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Wordsmith: Virginia Smith

Not-so-ordinary artist directs UA’s latest play about everyday life

By Leigh E. Rich

To all who are fortunate enough to encounter her determination and vim, it is apparent that Chicago-based playwright, actor and director Virginia Smith constantly has several “irons in the fire.” Nonetheless, her almost preternatural reserve of energy proves ample kindling to perpetuate the intense creativity she radiates.

Although primarily stationed in the Windy City, Smith has temporarily settled in the temperate Tucson climate to guest direct The Arizona Repertory Theatre’s upcoming production of “Judevine.” And the UA Department of Theatre Arts has been basking in her warm glow for the past two months.

A few years ago, Doug Finlayson (before he became an assistant professor in UA’s Theatre Arts Department) saw the Equity Library Theatre’s production of this play penned by poet and playwright David Budbill—and directed by Virginia Smith. The play depic ts the everyday lives of the inhabitants of Judevine, a fictional blue-collar town somewhere near Stowe, Vermont. Using an ensemble cast of 26 characters, “Judevine” was a logical choice for the department’s annual sophomore showcase which introduces the Tucson community to the new faces in UA’s professional acting training program. And, after going through the official rigmarole, Smith was invited last July to guest direct.

With an undergraduate degree in speech, theater and English and a graduate degree in directing, Smith confesses that her first love is teaching. This is readily obvious when she speaks of her experience directing the 19 sophomores who star in “Judevine.”

“Working with this group of actors, we’ve created some interesting stuff together,” Smith said. “It’s not the product, it’s the process.”

She has not recreated her production from Chicago, although she continues to use the live music composed by Paul Amandes, and she never takes full credit for the end result. “It’s never all anyone. It’s a creation of me and this company.”

This creation, however, has been “filtered through my imagination,” and an impressively diverse one at that. Smith is an accomplished stage actor and can also be seen in commercials and feature films (like “Home Alone” and “The Naked Face”). She has several plays of her own (“Fair City” and “Carry on Lucy Parsons,” among others), and she is currently working on an adaptation of a book in collaboration with Finlayson.

It is her talent and her belief in deadlines (“I’m a master at making deadlines for myself”) which have fostered her success in so many different roles and enabled her to sustain her feverish pace. After “Judevine,” Smith will direct “Aura,” a play based on the novella by Carlos Fuentes, as well as finish her project with Finlayson. Between now and the summer, Smith will write the script, Finlayson will direct it, and the final production will take to the stage. For Smith, every spare moment is an opportunity to create.

She confesses, “I will go into rehearsal (for “Aura”) the minute I get home.”

Because she is “always doing all three,” simultaneously donning the hats of writer, actor and director is typical for Smith. “If I’m not doing one of them at all, I go crazy.”

Smith’s vision is strong. As a director or a writer, she teaches others not only about acting but also interacting. Apart from her own artistic creations, Smith may be deemed an “applied playwright”: she also writes issue-oriented industrial scripts for companies illustrating modern problems and their resolutions—like bigotry, sexual harassment, child care, and many other difficulties one encounters by simply being human.

Smith states, “I have a specialty in the diversity area. Businesses are waking up to the fact that they have to get rid of the glass ceiling.” Using other actors to present these scenes and characters to employees of businesses like Amoco, Texas Instruments and Ace Hardware enables people to “crawl into the shoes” of others.

Smith calls this aspect of her writing “pretty powerful. It’s about showing audiences—people from that company—that they are still learning how to deal with each other. It’s not about selling stuff. It’s about helping people interact. I feel like I change things for the better.”

She distinguishes her industrial scripts from her other plays as a difference between “craft” and “artistry.” Working within American industry has helped crystallize the former and has inspired ideas and new characters in the latter. “It’s really made a huge difference in my craft (and) how succinct I can be. Artistically, you’re always just working on your own stuff.”

Perhaps no artist knows this better than Smith. While directing “Judevine” at the UA, she has amazingly found time to work on three of her writing projects. Pleasantly ebullient and palatably down-to-earth, much of her motivation comes from within and “the necessity to keep sharing my view of the world. My voice has to be speaking. I have to be doing the stuff that I do.”

However, Smith is a strong believer in collaboration. Referring to her writing, Smith feels that “it’s nice to have another person’s brain. You get lost in your subjects. You get too close. (Another) director can help you kill off your darlings. And sometimes that can be a good thing.”

For Virginia Smith, there is never any time to waste. She plans to eventually add a full-time teaching position to her long list of job titles. And even though all of her projects are rarely focused in one place, Smith feels “it would be interesting to have all the energy flowing in the same direction.”

Her desire to move people appears to be the common thread in her diverse tale. “The power of it is that it can be so true. It’s work that’s very satisfying.”

For perhaps her audiences as well as herself.

Rich, L.E. (1996, January 25). Not-so-ordinary artist directs UA’s latest play about everyday life. Arizona Daily Wildcat.

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