E B. Smith
Self Isolated Artist
Just this past Saturday June 6, The Stratford Festival held ‘Black Like Me past, present and future: Behind the Stratford Curtain’ round table discussion involving 10 black artists on its social media channels. I didn’t get the opportunity to watch the discussion until Sunday evening, and all I am going to say is this is essential must-see viewing for patrons of the Festival. I was shocked, angered, annoyed (and these are only three words) to hear of the abuses suffered and endured by black artists. Absolutely deplorable behaviour on all accounts.
After I watched the round table discussion, I immediately sent a message to EB Smith who was a member of the panel to ask him if he might be available for an interview. I wasn’t sure if he would be up for one since he and the other artists shared emotional moments where I often wondered if they would even be willing to speak about them again.
As I was writing the message to EB, he started responding back to me. I was most appreciative when he said he would be interested in being interviewed. His calm eloquence combined with just the right moments where he made me laugh made for a fascinating Zoom discussion:
1. It has been the almost three-month mark since we’ve all been in isolation. Just yesterday I finally saw ‘Black Like Me: Behind the Stratford Curtain’ and, right now, I have no words as I am stunned. How have you been doing with this pandemic and now having to deal with this awful reality which has been obviously going on at the Festival for quite some time? How has your immediate family been doing during this time?
I’m doing great. This time is very interesting. The pandemic is hard in some ways. Routine has been shaken, and we’re all trying to figure out who we are in isolation. That’s a scary prospect for a lot of us as that requires navel-gazing and self reflection. But I think it’s also allowed people to listen in more genuine ways than they have in a long time. This industry because it’s stopped has been able to look at itself. For the first time in my career or education frankly, I feel like I’m not being gaslighted.
My immediate family is okay. My parents and my grandmother live together in Cleveland. I think they’re doing fine. It’s crowded in the house and they might be getting a little tired of each other. They get to be with people they love so there could be worse fates.
2. As a performer, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally during this pandemic?
Most difficult thing professionally for me, I guess, has been trying to figure how to get this message out. I think part of the reason why it’s coming to the surface for so many of us right now is the power structures of this industry have shifted fundamentally. Actors feel like they can speak their minds right now because they’re not afraid of any kind of retribution. Look, right now, there’s not a single artistic director in the world that can give me a job, so I have no fear of losing a job to anybody.
Reality is starting to sink in across the industry where folks are finally taking agency that they haven’t given themselves licence to take yet, and I don’t blame them. There are a lot of actors out there and very few jobs in the theatre. So, if you make those enemies of powerful people you run the risk of running afoul of them and losing employment. Losing the ability to do the work and it’s always been assumed that the price for doing the work is a forfeiture of your agency.
Personally, it’s a little weird going to the grocery store and wearing a mask. Trying to remember not to touch your face and all the other stuff we didn’t think about before. It’s strange when I really take a good look at this time of isolation, I’m doing better than I have done in years. And I think it’s because I don’t have to walk into a place that I have to convince myself every day isn’t harming me.
I love the theatre and what I do. The conditions under which we do this work are toxic and deadly. And there’s no reason for it. That’s ultimately what I’ve realized. I don’t miss being responsible for having to take care of people’s feelings, emotions, impulses that impinge upon my own agency, freedom, and ability to live. I don’t miss having to take care of that white fragility in the room. And that was an everyday balance you have to strike.
What I do miss is speaking the words and telling the stories. I miss playing with my friends on stage. That is why I do this.
I think my experience of this social isolation is unique in some ways. I don’t hear a lot of people talking about finding release in it. Financially it’s hell, and that’s a common experience. I used to think the financial stresses were the things that really stressed me out. I tell you something, I’ve been on the edge this whole time. And I’m fine.
The variable I was missing was walking into a rehearsal hall where I knew I had to be on guard 24/7.
3. Were you in preparation, rehearsals, or any planning stages of productions before everything was shut down? What has become of those projects? Will they see the light of day anytime soon?
We were in rehearsals for ‘Richard III’ and ‘All’s Well that Ends Well’ at the Festival Theatre. I was set to begin rehearsals for ‘Hamlet 911’ last week. We were well in process for a few weeks of rehearsal for staging and doing our thing. It was exciting because the new Tom Patterson was opening so these shows were going to be in the brand-new building.
It was jarring like being launched out of a canon and there’s no netting beneath you. We were in the middle of rehearsal and things started getting a little weird as there was some strange disease happening in the world. Then it got closer and closer and closer. We went through a few surreal days weird rehearsals where we tried to be socially distant and it didn’t work. It was very odd, but ultimately it was clear we had to stop. We walked away from the rehearsal halls.
I’m not an epidemiologist so I have no idea if whether Stratford will be able to present this slate of plays for next year. Personally, I think it’s probably ambitious. I hope Stratford does a season next year. The sooner we can get theatre going again, the better in terms of organizational health and the health of the industry.
I do hope that, in the meantime, we make some fundamental changes in the way we do business in this industry. The not for profit theatre is broken. Theatre is broken in general. The practices we employ are outmoded and catered to a white supremacist patriarchy that just isn’t helpful in making art. It needs to be addressed.
4. What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time?
Well, actually, I’ve been working with some friends of mine in launching a company called Ghostlight which is an online theatre training and education company. We’re trying to engage our students with material they won’t gather in theatre school. We want to develop and work with diverse stories.
We also have digital production services. We’re doing online live-streamed productions of theatrical work and interview style productions. I’m writing a pod cast with a friend of mine from Atlanta. Generally just trying to keep myself engaged in what’s happening in this industry and how to move forward with it once we’re able to resume.
The thing about this discussion this week – for me, it has been going on for twenty years for me. This has been my life for twenty years trying to say, “Look, something’s wrong.” I love this work but something’s wrong, so we gotta fix it, we gotta fix it, gotta fix it. And finally, those messages have gotten some traction from people of colour in this industry. Some of my white friends have been in touch this last week with me to ask, “Are you okay, this is a lot of work going on.” And I tell them, “I haven’t been okay since Rodney King got beat up. Since I’ve been old enough to recognize my relationship to the world as a black man, I’ve not been okay. I’ve been able to manage but I haven’t been good.
Is now what’s happening a new revelation for me? I got news for you.
And that’s why I said earlier in the interview, that’s why I’m not feeling like I’m being gaslighted by my industry and my chosen profession. It goes further. Part of the reason why this discussion was so impactful was the fact it was solution-oriented. It was the black artists’ decision to broadcast because we have to build the empathy first done through narrative first. When empathy is built, we have connection and then a solution with the motivation there to attack it. This was a unique opportunity to speak with the entire community.
5. Any words of wisdom or advice you might /could give to fellow performers and colleagues? What message would you deliver to recent theatre school graduates who have now been set free into this unknown and uncertainty?
Don’t panic. We’re going to come back. When is in question, but in the meantime tell stories however you can. Use your imagination – digitally, socially distant, online, YouTube, stream. Even telling stories around a campfire is the first form of theatre.
This isolation is a reset button. We’re giving a rebirth to the industry all over again.
At the end of the day this is about the people. I think the institutions can forget all that. You cannot have a play without the actors performing. I don’t care what the stage looks like. Get back in touch with that across the industry. That’s what’s critical.
6. Do you see anything positive stemming from COVID 19?
All of this is positive. Look, we’re sitting in a place where we have 18 months of reconstruction we can do. We can do nothing, sit around and let the theatre re-boot itself, or we can re-design this industry to be empowering, to be collaborative, and to be all that it hasn’t been for a hundred years. I think that’s an amazing gift, as tragic the cost of that gift, we’ve been given it and we have to honour that cost with really hard work. When we come back, we have to re-focus our energies on people and not profits.
7. Do you think ‘Behind the Stratford Curtain’ will leave some lasting impact on the Canadian/North American performing arts scene?
I’m reminded from a line by Shakespeare – “We know not what we do.” The Festival didn’t know the damage they had done. A lot of arts leaders right now are having this epiphany. When I hear of people’s reactions, white artistic directors about all this, I’m reminded of ‘King Lear’ – “I’ve taken too little care of this.” They’re realizing they’ve had a responsibility they’ve neglected in terms of the shepherdship of this industry.
So much of the power structure in the rehearsal room is an import that favours a top down patriarchy. It’s a way to do theatre, but not the only way to do theatre. But the buck has to stop somewhere. There are so many other practices to employ that would allow people to have a much fuller and freer engagement with the work.
Who are we talking to in the industry? Who is the master in this industry? It’s not just removing detrimental practices, but you have to replace them with something.
8. Some artists have turned to YouTube and online streaming to showcase their work. What are your comments and thoughts about streaming? Is this something that the actor/theatre may have to utilize going forward into the unknown?
Sure. I think so. We’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s not new technology. We’re figuring out ways of utilizing it, but it’s nothing new.
Look, one of things it has always been is theatre is inaccessible. And theatre has always touted itself as an exercise in empathy, universal experience. But, at the end of the day, you’re not allowed to come see a Shakespeare play unless you have $200.00. Or, you go to see Shakespeare in the Park.
To get the experience of something like Stratford, you need a lot of money. It’s a lot of money for some people. This online work can bridge that divide because everyone has a cell phone. Way more people have access to YouTube than they do to a theatre. If we can start to figure out how to utilize that accessibility, we’ll fill our theatres up again.
We’ve been looking at the writing on the wall for years that attendance has been dwindling at theatres. So, I think we need to be realistic about that and say, “It was time for a pivot, anyway.” No amount of outreach is going to do that. We need new practices, we need a new approach to how we tell stories and what the impact of live performance is. If we can figure out how to distribute the weight of what we’re doing across the platforms, it can only serve to help us. It’s a diversification of a portfolio. I’m all for figuring this stuff out.
Streaming could be great and these immersive experiences that we might be able to create one day. Ghostlight is looking into that heavily right now because we want to free people from the Zoom window because it’s terrible. But there must be ways we can utilize technology in terms of innovation and theatrical experiences. The entire experience doesn’t have to happen in a theatre, perhaps part of it can happen online. Or it’s personalized. You can personalize with technology, but you can’t personalize for 300 people watching a live performance all at once. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, but that’s what professional theatre has the time for right now.
9. Despite all this fraught tension and confusion of Covid and of ‘Behind the Stratford Curtain’ reality, what is it about performing that neither of these will ever destroy for you?
We did a Ghost light broadcast called ‘Friday Night at the Ghost Light’ about a month and a half ago. In it, Torquil Campbell (son of Stratford Festival veteran Douglas Campbell). He played a song. Graeme played Torquil excerpts from an interview done with his father. Douglas talks in those audio clips about the ectoplasm. And that’s what I miss.
I miss those moments that you cannot recreate anywhere but on stage. I miss playing with my friends. I miss the opening scene of ‘Coriolanus’ where I sat across from Tom McCamus and got to mess with him. I miss those moments of the bar of soap look where the actor dries as if the bar of soap just slipped out of their hands in the shower. I miss the vitality. I don’t miss the building and the lights – it’s fun and beautiful. What I miss are the human moments.
With a respectful acknowledgment to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton here are the ten questions he used to ask his guests:
1. What is your favourite word?
Fuck! (EB says this with a definitive tone in his voice)
2. What is your least favourite word?
3. What turns you on?
Hmmm…A specific and excellent use of language.
4. What turns you off?
An unappreciation of the difference between there, they’re and their.
5. What sound or noise do you love?
I love the sound my dog makes when he sees another dog.
6. What sound or noise bothers you?
The sound of my cat scratching in the litter box. I hear a lot of these things right now ‘cause I’m not around other people.
7. What is your favourite curse word? Fuck.
b) What is your least favourite curse word? (thanks to Nigel Shawn Williams for this suggestion) – Least favourite curse word? Damn it, Nigel…you gotta give me a minute there, Joe…I don’t know. I love words. Cursing for me is one of the more honest forms of expression. My least favourite curse words are the ones they dub in on movies for television.
8. Other than your own, what other career profession could you see yourself doing?
I could see myself doing a lot of things. Pilot probably. I learned how to fly when I was a kid. I almost did it for a career but that would have involved going into the military and I didn’t want to have to kill anybody. So I became an actor.
9. What career choice could you not see yourself doing?
10. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?
Oh, that’s a good question…”How did you get here?”
Follow E. B. on Social Media: Twitter: @starringeb Instagram: @storyforge