Craig Smith is Producing Artistic Director of Phoenix Theatre Ensemble. He was an ensemble member of New York’s prestigious Jean Cocteau Repertory where he made his artistic home for more than 3 decades appearing in over 200 productions from Stoppard to Shakespeare and Sophocles to Williams. In 2004, Craig and four colleagues founded the award-winning Phoenix Theatre Ensemble. Now under the direction of Mr. Smith and Artistic Director, Elise Stone, Phoenix presents 3 to 6 productions of new and classical works annually, a reading and new play development series, and an arts-in-education program for NYC public schools. He is the recipient of the President of the Borough of Manhattan’s Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Arts and Community Service.
Craig Smith talks with SV’s Bob Shuman about his new production at the Wild Project.
One question you’d ask Joe Orton if he was around?
Your work in Entertaining Mr. Sloane has a tragic through-line that has the emotional impact equal to that of Arthur Miller. You moved away from this with Loot and What the Butler Saw–why?
One of the early reviewers of Entertaining Mr. Sloane called it a “dirty highbrow play.” Is it?
Orton was a 1960’s rebel–Ed and Sloane are in the words of critic Randy Gener, “rapacious bisexuals”–the play’s raw treatment of sexuality was new and titillating in 1964. But the real dirt is the way family members treat each other–no one can inflict pain the way your family can. “Highbrow”: the language is sophisticated, like Wilde, Coward, and Pinter, such as “you superannuated old prat” coming from undereducated people who live in an isolated house, situated in a rubbish dump. This anachronistic use of selected words, here and there, is delicious. About the language: It is a challenge to memorize in the way all really good language is—it does not come easily. It is a singular voice. When done well, it crackles. Language that is easy to memorize often comes off as ordinary and a bit uninteresting.
How would you describe what Entertaining Mr. Sloane is about?
A love story. Four deeply wounded people in need of love. It’s about a family–a family with very old wounds–hard facts that they have tried to ignore or forget. But the introduction of Sloane to this family unit proves explosive.
What’s more interesting? Joe Orton’s plays or his life (and death)?
Very difficult to compete with the colorful—some would say the outrageous–life of Joe Orton. The plays have order–even the chaos has a choreographed order to it–but Orton’s life was not choreographed.
Your greatest satisfaction from being in the theatre?
Breakthroughs in the rehearsal room.
Biggest obstacle for theatre companies today?
The extraordinarily entertaining work being done on cable television.
Tell us about the casting process: What kind of actors were you looking for—and tell us who finally won the parts?
Good actors . . . I knew I wanted Elise Stone (my wife and Phoenix Theatre Ensemble Artistic Director) to play Kath and John Lenartz to play Kemp–both great, talented actors who I have worked with for decades. Ed is the most challenging role in the play, and I asked PTE artist, Antonio Edwards Suarez, to play this complex man who struggles with his sexuality. But . . . I did not have a Sloane. Then we went to see some director scenes that friends were working on–and I saw this good looking, interesting young actor with very intense eyes. We asked him to join a reading we were doing of Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine. Once cast, I could see that he had excellent instincts, took direction, and was a really nice guy–so after that, I asked Matt Baguth to play Sloane.
At Phoenix Theatre Ensemble do you typically work with the same artists? Who are your current collaborators?
Yes, we have an ensemble of resident artists, but casting is not exclusive to that group. Over time these artists have developed a creative shorthand and a knowledge and appreciation of each other. It is a great way to work and btw, I won’t work with difficult people.
Does the company look for a certain kind of play to produce? How does the ensemble decide on a season?
Many think that you just sit down and pick out some favorite plays or playwrights that you might want to produce. It is a very complicated process, though. We have to consider budgets, performance rights, plays that complement each other–we like a mix of new works and classics—spaces to perform in, and the challenge the season will be to our actors and directors.
How much liberty do you believe a director can take with an established script?
In 30+ years of theatre work, this is my directing debut. I’m enjoying it immensely. I take more liberty with scripts than others do or would. As an actor, I’m legend for paraphrasing–particularly with scripts in translation–perhaps this has given me a sense of entitlement, some would say a “false entitlement.” I am not of the opinion that actors and directors are interpreters only. As a jazz musician will riff on a piece of music, I encourage the same thing in theatre. Lots of people disagree with this–some vehemently, but I don’t really care.
Tell us about your background. How did you get started in the theatre and how has your career evolved?
As a young man new to the city, I auditioned for Jean Cocteau Repertory and then attended a performance of Waiting for Godot, 10:00PM on a Friday night. The play was at their 50-seat storefront theatre in a neighborhood that I considered the downtown “murder district.” It was indeed a pretty rough area. I had never seen anything quite like that performance before; I went back the next day and asked if they needed help sweeping the floor. I stayed with them for 30+ years.
Most unlikely problem you’ve faced during the rehearsal process—and how has it resolved or how is it resolving?
The pauses–I have worked on quite a bit of Pinter and Beckett–masters of the power of the pause. Orton was a fan of Pinter, and the script is littered with “pauses” and “silences”–way too many of them. If he had written this later in his short career, I think he would have been more selective. But regardless, I thought I had a good handle on this–the non-filled pause–the power of nothingness hanging in the air—but it is a challenge. We continue to work on them.
Most influential director, person in theatre, or mentor in your life?
Eve Adamson and Elise Stone.
Does knowing about the early ‘60s in England help in understanding Entertaining Mr. Sloane? Or do you feel it’s not necessary to explain?
Well, young Matt, in rehearsal one night, referred to the time of Sloane as “way back then”–like it might have been an 18th-century play, which I found both humorous and sobering at the same time. There is a generation that doesn’t know who Orton is, who think that “edge” is only contemporary to the last few years. In a way, this play could have only come out of that culture-changing decade–a decade I am so glad that I experienced. But the play is not stuck in that time period. In my opinion, it is worthy of being considered a modern classic.
Does knowing about the current political or cultural environment in the U.S. inform your production in any way?
I didn’t think it would. We did Brecht’s Arturo Ui right over the election–it could not have been more timely, and we reaped the benefits. I was relieved we were doing Sloane, because I thought it would be a break for us–and for our audience–from the overload of politics and the plethora of new works coming out in response to this U.S. administration. But, in a very short time, we are now in a culture of repression and regression: from the progressive victories of same-sex marriage to the horrors of Chechnya; from the rise of domestic hate crimes to the overall demise of compassion. So, unfortunately, we once again find our work being very, very relevant.
Give the answer to an essential question about yourself that you realize won’t be asked here.
I find beauty in what others find to be gross and disgusting.
Best piece of theatrical advice you ever received?
Don’t retreat–advance the story. And also from a director, who gave me this note: “it is, of course, complete hokum, but you must imbue with complete truth.”
Thank you very much.
Entertaining Mr. Sloane by Joe Orton
When: May 4–14; performances Tues-Sat @8:00 PM; Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2:00 pm; Sunday matinee at 3:00 pm.
Full Schedule: Thurs 5/4 @ 8pm; Fri 5/5 @ 8pm; Sat 5/6 @ 2pm & 8pm; Sun 5/7 @ 3pm; Tues 5/9 @ 8pm; Wed 5/10 @ 2pm; 8pm; Thurs 5/11 @8pm; Fri 5/12 @ 8pm; Sat 5//13 @ 2pm & 8pm; Sun 5/14 @ 3pm.
Where: The Wild Project @ 195 East 3rd Street (Avenue A and Avenue B)
Transportation: By Subway: F Train to 2nd Avenue; by Bus A14 to 4th Street and Ave A; 8th Street Crosstown.
(c) 2017 by Craig Smith (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.
Phoenix Theatre Ensemble production of “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” photo credits: Gerry Goodstein.