James Dallas Smith
Self Isolated Artist
James Dallas Smith is an actor, writer, and musician of Six Nations Mohawk and Scottish heritage. I’ve seen him several times on stage over the course of many years, the first with Soulpepper’s wonderful production of ‘Our Town’ several years ago.
Just this past year, I saw JD’s performances in two plays that continually raise and pique my interest in Indigenous theatre. The first was at Soulpepper in ‘Almighty Voice and his Wife’ directed by Jani Lauzon and the second at the Aki Studio Theatre in Native Earth’s visually haunting, ‘The is How We Got Here’ directed by Keith Barker.
Keep an eye out on JD as he alludes to some exciting projects he has once it’s safe to return to the theatre. We conducted our interview via email:
1. It has been the almost three-month mark since we’ve all been in isolation. How have you been faring? How has your immediate family been doing during this time?
I’ve struggled. I’m a person who loves to rehearse and perform in a room with other people. Different ideas and energies that can feed one another. Without these gatherings – with other artists or audiences – I’ve experienced a lot of frustration and anger about what’s been lost. And it’s never been so universal.
Other times I’ve been able to draw strength or inspiration by seeing a peer or friend do an outstanding piece of work. There just isn’t any of that anywhere right now and no clear timeline when we might get a chance to gather again.
That said, I know my problems are first world ones. My family is healthy, fed, with clean water, and safe. My woes are pretty tame compared to a lot of places near and far.
2. As a performer, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally?
The lack of dialogue. I had a fortunate run of being in several really great projects (productions and workshops) that were having illuminating discussions about what the world is focused on in the middle of this pandemic, racism, and prejudice. I wasn’t leading these discussions. I was just fortunate enough to be in some great groups working on some incredible projects led by Jani Lauzon, Keith Barker, Taedon Witzl, Kaitlyn Riordan and Kevin Loring.
What was encouraging was these talks were happening in large institutions like Stratford and Soulpepper, and they finally seemed to be grasping the depth of the problems in a lot of our theatre practices. Those talks were gaining momentum and generating some really exciting new projects. I hope they’re not lost because of the need to pause live performance.
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?
Yes, I had a few projects in the wings I was excited about. The closest was about a month away at Soulpepper. A show called ‘Revolutions: Songs That Changed the World’. Mike Ross does a lot of the music at Soulpepper. He’s a gifted performer, a great teacher, and just a kickass musician/writer. He invited me to the project, and I didn’t hesitate. I hope it does come to fruition sometime later. I think music is a great conduit for teaching and this is a time where a lot of people need to be educated. That and I just love music.
4. What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time?
We have a little boy who just turned 3. My wife is a director at a crisis phone line and she didn’t stop when the pandemic hit. In fact, she got busier (And promoted!) She had to make a downtown call centre into a work-from-home-for-each-counsellor program. And fast. She did a fantastic job, but it meant most of my focus was Daddying for a few months. If you have a kid, you’ll understand. If not, run a marathon and then do it again. And do a triathlon. Every day. That’s roughly the energy level required, anyway.
I’ve also managed to do some writing. Keith Barker is a friend and peer of mine (also a gifted writer and nominated two Doras this year – for his script and Outstanding Direction) who encouraged me to start writing stories a few years ago. Gil Garrat has also been kind and generous. It makes a difference to have that kind of support.
We workshopped my first play, ‘Crossroads’ at Native Earth’s 32nd Weesageechak Begins to Dance Festival this past fall and Blyth has commissioned it. The timeline’s pretty fuzzy now on when it might get done but I’ve finished a few full drafts of the script and it seems plausible now that I could be a writer. That’s an exciting revelation to me. So, I started a few other scripts as well. There are four that I’m really excited about.
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 given the fact live theaters and studios might be closed for 1 ½ - 2 years?
Now more than ever, try and generate your own material. Your own stories. They don’t have to be full-length plays or novels. It could be a ten-minute video. It could be a collection of those from several artists that relate. Experiment with form. And if it’s your own material you’re not infringing on anyone else’s rights or property. You can present your story in any format you’d like. But this is all if you’re able. A friend of mine who I write with sometimes told me he finds it incredibly to be creative now and “to write from a place of fear”. That’s ok, too.
Self-care was an under-discussed topic when I went to theatre school and it should be a huge topic. I’d also suggest reading or watching movies you might not normally be able to make time for. I’m learning that more perspectives only make you a better human and storyteller.
6. Do you see anything positive stemming from COVID 19?
My wife and I had a discussion about this a few weeks ago. Yes. The fact that most of us are idle has allowed us to see a lot of things that the eye may have – in the past – glossed over as we return to our own daily grind. But now the world is watching together and the hatred and venom of racism that’s been around longer than we care to admit has come glaringly to the front of our attention. I hope it stays there until we have some substantial changes to the way we educate children about BIPOC and some systemic changes in the way we spend “the people’s” money. It’s made me very angry but I’m trying to channel that into educating myself and writing stories to leave behind that will teach the next generation more truth, more tolerance, and more generosity.
7. Do you think COVID 19 will have some lasting impact on the Canadian/North American performing arts scene?
I think it already has, sadly. I can’t cite specifics but a lot of small venues (bars, concert halls, theatres) have already had to close and some larger project they won’t survive the pandemic. I’ve also heard of at least two universities canceling their theatre programs FOREVER because they can’t carry the cost of a year with staff and no students. (A friend of mine who works at a University and I were talking about what the hell you do with students who are in 3rd or 4th year of a Performance program. The practical application of your studies – ie. performing – is supposed to ramp up in your final years, not fall to nothing.)
I think it’s possible we may see more small theatre programs and companies have to close unless there’s some manner of fiscal pandemic relief for them.
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?
My only concerns with streaming are the monetary ones. We’ve seen it with musicians already – how little they get paid from the larger streaming platform. It’s fractions of a penny per play. Most of them have to make money by playing live. The streaming platform is more like affordable advertising.
I like the accessibility and the potential to reach wider audiences, but it has to be a fair wage for the artist. Where we’re hung up now is that we’re crossing all kinds of existing union boundaries. Artists have different unions for theatre acting, film acting, playwrighting, film direction, screenwriting, etc.
If we do a performance of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and we film it for live streaming, how do we pay the actors and musicians? TV rates? Movie rates? Theatre rates? That’s what we need to agree on but haven’t been forced to yet.
To me, as long as there are fair wages, it just seems like an extension of tv/film. I’d love to do it, but I think a lot of us are going to have to make some concessions about ‘ownership of content’. Which can be scary for a lot of people who have been exploited that way in the past.
9. Despite all this fraught tension and confusion, what is it about performing that COVID will never destroy for you?
There is nothing like a gathering of people focused on a singular story that may or may not go flawlessly that I can’t find anywhere else. Sometimes it’s more fun when things DO go wrong in live performance. No one gets hurt and it’s usually delightful to see the recovery.
As 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?
2. What is your least favourite word?
3. What turns you on?
4. What turns you off?
5. What sound or noise do you love?
My family’s laughter
6. What sound or noise bothers you?
Feedback. Ten years in a band will do that to you.
7. What is your favourite curse word? What is your least favourite curse word?
Billy Connolly taught us this. It offends everyone. “Jesus Suffering Fuck!” “Damn” is my least favourite.
8. Other than your own, what other career profession could you see yourself doing?
Video game tester
9. What career choice could you not see yourself doing?
Banking. I’m shit with numbers.
10. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?
“Grab a beer…Mozart’s just finishing his set. I think Prince and Hendrix are doing something next…”
To learn more about James Dallas Smith he’s at Facebook: James Dallas Smith