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Georgeanna Smith's theater-as-adventure

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In innovative adaptations of classics like Medea and A Doll's House, 24-year-old actress Georgeanna Smith impressed us with her stately delivery and dancer's carriage. We thought we might enjoy watching her read the phone book. Now we know better. We'd like to see her to direct those yellow pages.

In 2007, Smith launched Novox, a theater company devoted to spurring social change. She directed Nobodies, a startlingly mature blend of words and dance created from interviews with Uganda's child soldiers. Last fall, she directed Antigone for No Exit, performed throughout the Indianapolis Museum of Art gardens.

On a morning off from her day job at the Children's Museum, Smith talked about acting, the kind of director she tries to be, and site-specific theater.

NUVO: What comes first for you, acting or directing?

Smith: Performing is my first love. I always wanted to be an actress, except for a brief stint when I thought I would be a cheerleader. Telling someone else's perspective is such a challenge and an honor. If we, as a society, pay more attention to people and their stories, I think we're better for it.

When I went to Cedarville University, I didn't get cast in my first audition and it killed my spirit. I experimented with make-up, costume design, and directing. When I decided to direct, I decided to transfer to Butler. I had seen a production of Hamlet in high school, directed by John Green at Butler. It was one of the best things I've ever seen: an arena stage, minimal set pieces, and mask work. The floor was dirt. I had never seen anything like it.

At Butler, I didn't want to be an actress, but a series of events changed my mind. I did a show there directed by Alyson Mull [also now with No Exit] and I thought, "I do miss this." Then I went to St. Petersburg to study over the summer and the director said, "Maybe you should be a performer."

NUVO: What else did you learn from the Russians?

Smith: The theater was amazing, but totally different from ours. They have a troupe mentality, which really influenced the work I want to do. There, actors contract to a specific theater and really get to know each other. They have chemistry.

NUVO: You directed Nobodies as a college senior and later produced it at the Wheeler Arts Center. What was the creative process between director and performers?

Smith: That was a funny process. I first cast the show at Butler, thinking it would be a silent movement piece. I was a dancer for many years. I cast dance majors. I didn't have a huge plan. I compiled the script from interviews and the cast was part of the adventure. The first rehearsal was a full movement rehearsal, but once I dived into the sources, I thought the words were too important.

At Wheeler, with a mostly new cast, I treated it as ground zero. Some things I wanted to keep, but I didn't want to marry new people to the same scripts. It was another six-week process. Every show I do, I could do twice. I have more ideas. I get feedback from people. I'm able to let go.

NUVO: How did you discover site specific work and what does it mean to you?

Smith: There's a site-specific theater class at Butler taught by Melli Hoppe. I found that I loved that the audience is right there. As an actor, I can feel if they're with me or not. Site specific work is important to American theater. It offers intimacy that will help keep theater alive. You can't get away from the actors. You can't turn them off. No Exit did Eleanora [from Ibsen's Doll's House] at Morris-Butler House in a Victorian parlor. It couldn't have been more real.

NUVO: How did you choose the IMA gardens for No Exit's Antigone?

Smith: No Exit chose Antigone and it had to be at the IMA. We had a good relationship there. Originally, Michael Bachman was probably going to direct and I was probably going to be in it. When I looked at the grounds with him, we walked from the fountain, outside the Lily House, and down below. I liked it all. My idea was that the play would "travel." There were just so many angles on the grounds that I didn't want to lose. I said to Michael, "Could I do it?"

NUVO: You remind me of Bottom from Midsummer's Night Dream. If he had his way, he would direct and do all the parts.

Smith: As a director, I sometimes think, "Oh, gee, I wish I was in this." I try to be really realistic about when I would be miserable to work with, when I would drive someone crazy and when I would be open to input. For Nobodies, for example, I just designed the costumes myself. I knew what I wanted. For Antigone, I didn't have an exact plan, so I got Michael Burke to do costumes.

NUVO: You are now Artistic Director of No Exit. What kind of audiences are you drawing?

Smith: We don't just get Butler people to our shows. Some [followers] are involved in the arts community in other ways and some just stumbled on our shows and keep coming back. Now, we want to reach a broader cross-section of people, do a show with bigger names and see who it attracts. Antigone was a great example of that. Partnering with IMA, we got a lot of IMA members who came. We also got a lot of college classes.

NUVO: Your alma mater has a reputation for stretching the medium of theater. What was it like to leave that student world and work in Indianapolis?

Smith: We joke that the biggest thing Butler did was make us want to start our own theater. You will want to do your own thing. Butler students have a stereotype of being pretentious. We're so experimental and abstract. But I have friends at Beef and Boards. IRT is a great organization. I'm a fan of the Phoenix. Everyone has a different niche. Because Indianapolis is a smaller city, you will have a hard time supporting yourself. I'm committed to supporting the arts here. I support my friends who moved to Chicago, but it makes me sad, because we need them.

NUVO: What's coming up for No Exit?

SMITH: Our budget has expanded and that's exciting. We would love to get a space. We want to do site-specific theater, because we love it, not because we have to. We haven't settled on our season, but there will be an adaptation of The Birds in October.

NUVO: And for you?

SMITH: As a performer, I've always got my eye on great roles. I would love to be in 4.48 Psychosis, Sarah Kane's suicide piece. I would love to be Hamlet and also Edmund in King Lear. Shakespeare has great male roles. As a director, I want to try another theater for social change piece. I would also like to adapt the Nutcracker. I don't know yet how much dance, how much not. My trend as a director is I get an idea and then run with it.

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