Seeing it through
If you’ve seen Shakespeare by the Sea in the past 14 years, you know Thomas Gordon Smith’s work. He’s 6’1” and has a deep, booming voice to match. It carries clearly across the amphitheatre formed by ruins of Cambridge Battery in the Point Pleasant Park. He often introduces the shows, asking guests where they’re from, and poking fun at Dartmouth (where he grew up).
“I love the outdoor theatre because I can see the audience,” he says. “I don’t like the concept of a fourth wall. I don’t like to pretend they are not there. That’s kind of the way we do our shows as well, to always embrace the crowd. To see people’s faces, like know if you’ve done something that has an effect or not.”
Smith first got interested in acting as a teenager, auditioning for his first role in
“I never not liked the attention,” he says. “When I was a kid, I was making fun of my parents for being old. I knew that was material people could relate to. I was getting reactions from that. Sitting around big family campfires I always tried to be the centre of attention. If no one else was going for it, someone else has to take it.”
This season is Smith’s 14th at Shakespeare by the Sea. He auditioned for the summer season after his second year at Dalhousie’s theatre school. “I was working and I was only 19 or 20 at the time,” he recalls. “So that was exciting to have a professional theatre job so early on.”
His first role was Launce in Two Gentlemen of Verona. That part gave him two long monologues, but someone upstaged him: Miles the scene-stealing puppy. “When there’s a dog on stage, there’s no point in trying to compete with it,” he says.
Some of his more memorable roles are those in which he played women. He played the Queen of Hearts in the 2012 production of Alice in Wonderland.
“The minute I walked out, people were laughing,” he says. “I hadn’t done anything, I hadn’t said anything. That was great. Walking out and already having half my work done for me. It was such a fun character to play.”
In 2014, he played ugly stepsister Tammy Fae in Cinderelly, dressed in a frock layered with fabric of pastels and gingham, a giant bow in his blonde, curly wig, and garish makeup. Like the Queen of Hearts, this role gave him laughs without seeming to try.
But Smith says he has a method for playing females characters. “Every time I play a woman on stage, I think I am the most beautiful woman, even though there are actual women there,” he says. “I am not a dude trying to be a woman. I am a woman. I am gorgeous and that’s how I always try to approach it. I find you can have more honest comedy than the man-in-the-dress look.”
Jure Gantar taught Smith in two theatre history classes during his second year in the theatre program at the Dalhousie Fountain School of the Performing Arts.
Smith’s comedic talents stood out. “He was one of those people who had an absolute deadpan delivery,” Gantar says. “He was a very funny guy. You always want people like that.”
Gantar says he thinks Smith could play Iago from Othello or Richard III. “I think he could do a variety of roles,” he says. “He could certainly do some big characters.”
Working with Shakespeare by the Sea brings challenges. Performing in an outdoor theatre in costumes made of wool and several layers leaves actors baking in the sun during matinees.
Shakespeare by the Sea founder Patrick Christopher died in 2005, a year after Smith joined the cast. Elizabeth Murphy (Christopher’s wife) became artistic director.
Then there was the fire in May 2014 that damaged the troupe’s indoor space, Park Place Theatre at the entrance of the park. Besides acting, Smith, along with Murphy and Jesse MacLean, co-artistic director, build the sets, risers, and props in that space.
The building reopened this season, but the fire is still a bad memory. “I was very angry that season,” Smith says. “My morale was down because it was something I had built with my own hands and it was just gone because some random kids thought a garbage fire would be fun.”
Smith has had personal challenges, too. In November, his father Clyde died. “That was a huge hit,” he says. “I don’t know who I am yet.”
He says that may even change his acting this season. He noticed the change in his method during a writing workshop for the family show. “I wouldn’t call it an evolution, but maybe a mutation,” he says. “I feel like I’m not as funny as I used to be because there’s a sadness in my life that’s permeated everything.”
No matter what’s happening, Smith and his colleagues work to capture “the unlikely theatregoer.” He says he uses his late father as the example of the audience member they want: he was into hunting and sports, not theatre.
“He used to say just make people laugh, that’s what they want,” he says of his father’s advice. “There’s a real truth in that. We’re accessible and we try to make Shakespeare accessible. Our family shows are immensely accessible and we want to create theatre that is.”
Smith has invested a lot in the company. There are weeks of rehearsals and building props and sets. He’s eager to see what happens next. “I want to see it though, although hopefully it will never end,” he says. “I want to make sure I’m there for the whole ride.”
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.