DIRECTOR LEARNS THE ROPES FAST
Timothy Smith had no chance to ease into his first directing job. His maiden assignment, the Anaheim Grand Dinner Theatre’s production of “Evita,” immediately put his ingenuity to a test.
As a performer, Smith, 31, is an “Evita” veteran who has served as dance captain in national tours of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical. This year, he choreographed the show in Sacramento, San Jose and Long Beach and was choreographer and co-director for the San Bernardino Civic Light Opera.
Grand Dinner Theatre producer Frank Wyka initially asked Smith to choreograph the Anaheim production. But, Smith said, “when I heard a director hadn’t been chosen, I asked, ‘How about me?’ Frank decided to take a chance.”
When asked about his choice of Smith, Wyka said, “I wanted to use someone who’d been with the show for a long time, and I could tell from the first audition Smith would be brilliant. He knew every part, and he knew what he wanted to do.”
In a recent interview, Smith talked about the challenge he faced in scaling the huge spectacle down to dinner-theater size.
“I wondered if I would have to tone it down for the Orange County audience. I wasn’t sure they even wanted to see ‘Evita’ in a theater where comedies and musicals like ‘Oklahoma!’ are regular fare.”
According to Wyka, audiences at the Grand have often requested the show.
So, Smith said, his primary concern was staying true to the piece.
“Dinner-theater traditionally brings the action out into the audience,” Smith said. “I didn’t think I could do that with this show, especially in a house that looks to me like an aerobics room--with all its brass and chrome and chandeliers.
“I thought, if I take the show out of its little black box on stage, then I will totally lose my environment.”
But Smith realized that during a few crowd scenes, his actors would have to step off the small stage in order to open it up for the actor who plays revolutionary Che Guevara. Che serves as the conscience of the piece, addressing the audience, and needs space to move freely, said Smith.
“I don’t think I compromised. The actors are never more than a foot from the stage, so there’s no sense that they’re in the audience.”
Smith feels that what the production loses in grandeur it gains in intimacy and accessibility.
“Suddenly everything becomes more immediate. Putting it on a smaller scale allows us to see inside Eva better. Peron becomes more of a central figure, and Che can challenge the audience more directly, drawing them into the piece,” he said.
Smith had only 10 days to get the show together--a time frame common to dinner theaters--and there were many technical problems to surmount.
He couldn’t get the special lighting he wanted; circuits were in short supply. Rehearsal space was limited. Production people were scarce.
Stage manager Eugene Roach doubled as sound man. “Sound cues are complicated, and Roach has to simultaneously call light cues, run tape recorders and adjust sound levels for the piped-in music,” said Smith. (The band is in another room next to the theater.)
“We have one prop man, Graeme Poole, a miracle worker. He not only came up with wonderful props but single-handedly changes the sets backstage. He plugs in cords, hooks platforms together, kicks the beds apart and reassembles them.”
An unexpected snag came up when, according to Smith, an incomplete set was delivered two days before the show opened--and the set designer left town.
“I finished it along with Roach and Poole. We had to go with what was simple and fast, but I’m happy with the result.”
He said many of those problems could have been avoided if the hotel had wanted to spend more money on the production.
Wyka, who says he thinks “Evita” is one of the Grand’s best productions, explained the limitations. “Each director takes his show as the only one being done, but we’re an Equity house with only 400 seats. With the smallest actor getting $375 a week, we have to watch the budget. Shoes for the dancers alone are $100 a pair.”
Smith praises his cast for their willingness to pull together under difficult circumstances. “They could have been so resistant, but everyone helped one another, sewed buttons on, took hemlines up, that kind of thing,” he said. He also lauded the quality he feels they brought to their performances.
“I looked for actors with some understanding of what ‘Evita’ was about. With no time to talk about basics, the kind of intuitive things they should be able to get from the material itself, I knew if I went for a powerful voice and an actress who really didn’t understand Eva, I would be cutting my throat. I’m very pleased with my two Evas.” (The roles in the show, which runs through Sept. 7, are played by Sandy Edgerton and Lisa Michelson, two experienced actresses whose credits include performances in civic light opera, equity and equity-waiver theater productions and roles in daytime television.)
“They’re very different, yet both have a valid approach to the character. There’s so much mystery about Eva, an actress can make her own choices about who she was.”
Although Smith says his heart is in directing, he still plans to continue performing. One of his most recent roles was that of Rooster Hannigan in the Long Beach Civic Light Opera production of “Annie.”
Smith also realizes that he has to pay his dues.
“I requested that the billing for ‘Evita’ say ‘based on the original concept by Hal Prince,’ because I’m adapting their work, not taking it from the ground floor. The changes were determined by practicality. I feel good about what I did, but I still have to prove myself.”
The fledgling director is intrigued with the challenge of finding the life inside a work and putting his own stamp on it. “I like the kinds of pieces that use theatricality to deliver some kind of message that stimulates the audience to think, agitates them, provokes them, draws them away from sit-back entertainment,” he said.