’ve sort of had to or, you know, undergo and, and, and withstand over the course of our careers and a lot of very difficult truths were told. So, like I said, before, you know, this is this is unusual because this level of candour has not typically been encouraged, shall we say, over the course of my time here, but but But I’ll tell you after that day, I think a lot of people woke up to what had been going on. And I’m seeing movement I’ve never seen before in terms of how people are trying to begin to address these problems and they’re really trying to address the problem and not not succumb to their comfort in the in the conversation. I hope that that trend continues. I’m not I’m not overly optimistic that it’s going to but i’m i’m cautiously optimistic that people are genuine in that in that resolve. But it it really does speak to sort of that dynamic of like, when the floodgates gets open up here, they really open.
Phil Rickaby 33:43
I mean, it’s, it’s certainly a long time coming I have attended. I don’t know how many panel discussions about quote unquote, diversity in the theatre that often had the same people talking and saying the same thing and a lot of people know Adding in saying yes, something should change and then nothing, nothing happening but nothing like what I’ve seen in the past the past few weeks. Nothing like the black like me and the results that you’re talking about there and also the openness on Twitter with the in the dressing room hashtag and then following that. I think the candour was important, but also there’s there’s a moment now, which is sort of what like one of the one of the podcasts I listened to code switch was like had an episode this week. That’s like that was entitled White People, Why now? But I mean, that’s a good that’s an excellent question. Why now but at least like now, let’s let’s make that let’s like, make movements and make some changes.
E.B. Smith 34:50
Yeah, I’m in there. Right. I have a lot of theories about why now but but I think, fundament fundamentally there’s sort of a confluence of factors that that allowed this To be loud this conversation to be broken wide open. I mean, you know, everybody, first of all is isolated at home in front of the computer screens 24 hours a day. They have nowhere else to go. They’re listening to what’s happening. They’re there. There’s they’re they’re probably accessing sources of information and voices they’ve never accessed before, because they haven’t had the dedicated time to, you know, run out of Netflix. Yeah, I think also, when you see the resolve of people in various parts of the States and across Canada, demonstrating and marching in the streets, knowing that there is a threat to their lives because of COVID and realising that this is just more important. I think that’s galvanising people in a special way. I also think that in terms of the people speaking their minds Power – power structures are fundamentally shifting. So I think I think six months ago, I wouldn’t have been willing to speak up like that? And maybe the rest of us wouldn’t at least not in such a such a confrontational way, I suppose. But it strikes me that the power structures in this industry and in fact, around much of the world have been shifting monumentally in the last couple of weeks. And, and since COVID began, I mean, you know, I’m not worried about repercussions. I’m not worried about reprisal from artistic directors, because at the moment, and for a considerable amount of time to come, there’s not a single artistic director in the country that can give me a job. And so I think it’s imperative at this point that because we have this time of pause, because we have this sort of shift in the paradigm, we really need to figure out how we’re going to come back from a cultural perspective from the perspective of theatre makers who have long been disempowered and we need to figure out how to level the playing field. I mean, you know, there’s always a hierarchy From the room, a director is going to want to have the final say on how a production looks their job right there to tell it, they’re there to be the the eye, the outside eye and make sure that what’s happening works. But there there are ways to do that that can reduce harm that can that can mitigate the oppression that goes on in the room, both aggressively and micro aggressively. And I think it’s critical that we examine that before we come back so that when we start up, we can get rolling again and restart a machine that’s going to empower people and not and not tear them down.
Phil Rickaby 37:34
I think you might be right. I mean, you’re probably right about the fact that this couldn’t have happened if the machine was running at its normal rate.
E.B. Smith 37:42
Absolutely. I mean, I’d be doing I’d be doing like, you know, six shows a week plus rehearsals full time right now. There’s no way anybody would have had the bandwidth to be able to handle this kind of self examination. You know,
Phil Rickaby 38:03
Have you in terms of the I once was speaking to another years ago, on another episode of the podcast, I was speaking to a black director who said that that she lived in the states and she lives in Canada. And if she had to choose a brand of racism, she would choose the American South because at least you knew where you stood.
E.B. Smith 38:24
Yep. I agree.
Phil Rickaby 38:31
That’s something that resonates. That’s something you agree with?
E.B. Smith 38:33
Oh, absolutely. I mean, look, I i’ve been called nigger to my face more in Canada than I ever was in the States. And it comes at times and in places that I never would have expected. You know, in the States, the the. The conventions are there. Right. You know who you’re meeting. Most of The time people wear their identities in ways they don’t in Canada and I think that’s partially the sort of Canadian politeness right then, you know, but I think it’s also I think it also speaks to this this desire that the US citizens seem to have to to meet the world head on with everything. They are like a fucking sledgehammer. Yeah, so. So in terms of overt acts of racism the States does have a bit of a, a sort of readability that Canada doesn’t. Mm hmm. At the same time, the states also has a lethality that Canada doesn’t. And, and, and that’s it’s a tough thing to wrestle with, you know, a good friend of mine who’s a director in Canada, person of colour once said, I’ve worked in Canada, I’ve worked in the States, you know, in Canada, you can walk out your door, and go a month, and never be reminded to who you are in the States, you walk out your door, and they’ll remind you, you’re a black woman in about five minutes, somebody will. And so I think, in some ways, in Canada, it becomes, especially if you’re living in a predominantly white centre, it becomes so jarring when it happens. It’s really alarming when you’re confronted with it, because in some cases, you can sort of be lulled into a false sense of security into complacency. You know, it’s sort of a practice to remember where you are, which is part of the reason why some of these practices in rehearsal hall become so jarring and so, so terrifying. inducing such sort of paralysis in terms of dealing with it when they happen.
Phil Rickaby 40:56
I mean, the the rehearsal hall is an interesting is an interesting thing, because I think I was talking with some people that had been at Salt Pepper around the time when that that scandal blew up. And, you know, we were remarking about how, for the most part in in many cases Theatre School prepares you to be complicit in that, because it teaches you not to rock the boat. Yeah. Don’t Don’t speak out in rehearsal, make sure that you’re that you don’t cause any trouble, which, of course, is the antithesis of what needed to happen there and what needs to happen in the difficult conversations that are happening Stratford in theatres across Canada in regards to race without a doubt.
E.B. Smith 41:46
Yeah, I mean, the, I remember I remember things said to me in theatre school that to this day, just curl my hair. I mean, it’s it’s staggering to think that I didn’t quit. Right, or that any of us didn’t quit. Right then in there, you know, I did a, I did a monologue from Brutus one day in a Shakespeare class in university. And afterwards there was no, there was there were no notes on what I had done on my technique or, you know, my text work or anything. The only feedback I got was the professor looked at me and said, Do you have an Othello or an errand or Caliban perhaps? I said, No. And he said, you should, that’s what you’ll be doing. I went okay. Well, I have nothing more to gain from you. Yeah. But also, you know, it’s a lost class for me because that, you know, that that 10 week period of studying Shakespeare with this professor, all culminated in him telling me that I’ll never play anything but you know, stereotypically black characters and there’s nothing to say that Caliban’s even black for Christ sake. You know, he’s he’s a fish monster but because but because there’s that sort of beastial quality. The, the the colonial mind, I guess just goes well and must be – black folks are closer to monsters than white folks. You know, I guess that’s the that’s the the inevitable old school mentality. But yeah, I mean, that’s the theatre school, sort of laid those things in, in some ways and in other ways. Theatre School broke me out of those things. I mean, there I had a professor in university named Esiaba Irobi, and he, he passed away several years ago now, but he, he called himself an intellectual terrorist. And he, he helped me build a practice of disrupting every room I possibly could. You know, breaking down assumption And stereotypes and sort of coming at people sideways with a, with a sort of piercing intellect that folks didn’t expect. And I’ve, I’ve always tried to remember him in those moments where it’s like, I know what I should be doing. I know, I know what is going to land me in a lot of trouble and then I know what Esiaba would do, which would be sort of to circumvent the trouble and and cut right to the heart of the matter. He was extraordinary. But in you know, he was Nigerian and and, you know, one a very few black teachers that I’ve ever had in my life. I think that’s common variants for most people to have that few but, but I think he he really kept me sane through that time, and kept me feeling validated because he told me he taught me how to see myself Talking about earlier about looking in the mirror. He, he taught me how to make friends with that person. Having always haven’t always been able to keep that up that practice but but he laid a framework for me to be able to find it again.
Phil Rickaby 45:18
When you you mentioned being, you know, cautiously optimistic about about the future of theatre and all of these conversations about race that are happening now. In your cautious optimism, if you look ahead, we’re gonna forget about the pessimism that can come in, but if you were to imagine a Stratford Festival, Mm hmm. What might you see? Or what would you love to see happen? Hmm.
E.B. Smith 45:50
I don’t necessarily have that crystal ball. I would like to see an organisation that really comes to grips with what they are and what they represent for people. I would like to see an organisation and they’ve started to do this that acknowledges the damage they have done and have been take a really honest accounting of where they’ve come from. I mean, ultimately, I think the festival will, over the next 12 – 18 months discover about themselves, things that they’ve never even considered. I’m excited to see what those things are in terms of how they may be able to reach out and in fact, go go meet communities, that they’ve largely excluded where they are I think that’s going to be critical for them. Because expecting people to just come to Stratford, Ontario, and hand over money to have an experience in the theatre is not going to come without a significant amount of meaningful outreach. And I don’t mean the sort of mission to civilise that most education departments at theatres actually are. I mean, I mean, a very humble approach to say, we need to make amends. And that’s on us. And we intend to do that. And here’s how. And I think they’re getting there. I mean, the statements that I’ve seen coming out of the office that that the artistic director Anthony Cimolino has made over the last few weeks that the organisation released a couple weeks ago before the black like me discussion, you know, they they have no desire to, to tell the truth and to search for, you know, their own individual truths about about what they are and what their part in this destructive system has been. If they’re brave enough to stare that in the face and really have honest discussions about that, I think they can be a real agent for for change moving forward. You know, look, they have the biggest, if you will stick on the playground, they’re enormous organisation 60 plus million dollar budgets. They produce an absurd amount of work every year, they hire well over 100 actors every year. You know, 12 to 15 plays, they’ve for performance spaces in town, one brand new, you know, 60 to $100 million theatre right on the water. They have resources that are truly extraordinary if they can figure out how to bring those resources to bear in ways that empower everyone in theatre. community and I mean every marginalised community I mean, every voice they possibly can, I think they can, they can really lead the charge on this revolution as long as they centre narratives of the people that they have been stepping on for so long. And when I say centre those narratives, I don’t mean that they programme them and produce those plays themselves. I mean, they need to bring us they need to bring us in to do it ourselves.
Phil Rickaby 49:26
Right. Right. Yeah. It’s interesting. The the, you know, mentioned earlier the way that that Canadians it’s like calling it a problem fixed is by like throwing the rug over top of it, by having the conversation and listening to the conversation and doing it in such a public way. Mm hmm. I mean, the festival gave the keys to the Twitter account to to the to the black artists and to encourage the in the “in the dressing room” conversation. That’s not throwing a rug over something. That is shining a light on it. So hopefully, in the time that in the years that the year ahead in the years that follow, those conversations will continue but also result in black directors, black playwrights, black black actors, black lighting people designers in, in the, in the theatre and really, you know, a real change to the way that the the festival has worked.
E.B. Smith 50:30
Yeah, I mean administration as well. I mean, you know, this is, this is one of the things I’ve said from the beginning you walk into that office and you don’t see a single person of colour working there until very recently. And it especially in a in a in a supervisory role. You know, we’ve had the odd occasional, you know, associate producer or, or someone who’s there on a grant working in shadowing one of the elite administrators, but But in terms of someone who has their hands on the wheel of programming and messaging, it hasn’t, it hasn’t been the practice at Stratford. I think also, I think also we have to really grapple with how and whose story we centre. What narratives are being what narratives being presented, you know, we have a fundamental problem in the way that we approach entertainment and art and, and all of these narratives and that is, you know, as I was growing up, for example, I’m a black man, I did not have the chance to sort of academically access black work until I was in university. Hmm. Right. And even then, it was a Raisin in the Sun. You know, Parents introduced me to James Baldwin when I was a kid. But going to school, that was never part of the curriculum. Every story that I was asked to participate in have a classroom discussion around was a story about a white protagonist or written by a white person, even if it was about some other cultural culture. And so, functionally, what that means is when you encounter work that actually speaks about an experience analogous to mine. It is inherently novel. It sets up this it sets up this sort of toxic relationship whereby I get a taste of something authentic to myself, and I’m trained not to expect more of that. And I think I think, I think as a theatre with the stature of Stratford and many other regional theatres across the country, we have to do a better job of allowing people to look into that mirror and love themselves. Mm hmm. Because if we don’t, if we don’t dedicate ourselves to that, we’re going to maintain this toxic relationship with the communities around us. And, and within white communities too. I mean, this this, I think I think about what conversations would look like today and what the world would sound like, if white folks had grown up really understanding how to centre narratives of colour. Hmm. Like, what would that what would that be like? And I don’t mean appropriating their music or their ways of speaking or dress or anything like that. I mean, actually understanding what were the seeds of joy are in other cultures that I feel like could be revolutionary. Yeah, because that’s the empathetic exercise that doesn’t come along with appropriation.
Phil Rickaby 53:56
I’ve been thinking a lot about the media that I consume might have been Noticing, you know, as I watch things on television and the video games that I play, I’m very aware now and I’ve been thinking about it for a little while about the fact that there are no black faces and there are no no brown faces. There are no Asian faces faces. There’s like it’s, it is a white default. And, you know, like, those the stories that we see on screen sort of inform how we see the world. Yeah. 100%. And if we only see the white faces, and we see the white stories, those are those are prioritised in the in the culture. And I think it’s high time that we that we we see more more colourful faces in all of our media.
E.B. Smith 54:48
Yeah, without a doubt. We’re colourful faces of wider variation of gender identities, orientations. I mean, you know, we we prioritise the individual Culturally and sort of in the popular imagination as long as that individual fits with a narrative that’s acceptable to us. Mm hmm. And the only way to, to broaden that acceptance is to celebrate diversity in a very practical way. And that speaks that speaks to how we create all of this art. I mean, I’ve been playing Red Dead Redemption, too. Yeah, I know the game. Well, it’s a beautifully rendered game. I love that I love playing that game, but it always bothers me that I can’t. I can’t be anybody but that that character. No, exactly. can change that avatar.
Phil Rickaby 55:42
Yeah, no, you can’t. There are games. And I always appreciate the games that give you options that let you design your character. Games like Mass Effect, for example, then And along those veins where you can create the character that that you want to play in the game of life. To make it look like you, whereas a game like a beautiful game like Red Dead Redemption, you’re just playing a white outlaw.
E.B. Smith 56:08
Yes, exactly. Yeah. Yeah. And and and, you know, I applaud the game on some level for sort of addressing issues of race but it’s done in a sort of tertiary way. It’s not. It doesn’t have a whole lot of bearing on the story feels like
Phil Rickaby 56:26
it’d be thank you so much for this conversation tonight.
E.B. Smith 56:28
It’s my pleasure, Phil.