Molly Smith: Intuition and Intellect

By Vogel, Paula | American Theatre, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Molly Smith: Intuition and Intellect


Vogel, Paula, American Theatre


Ms. Smith goes to Washington, and brings a new aesthetic to town

Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage, founded by Zelda Fichandler in 1950, is staking its 21st-century future on a 46-year-old director with a reputation for clear-sighted leadership and bold theatricalizations, but whose work has rarely been seen beyond the confines of Juneau, Alaska.

Molly Smith, born in Washington State, spent her adolescence in Alaska, and first moved to Washington, D.C., as a transfer student to Catholic University in 1972. After earning her master's degree, she remained in the city for four years to direct and teach acting. She returned home in 1979 to found Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, and over the course of 19 years directed more than 50 productions there, including premieres of new work by Canadian writer John Murrell and Americans Darrah Cloud and Debbie Baley Brevort.

There is something both raw and polished in a Molly Smith production - frontier theatre integrated with sophisticated theatre techniques she's been exposed to from extensive travels. Smith recently directed the premiere of my play The Mineola Twins and several regional productions of How I Learned to Drive. We talked via speaker phone between my home in Providence, R.I., and Smith's new office at Arena Stage, where she assumed artistic directorship in July.

What is the impact of being a woman on your career as both a director and artistic director?

[Long pause. Laughter from Vogel and Smith.] Well, when I look back 20 years, part of the reason I really wanted to return to Alaska was because I found that it was difficult as a woman to work in the theatre. I didn't find a particularly welcoming atmosphere for women in Washington at the time. Where I did feel welcome was at the Washington Area Feminist Theatre, which gave me my first production - Trifles by Susan Glaspell, and What a Wicked Woman, O and President's Daughter, President's Wife by Roma Greth. WAFT was a group of women who gathered together and started their own theatre, producing work by women directed by women. Going back to Alaska, I had a bit of trepidation hoping that what I was going to find was a place where sex didn't make a difference. And that was what I found.

So the saying about Alaska - "where men are men and women win the Iditarod" [the 1,200-mile Alaskan dogsled race] - really held true for you. …

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