By Sergio Mims
A Conversation With Goodman Theatre Director
One of the true genuine legends of the theater, not just in the theater-crazy city of Chicago, but also nationwide, is director Chuck Smith.
The Chicago native, who is the legendary Goodman Theatre's resident director, has an endless list of credits and accomplishments not only at the Goodman Theatre, but also with Victory Gardens Theater, ETA, Black Ensemble Theater, The New Federal Theatre in New York, The Oregon Shakespeare Theatre, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and The Robey Theater Company in Los Angeles, among numerous other theaters and festivals around the country. And those accomplishments go back decades.
Smith's latest achievement is the Goodman Theatre's current production of David Mamet's controversial play, Race, after its successful run on Broadway.
This latest work by Pulitzer Prize winner David Mamet ruthlessly examines guilt and oppression via a compelling crime mystery. Two high-profile lawyers -- Henry (Geoffrey Owens) who is Black, and Jack (Marc Grapey) who is White -- are called to defend wealthy White client Charles (Patrick Clear), who is charged with the rape of an African-American woman.
Along with their new hire, Susan (Tamberla Perry), they soon find themselves embroiled in a complex case where blatant prejudice is as disturbing as the evidence at hand. With characteristic bluntness, Mamet leaves nothing unsaid in this no-holds-barred suspense story.
"Race, to me, is the most in-your-face play that I've dealt with on the subject of race in America, and David Mamet does it in an intriguing, effective way -- sharp, precise, right to the point," says Smith, whose numerous directing credits include plays of the 20th Century African-American experience, including Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, The Amen Corner and The Good Negro.
"There are uncomfortable questions raised in this play, but I think it's every theater's job to address contemporary issues and mirror our society. Race carries on a conversation that is essential to us individually and collectively."
We had the opportunity to talk to Chuck about what attracted him to the play, how destiny has played a major role in his life and career, and why the theater is like the Marine Corps.
(From left) Tamberla Perry (Susan), Geoffrey Owens (Henry), and Marc Grapey (Jack)
in a tense scene with Patrick Clear (Charles) during a performance of Race.
N'DIGO: Watching you rehearse with the actors for Race, I noticed that you're not one of those "intrusive" directors. You're more laid back and seem to let the actors find their way. How did you develop that approach?
Chuck Smith: It comes out of probably two things -- that I used to act, and that smart actors can usually solve all your problems. At this stage of the production, we're at a point now where I'm just nitpicking.
All the work has been done already, so everything is laid out just the way I want it and it's maybe a couple of moves, whether to move upstage or downstage, that has to be done at this point. That kind of small stuff.
But I learned this as a student from one of my old instructors at Loop College, a director by the name of Sidney Daniels. That was sort of his approach.
Let the actors do their thing within the framework of what I gave them. And if it works and they're not tripping over each other, give them space to create the thing on their own. Then I just fine-tune it.
So would you consider yourself a "naturalistic" director?
Yes, yes, yes. Especially if it's a realistic play. If it's farce, then you can go crazy or whatever it is that you want them to do. But with the actors that I have experienced, the smart actors, I don't have to tell them to do everything. They find it in themselves. Anything that I was going to tell them, if I hold it back a day, they wind up moving in that direction anyway.
Director Chuck Smith discusses one of the finer points with Patrick Clear (Charles)
during rehearsal for David Mamet's Race.
What do you look for in a play that you plan to direct? Why did you choose David Mamet's Race for example?
In a play like Race, I'm looking at the controversy that it's going to cause! (laughs) That's what I'm looking for in this piece -- something that will get the conversation going. The very conversation that President Obama said that sooner or later the country is going to have to have. It's going to take a while, but sooner or later we're going to have to have it. And, of course, I picked it because it's David Mamet and I've always wanted to direct a David Mamet play.
So your first theater experience was when you were 12 and you saw your aunt in a play. That's what started the bug?
No, that didn't start the bug; that was my first theater experience that I can remember. But theater was born in me. My aunt was in the theater and my mother took me to a play that she was in and I was amazed that that was my aunt up there, in her favorite robe, and it was my aunt. But it wasn't my aunt, but another person, and I believed the other person. I just found that amazing.
So when did you start thinking that the theater was the life for you?
That didn't start happening until the 1960s after I got out of the Marine Corps. Some guys I had met at the South Shore Lounge on 71st Street -- I was a mailman back then, not even a year out of the Marines -- they were in a theater group, "The Dramatic Arts Guild" at Michael Reece Hospital, and they needed an actor, so they asked me to come down and take part. And as an ex-Marine, I was at first highly insulted that they would ask me to some "sissy" stuff like theater! (laughs)
So what happened?
Well, first they called me down and said, "Look man, I'm going to tell you one thing. We notice you're a single man and we've got a lot of women down there at the Guild. Nice women that you don't meet in bars." So I said, "Okay, I'll go. (laughs) And as soon as I walked in the room, as soon as I walked in the room, I felt at home. And it took me years to figure out why.
Director Chuck Smith working with cast of Race during rehearsal.
Because they were going through the first phase of the theater process, which is called "tech," where everybody's working. You have people over here doing this, you have people over here doing this, you have people over here doing that. That was what was happening and it was the first time I felt comfortable since I had been out of the Marine Corps.
I spent six and half years in the Marines and it's the same process in the Marines Corps, where everybody's got to do their job in order to make the mission work.
In theater it's the same thing. Everybody has to do their job in order to make the play work. I walked in that room and everybody was working. No B.S., just working. I felt at home. It took me years to figure it out, but that's what it was.
So what would you have done if you hadn't discovered theater?
I probably would have wound up back in the Marines. I would have gotten hung up in Vietnam and no telling what would have happened to me.
So you can genuinely say that theater saved your life?
Probably yes. I definitely wouldn't have been doing this if I had gone back to the Marine Corps.
But I mean also in the sense, not that you would have died if it wasn't for the theater, but that it gave you a purpose in life, a way of expressing yourself.
Right! It wasn't like I was searching for this; it found me. And here I am today. It's a perfect fit.
You have done work with theater companies all over the country including New York, so why have you remained here, mainly in Chicago, deeply involved with our vibrant theater scene instead of going off to New York permanently and trying your luck with Broadway?
Because I have a daughter and I had to take care of her. I was on my way to New York. My marriage was on the rocks, we were heading for a divorce, but then she got pregnant, so I ended up staying in Chicago and once again, it was a good thing that I did. It worked out perfectly for me.
Do you think that destiny has made the path for your life?
Yes, yes! No doubt about it. Yes! I certainly believe in that. It wasn't like, Ôthis is what I'm going to do da-da-da-da-da.' Things just moved me into certain directions. Even getting out of the Marines was something like that -- the whole nine-yards. Getting out and staying out and staying in Chicago.
Getting back to theater, who are the playwrights that you admire the most?
Charles Smith (Knock Me a Kiss, Pudd'nhead Wilson, Denmark, The Gospel According to James, Sister Carrie, Les Trois Dumas). He is a Chicago native currently teaching playwriting at Ohio University and by far he is my favorite playwright. Because he writes like I talk. I read his stuff and I understand where he's coming from.
Finally, what do you know now about the theater and directing that you wished you had known before you started?
You know that expression it takes a village to raise a child? Well it also takes a village to put on a show. It's not only just the director. It's the playwright, the actors, the producer; it's the board of directors and a firm relationship is mandatory if you're working in theater.
Regardless of how good you are or how great your vision is or how everybody tells you how wonderful you are, you can't do a thing without these other people. It ain't up to you.
(Race runs through February 19 in the Goodman's Albert Theatre. Tickets, $25 - $89, can be purchased at GoodmanTheatre.org, by phone at 312/443-3800, or at the box office 170 North Dearborn.).