Supporting creative work by women
Tracey Erin Smith is a tour-de-force Canadian theater artist. I had the great pleasure to see THE BURNING BUSH!, the hilarious one-woman show Tracey wrote and performed, at two festivals in New York. The show centers around a former rabbinical student who finds her true calling as a stripper. In someone else’s hands, this material would be cartoonish, garish even. But, Tracey created characters audiences could relate to and care about. They also happen to lead wild lives filled with humor. A truly rare combination. THE BURNING BUSH! won the Audience Award at the Frigid Festival while Back Stage raved, “”Smith’s 60 minute exploration of faith, humanity, and love deserves a broad congregation.”
These days, in addition to writing THE BURNING BUSH! screenplay, Tracey teaches classes about creating solo shows through her company SoulOTheatre®. She agreed to answer a few questions for Works by Women.
1) We met when you came to New York to perform your hit one-woman show THE BURNING BUSH!, which features a stripping rabbi saving souls one lap dance at a time. How long did you develop that show?
I worked on the show for years. It started in theatre school, with just two words, ‘stripping preacher.’ My background is Jewish and ‘preacher’ became, Rabbi. The show started as a ten-minute piece and became an hour and half solo show. The sequel however, took just a few months to write because I knew the characters so well and the next part of their journey seemed to pour out of me. Then I put the first show and the sequel together, added two live musicians, a couple dance numbers and that’s the show in its current form.
2) Was it different performing it in Canada as opposed to New York?
I have found, weirdly enough, that people are people. That’s what I’ve come to see from performing in different cities and teaching a variety of settings. Except maybe when there’s a bar open before the show, then the laughs are louder. Mostly, if the material speaks to them, people will respond. New Yorkers do have a lot more to choose from. This just means I thank each audience member for choosing my show as they arrive at the theatre.
3) THE BURNING BUSH is being turned into a film. What’s its status?
I am writing the screenplay. It’s been a fun and really creative process to transform a one-woman show into a script for a multi-character feature film. I work a lot with the hero’s journey and find that helps with structure. I’ve been getting emails from the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival asking when then movie will be done? That’s always nice. Jackie Mason has said he’d play himself in the film. Now all we need is Madonna for her walk-on.
4) Tell me more about SoulOTheatre®.
SoulOTheatre® is a program I’ve developed at Ryerson University in Toronto. It is a process by which writers, actors and non-actors transform raw material from their lives into a solo performance.
5) What have you taken away from teaching your classes – Personal Story Telling – From Page to Stage and One Person Show and Memoir Writing?
It has been an amazing experience. For years I have listened to people tell their life stories. They are moving, deep, shocking and often hilarious. I have come to see that once people loosen up and let their real selves out, we have so much in common.
It is one of the most rewarding, exhilarating and fun things I have ever done. I created a dream job for myself where I get to hear peoples’ stories and help them turn them into solo theatre. It is empowering to tell our stories and to have them witnessed. I have seen people who, through the telling of certain past events, these events/stories lose some of their power over that person, and that’s freeing. I have also seen the positive effect of being in an environment where people are encouraged to fully be themselves and where their stories and experiences are not judged, but accepted. We do a couple exercises that are a lot of fun. The first one is called, ‘Come as You Aren’t.’ I ask people to come in, as a character they feel is the exact opposite to them. We put those characters up on the hot seat, where they answer questions, fully speaking as that ‘new person.’ The next day we do what I call, ‘The Exaggerated Self,” which asks the question; ‘who would you be if you were ten-times more yourself?’ The good, the bad and the ugly. It’s like your personality, but on steroids. There’s something very freeing about being that which we think we’re not and exaggerating all the wacky, beautiful and neurotic stuff that we actually are. In the workshops we laugh, cry and some people leave with insight into their lives and/or themselves that they didn’t have before they came. Actors who’ve taken the course have gone on to perform their full-length one-person shows in festivals all over North America.
6) What’s next on the horizon for you?
I am teaching Courses and Weekend Intensives in Toronto and I have a Weekend Intensive on solo show creation coming up in New York, April 15-17. People can sign up by contacting me directly. Class size is limited to ten people.
I’m writing a new solo show. I had a feeling my next show would be about death, what I didn’t know is that it would be about my fathers’ death. Last April he died by suicide. It was a shock to my family and his friends. Writing about it seems to be helping me to deal with it. Suicide is still a taboo subject and I hope writing about it and talking about it in the show will start a conversation about why this happens and how it affects those left behind.
7) What do you think is the greatest challenge facing female theater artists?
Whatever blocks we put in our own way. I like the phrase; ‘Whose permission are you waiting for?.’
Final Question: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
Tracey will teach her One-Person Show Weekend Intensive April 15 – 17, 2011 in New York City at Theaterlab (137 West 14th St., between 6th & 7th Ave.). Topics include theme, characters, writing from a deep & honest play, the hero’s journey, workshopping and more. For more information visit www.soulo.ca. To register, E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.