Our September Spotlight shines brightly on Missi Smith, who came to the Merc with big shoes to fill as Executive Director (ED) nine years ago. Not only did she fill them, but she made them stilettos and strutted them all over the theater. We have had the privilege to experience her as an actor, director, choreographer, and fearless leader of the Merc Playhouse. She has since retired as ED but continues to volunteer her time in a variety of ways. The Merc is forever changed through her contributions as she truly is our unicorn. Missi explains her journey within the theater here in her own words:
Tell us about your past experience with theater.
I grew up dancing and that is how I spent most of my youth, teens, and young adult life on stage. During my early years, I was a child dancer in the Indianapolis Ballet Theatre's annual Nutcracker performances several years in a row. I toured with the ballet company and really loved everything about it. I was also a dance competition kid. As I grew older, I performed in musical theater productions, theme park and mall-type shows, and I danced in the contemporary dance company in college. As a side gig, I choreographed and taught dance classes. I have been involved in performing arts of many types ever since. It wasn't until I moved to the Methow, and got involved in theater here, that I had experience with "straight plays." That was a whole new challenge! But it's gone well, and it's become another love of mine. I joined The Merc board several years before I wound up in the Executive Director position that I held for eight years.
What excites you about live theater?
Oh man, as an audience member, or as a cast member, or as a director? It excites me in many different ways. As an audience member, I come to the theater with a lot of wonder. How will I be transported to another world or reality? What will I witness, and what will I learn? How will I think and feel differently once I've experienced this live performance? As an audience member, I honor all of the work that goes into creating live theater and I am here to witness! As a cast member? Well, the excitement of presenting something in front of a live audience is unparalleled. I mean, maybe you can compare it to other thrill-seeking adventures, but I'm typically risk-averse. I'm not somebody who goes fast and hard down a mountain...but I know a good adrenaline rush, and there is nothing like the 5 minutes before a performer takes the stage. It is a total "be here now" experience to dive into a character different from your own, live in her skin for 90 minutes, and tell a story to an audience of people. Then there is the director or choreographer role that I find much fulfillment in. I thoroughly enjoy the challenge of creatively telling a story through live theater. It's a longer-seeming endeavor because in those roles, I begin planning and charting the course long before I even know who is in the cast. It's a slower burn to opening night, but the thrilling part comes when I no longer have any control over the show and the actors have fully taken on my vision and sent that out to the audience. Sometimes, when I've directed or choreographed a show, my favorite thing to do is watch the audience from our secret perch up in the mezzanine. I get a thrill out of seeing the audience's reactions.
Why is it important in a small community like the Methow Valley?
Live theater is a wonderful teacher and community builder. The Merc provides a place for people of any age to learn new skills, be part of a team (or family as we like to call it here), and to explore sometimes difficult concepts. It brings people together. I mean, we sometimes have 8 year-olds in shows with 80 year-olds. They work together to create a final product and during that time they all learn from each other. I don't think that happens in many places besides the theater. I could go on and on about skills and traits theater teaches that one doesn't learn in school or classes: Confidence, dedication, discipline, communication, using one's voice, etc... Then, there are the benefits an audience experiences. Being together to witness members of the community perform and entertain is so valuable. It creates memories. People still remember that one time something amazing happened on The Merc stage and they were there to see it. They talk about shows we've done that open up conversations about history, politics, and the condition of being human. Live theater is an asset and it greatly enriches lives, and I am so grateful that the people in the Methow know this and support us!
Can you share a unique experience you have had in a theater setting… As an actor or director?
Hahaha, every experience is unique; that's what makes it so fun. But. BUT. There was nothing quite like my experience onstage in Venus in Fur. I talk about it way too much. I'm sort of like, "One time at bandcamp..." Do people get that reference? haahaha. But that role really was exceptional and a great challenge with seismic rewards.
Other unique experiences tend to be the outtakes that nobody actually sees from the audience. The times s*** goes down backstage or during the rehearsal process and everyone has to overcome it together and it all works out in the end. Those are the secrets of the magic of theater. You gotta come be in a show to know what I'm talking about. It happens every time, it seems like, and every time it's different and every time we make magic.
What draws you to a particular script?
I like scripts that contain real people grappling with real-life issues. I like stories that show the complexity of life and provide characters that actors can really get into and feel something while they are creating. I'm not as into the neatly tied-up, happy endings as much as I am the ones that leave open-endedness. That's how life is, so I like to get into the gray areas and explore both the things that make us laugh and make us cry, or make us want to cry so much that the only thing to do is laugh. Dark comedy? But I know that not everyone likes that, so I also, as the ED, was always looking for a balance.
I can also be drawn to scripts and stories that I know make us feel great as an audience (especially for children's shows). The most important thing in a script, I believe, is the characters. What's there for the actors and how can we bring the people (or in some cases, animals) alive onstage?
As a director, what do you hope to accomplish?
hmmm. I could answer this in a number of ways. I hope to create an entertaining show that executes a clear vision, of course. I want to tell a story that transports an audience. I hope to impact people's lives positively. I want to cultivate the love of performing arts from the standpoint of my cast. I hope to create relationships that last a lifetime, to add to our theater family. Making art in the theater requires a team, and my biggest hope is that the entire team I've relied upon for each show I've produced is satisfied with their work as much as I am satisfied with my own. I think that shows onstage and is very important.