An Interview With...Dwain Smith

How did you get started in theatre?
In 1963, at the age of 39, I made a decision to learn to play the bagpipes.  My heritage is half Scots/Irish and the 'pipes had always roused thoughts of  my ancestry.  By 1964 I was an active member of the Gleneagle Highlanders 'Pipe Band on Long Island.  I was also the band business manager and, in 1968, I was asked to  supply the band for incidental appearance in a Hofstra University production of "The  Hostage".  There were five performances and the Gleneagles provided appropriate atmosphere for the show.  I also tutored one of the cast members, enabling him to  actually play the 'pipes briefly on stage.  That was my first opportunity to work in a  'real' show and I loved it.
        A year later, in 1969, the East Northport United Methodist Church put on a production of "Brigadoon" and I was asked to be their bagpiper.  That was  the first of many appearances in that Lerner/Loewe musical.  It was ironic that my  ability to perform on a musical instrument led to my thirty-plus years of participation in theatre, because my questionable ability to play the violin during  elementary and high school days prevented my from trying out for school shows.  The  teachers who led the school orchestras refused to let their musicians out of their clutches, and I was hardly the type to push the envelope.
        In 1971 I came very close to leap-frogging from a church musical to the big time.  I was working for the American Institute of Aeronautics and  Astronautics in NYC when a stage-struck co-worker called my attention to a notice in the  Show Business publication.  An actor who could play the bagpipes was wanted for  "Vivat Vivat Regina", a new production starring Claire Bloom.  Since I wasn't an actor I didn't feel qualified, so I didn't rise to the bait.  A couple of weeks later I was shown another notice, this time looking for a "REAL" bagpiper for the David Merrick production, scheduled to open in Boston in December.  The New York opening would be in January.  This ad sounded feasible and I telephoned for  information.  This was in early November of 1971.  Invited to audition, I went to the Broadhurst Theatre on a day when the rain came down in torrents.  I was soaked to the skin when I arrived.  There was one other 'piper trying out and, after we had both played, I was asked to talk to the director.  He told me they wanted me for the show and indicated that they could take care of my non-union status.  Asked if I would be free to attend rehearsals and go to Boston for the out-of-town performances, I told them I'd have to
check with my boss.  Back at the office I worked out a schedule whereby I could use all of
my year-end holidays, 'free days', compensatory time and 1972 vacation time to give me 20 days in which to be with the show.  My boss agreed and I notified the   Merrick office.  They said they'd get back to me with final details and, several days later I got a 'phone call telling me that an actor who was already a union member had, in a week's time, found an instructor who taught him to play a single tune on the bagpipes.  This fellow was taken on as a cast member and they thanked me for my time.  I must say that I did receive two complimentary tickets to "Vivat Vivat Regina" and got to meet the cast, and the successful 'piper, when my wife and I went to the show.
        Late in 1972 I responded to a published cast call that announced forthcoming
productions by The Carl Sebok Opera Society.  Since one of the shows listed was
"Brigadoon", I decided to take a shot at achieving a long-held acting dream.
        About two years later I was called by Carl Sebok who invited me to try out for "Brigadoon" which was to be performed at the Fashion Institute Playhouse in Manhattan.  Carl, a brilliant but, to my mind, a bit eccentric musician and director, headed The Society.
        To give you some idea of how much of a neophyte I was, I totally believed Carl's
explanation that cast members were required to sign a contract with the Society that
included the performer making a $25 payment to the Society.  In reading the document
now I realize that it is, arguably, the most one-sided contract imaginable.  The player had
no rights, but many obligations, to the Society.
        But, none of that mattered.  I was now part of a theatrical cast.  And, not only was I the bagpiper, but I was also cast in the role of Frank, the bartender, and was a chorus member.  Serious efforts were made  to get me into the dance numbers, but I never could figure out how to grasp a girl dancer at the waist and lift her into the air.
        The show played three performances in January 1975 and, in later years, I met several cast members in shows on Long Island.  And the girl who starred as Fiona was later a contestant in both the Miss America and Miss Universe contests.  Her name was Sonja Anderson and she was a beautiful and talented performer.
        The Society produced "Carousel" the following year and I was asked to join the
cast as Timoney, the policeman.  Of course, I committed to being a chorus member, too.
There were four performances in the Spring of 1976 and, as I recall, there was no
requirement to pay any fee to the Society.  (Maybe that was only for rookies.)

What hooked you?
        As a youngster I was short, bowlegged and wore glasses.  I think, to avoid having
people see me only that way, I became a full-fledged extrovert.  Although my previously-noted violin-playing made the stage forbidden territory for me, I did manage
to play an Indian in a Thanksgiving play, put on by my third grade class.  (And I have
the picture to prove it!)  Minstrels and Tom Thumb weddings at our local church were
my only other histrionic efforts as a child.

First movie?
       "Skippy", with Jackie Cooper.

First Broadway play?
        "Junior Miss"

What inspired me to be where I am today?
        Not sure where I am today.

Did you study acting?
        No.  If you'd ever seen me perform you wouldn't have to ask that question.


First audition?
       "Vivat Vivat Regina" was my first 'piping audition.  My first audition for a non-piping role was for the YMCA Playhouse in the Square, Franklin Square, NY.  I read for Dr. Gibbs in "Our Town", directed by the late Mickey Meyers.  This was in 1978 and I enjoyed doing the play immensely.

How do you choose what play you will audition for?
        The fact is, I don't really look for shows to do.  Producers and directors who have worked with me will call me once in a while and ask if I'd be interested in doing a show with them.  I'm sure this wasn't because of any great talent on my part but, rather, because I tend to be a reliable performer who doesn't make waves.  Other than bag-piping parts, I guess all of the parts I've played on Long Island have been by invitation.

       Probably a necessary evil.  I can understand that it would be disappointing to an aspiring cast member to find that the role he/she covets has already been assigned, but I can also see that producers/directors will sometimes have to grab a performer for a particular part simply because that actor is good...and available.

What type parts do you normally play?
        Bagpiper, of course, but also elderly fellows.  Certainly not leading roles.  I've
done such things as Ziegfeld in "Funny Girl", the Nazi, Herr Zeller, in "Sound of Music",
Eli Whitney in "Anything Goes", and lots of chorus chores.

Do you feel typecast?
        I don't think so, but it wouldn't bother me.


Approach to developing character?
        I start out just doing it the way it feels natural..then I do what the director tells me.

Favorite character?
       I think it was Eli Whitney in "Anything Goes".  Not only did I get a few nice laughs from the audience, but I even sang a solo.

Best roles?
       I'd have to say it has been the bagpiper in "Brigadoon" because I know I've done that well.  I can't always say that about my efforts as a thespian.

Worst roles?
        I don't think I made a very good Nazi in "Sound of Music".

Greatest challenging roles?
       Probably Dr. Gibbs in "Our Town", probably because he was a person much like myself and, to me, that makes it tougher.  I think I did a reasonably good job.

Second shot?
        Nothing I can think of.

What roles like to play in future?
       There are a couple....The Stage Manager in "Our Town", Fagin in "Oliver" and Mayor Shinn in "Music Man". (I suppose it's a bit late to consider doing anything in "Oh, Calcutta!")


How do you feel when you perform?
       Energized and like a member of a temporary family.

What motivates you to keep on?
        You know, I suppose it's the hope that I might someday be noticed and given an opportunity to get a publisher to let me pitch the book I've written.  It's an autobiographical piece about the first 20 years of my life (1925-1945).  I think it's a great memoir of growing up in the Queens suburbs of NYC.  (Do you have any publishers in your wide circle of friends and fans?)

Why do you do it?
        Because it's fun.  (This might be a good time to mention that  rehearsals are the best part of theatre for me.  Once the curtain goes up on opening night, it's all downhill from there.  I have such a good time, working with each new cast, that I hate to see it all coming to a close.)


What is your favorite theatre story?
What was your worst theatre experience?
What's the most embarrassing thing that ever happened?
       The answer to all three of these questions took place on opening night of "Sound of Music", produced by Kevin Harrington's Plaza Playhouse in 1991.  The crew had constructed a wonderful mountain path at downstage right.  It was the path that the Von Trapp family took as they headed for freedom at the end  of the show.  The path rose from stage level to, as I recall, higher than six feet by the time it disappeared from view.  During the "Lonely Goatherd" scene some of the chorus was positioned onstage and others, including myself, were along the path. My spot was about halfway up the path, at a height of, perhaps four to five feet above stage level.  And, just alongside the spot where I was to stand, there was an opening about two feet in diameter that went down to the stage.  (To this day I don't know the purpose of the opening.)  Going into the scene, the stage was
blacked-out as the chorus took their places.  In the dark I mis-stepped and suddenly found
myself falling to the bottom of the hole in the path.  At that moment the lights came up and my erstwhile partner on the path, Anne Schmidt, found herself alone.  I, in the meantime, was lying in the hole, wondering how to extricate myself.  When the number ended the stage went black again and I hoisted my self back onto the path and stumbled blindly offstage.  I did develop a huge purple bruise on my derriere during the next few days but, otherwise, there was no serious damage.  But the incident made a strong impression on the cast and even on some of the audience. To this day I will occasionally run into someone who remembers the performance and, although they don't always know the name of the performer, they do recall what happened.


Why do you perform at the theaters you do?
        Because they ask me.

Will regional theater grow on L.I.?
       Not sure if it will grow, but I'm sure it will continue to get better and better as time goes by.

Actors you've admired?
        There are so many.  Some of the ones who come quickly to mind are Anne and Jack Cashin, Jean Ryder, Sherry Mandery, Rich Cole, Herb Rough, Sue Ann Denehy, Hunter Johnson, Ted Topol.  Can I include Joe Gladstone? And how about Kevin Harrington and Laura Wallace Rhodes?  I know I'm leaving out a lot of favorites.

Best I've done a show with?
        I'd have to say Anne Cassin.

Favorite performer?
        If you mean all-time, I'd have to give a few names, going back a lot of years...Myrna Loy, Ingrid Bergmann, Lee J. Cobb, Laurel and Hardy, Anita Garvin, Mae Busch.


How do you maintain career and do theater?
        No career...retired in 1987.

Why spend so much time in L.I. Theater?
       I don't, really.  Haven't done a show for two years.  Had hip replacement in late 2001 and haven't done anything for a while.

Family support?

How performing has enriched my life?
        It has enabled me to do things I once thought I'd never do.  And I've met such
wonderful people on the way.


Greatest joy?

What irks?

Won Lotto?
       Help Salvation my book...have my neighbor's trees cut the rest; live off the interest; buy anything that took my fancy...contribute to the maintenance of Deb's Web.

Rich than good-looking?
        I've never been either one and it hasn't affected me adversely.

Favorite word?
       People (just keep repeating it a dozen's a funny word.)

What to hear upon entering heaven?
       "There are a lot of folks here looking forward to seeing you again."


Projects on horizon?
        The newly-formed Wesley Players of Wesley United Methodist Church of Franklin Square is planning to present a comedy every Spring and a mystery every Fall, to benefit the church.  It's an energetic little group, consisting mostly of newcomers to the theater, but we have high hopes.  In '03 the Spring production will be "God's Favorite". 
Heart's desire?
        Stage Manager in "Our Town".