Looking over his career, out actor Bobby Smith can’t remember a more challenging year for theater. “Nothing touches this. In other lean years there was the option to look for work in other cities. Not now.”
And as an established working actor, Smith says, he’s both blessed and cursed: “If you’ve never had to pick up a day job, you are kind of screwed during COVID-19.” Except for some teaching, almost all of his usual employment is on hold, including the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, an annual program close to his heart that offers professional development opportunities for young artists.
Still, throughout the pandemic, the three-time Helen Hayes Award-winning actor and genuine triple threat has proved resilient and, in his words, lucky. He’s been teaching virtually (“Zoom is NOT suited for tap class. It’s good for vocal coaching, less so vocal technique”), and even directed a teen musical production filmed on a fairground.
And now as theaters respond to the pandemic in new ways, a couple of additional opportunities have come his way.
Soon, fans can stream Smith in Signature Theatre’s fully produced, professionally filmed production of Mark Sonnenblick’s musical “Midnight at the Never Get,” a same-sex romance set in a New York City cabaret circa 1965. “I’m playing the old guy. Again!” he exclaims in mock horror.
Then in a more serious tone, he says, “Filming is not regional theater – it’s rushed and there aren’t 16 paid performances, but to be back in a theater singing on a stage even without an audience is incredibly meaningful.”
Smith, 56, is a local actor whose name draws interest and sells tickets.
Depending on the part, he can give gravitas, sardonic wit, boyish twinkly humor, or a combination of the three. Some standout performances include the lead in MetroStage’s “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” Albin, the family-centric drag performer in Signature’s “La Cage Aux Folles,” and a tap-dancing TV gossip columnist in “Spin” (also Signature).
When the virus shuttered venues in March, he’d just completed a run in “Spring Awakening” at Round House Theatre and was poised to open in the new musical “Camille Claudel” at Signature where he’s a stalwart performer. “The set was up and it was beautiful,” he says. “At the time, we thought the COVID-19 closures would give us a little time to rehearse and get the show to where we wanted it to be. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”
Soon after, more cancellations followed, including a much-anticipated Studio Theatre production of “Fun Home.” A crowded season quickly dwindled to zero bookings. And along with a loss of work comes a loss of health insurance for union actors. (If things continue as they are, Smith expects his coverage to end in July). “It’s scary,” he says.
There have been some strokes of good fortune. A few months prior to the pandemic, Smith, along with his faithful companion Mabel (a shy Vizsla hound named for the heroine in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance”) rather serendipitously relocated from Columbia, Md., to a farmhouse in Ellicott City. Living surrounded by working farms has served up diversion and an ideal spot for socially distanced visits.
Smith honed his acting skills in Richmond, Va., where he rather seamlessly developed from juvenile player to adult actor, mostly in musical comedy. His first Washington-area gig was at twenty – he played the title role in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat” at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. From there he went to New York City where he played in shows like “Crazy for You” and ‘50s nostalgia trip “Forever Plaid,” followed by a number of national tours.
A return to Virginia to help with his late mother’s illness, changed things. “That’s when I started showing up. I became a different person – personally and professionally.”
In late 2002, Studio’s Joy Zinoman and Serge Seiden cast him to play composer-lyricist Ed Kleban in “A Class Act,” and since then, the work has never really slowed down — until now.
While many theater professionals unreservedly weigh in with “let’s keep closed and ride out COVID-19,” Smith asks “but how are we supposed to make a living?” In any case, he does not foresee theaters reopening before the fall, and when they do reopen, he does not expect things to come back with a bang.
Looking forward he says, “I miss it tremendously. I’m more than ready to be back on stage with a live performance.” If audiences have their say, he will.