Joel Smith: Theatre Teacher and Director – Theatre People
By Mitch Stark
Hello TheatrePeople! This week I’m so pleased to introduce you to an extraordinary drama teacher from Fort Collins, Colorado – Joel Smith. Joel has a pure love for the theatre and delights in sharing all of its wonderful parts, skills and quirks with his students.
I worked with Joel a couple years ago designing projections for James and the Giant Peach. Alongside his fellow students and trusty co-collaborator Kari Armstrong, they produced a wildly unique, creative and memorable production. Joel is without a doubt a master teacher. Hope you enjoy his interview as much as I did!
Joel Smith, theatre teacher and director at Poudre High School in Fort Collins, Colorado.
What’s a show that inspires you? (explain away!)
I saw a recording of the original production of Pippin when I was 7 years old. I had no idea what I was seeing, but I was absolutely mesmerized. I think that was the start of my desire to work in theatre!
As I grew older, I came to appreciate more and more the central theme of that musical: finding meaning and fulfillment in one’s life. I go back to that show for inspiration and drive all the time. A lot of people really don’t like that musical; they think it is pessimistic and tragic. But even the 7-year-old me saw the humor, depth, and “magic” in the show. When I feel stuck, or lost, or I’ve had a rough rehearsal, “Corner of the Sky,” “Morning Glow,” or “Magic To Do” still inspire me to push through and persevere. It’s the show that challenges me to do better and learn more, and it makes me believe that I can do magic.
What’s one of your happiest moments in theatre?
I am happy almost every moment I am in the theatre! But I’ll pick a more recent one. The Spongebob Musical came to Denver a few months ago. I got tickets as soon as they were released and took my daughter. She had just started her first year of college and was living away from home. I ditched rehearsal, picked her up at her dorm, took her out to dinner, and we headed for the theatre. At one point in Act I she and I both caught a line that triggered a memory of watching the show on TV probably 10 years earlier. We made eye contact and laughed. My daughter shares my love of theatre, and my love of silliness like Spongebob Squarepants, and in that one goofy moment in the middle of a goofy show in the middle of our shared memory and history, I was as happy as I had ever been. At intermission the usher told us the first confirmed coronavirus death in New York and the first lock-down orders had happened during the show. The run of Spongebob was stopped a few days later, and the theatres have been dark since. But I am so grateful she and I have that memory of happy times in the theatre.
What’s the biggest ‘fail’ or goof you’ve seen on stage? (do tell the story)
We did a production of You Can’t Take It With You 6-7 years ago that was so riddled with theatre fails you would have thought we planned it that way! The zipper on the Gay Wellington’s dress broke when she was hiding under the blanket on the couch, and split all the way down the back. Knowing that she would lose the dress when the blanket got pulled back, she refused to let go. There was a strenuous tug-of-war before they figured out she was mostly disrobed under the blanket and figured out a way to get her off the couch and out of sight.
Penny answered no instead of yes to the question, “Is that Mr. Kirby, mother?”, leaving poor Alice upstairs and forcing the actors on stage to ad-lib and circle back to the same question so that Alice could enter. Alice then fell down the stairs—trying to catch herself on the railing with one hand and the opposite foot only made the fall last longer. I didn’t see it, but she was so flustered backstage after the fall that Kolenkhov slapped her across the face to help her get her composure. Finally, the technician in charge of the fireworks effect misjudged the aim of the confetti cannons; confetti flew into and over the walls, rocking the flats and ruining the illusion that something was going on in the basement. I’m sure these things didn’t all happen in the same performance, but in my memory they did. It makes the story so much better! I still hear from that cast and crew and we laugh about everything that went wrong. There is something about the fails that reminds us to be humble and lets us revel in the humanity and imperfection of life! I feel so close to that company, and it’s because of all that went wrong!
Why do you love theatre?
I love theatre because it is never the same. It is always changing, always evolving, always something we can bend, twist, bring new ideas to, bring our own truths to.
I love theatre because it challenges me to not just be a better artist, but a better person.
I love theatre because it is deeply personal and universally shared at the same time.
I love theatre because it is unsafe, provocative, and it forces me to get uncomfortable and real.
I love theatre because it is uniquely collaborative and it binds me to a community, a company, that covers the world and spans the ages.
I love theatre because it shows me stories I never knew and stories about myself, usually in the same story.
I love theatre because it connects me to the people I admire the most, appreciate the most, envy the most, and love the most.
Theatre is for…
I don’t think that requires an explanation. If you really need one, see “Imagine”: Lennon, John.
More about Joel
Joel Smith has been working in theatre for over twenty-five years. He has a BA in Psychology from the University of Redlands, CA, and a Masters of Theatre Studies from Southern Oregon University. He worked at the Magic Theater in San Francisco, the Cedu School in Southern California, and Rim of the World High School in Lake Arrowhead, CA, where he taught theatre and produced productions for 10 years.
This is his 11th year at Poudre High School, in Ft. Collins, CO. Joel has appeared in numerous productions, including What the Butler Saw, You Can’t Take it with You, Accomplice, and Richard III. He has directed numerous plays and musicals, including The Fantasticks, Man of La Mancha, The Laramie Project, and more recently, Avenue Q, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and James & the Giant Peach. He has designed sets and lighting for various productions, including The Crucible, Camelot, Annie, Twelfth Night, and Into the Woods. In his very limited off-time, Mr. Smith enjoys skiing, reading, and relaxing with his wife, Melanie, and his children, Jackson and Taryn.