On the day abortion rights were overturned, Molly Smith was in her theater less than two miles away preparing for the evening’s play about rebellious enslaved Africans hit with laws that “took away the drums, but they could not stop the beat.”
For Smith, 70, it’s yet another act in a lifetime of bringing to the stage a telling of America described by fans and detractors as innovative, colorful and controversial.
The legendary founder of Juneau’s Perseverance Theatre, who spent nearly 20 years cultivating it into one of the nation’s most unique small playhouses before departing in 1998 to become the artistic director of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., announced earlier this month she is retiring from that landmark institution next July.
Her retirement culminates nearly 50 years of back-and-forth shifts between two dramatically different theaters in dramatically different capital cities, each influencing her work with the other. In one town she took a theater from nothing to national prominence, in the other she gave a theater of national prominence a complete transformation in both the physical and dramatic senses.
“P.T. Barnum said the world favors the bold and I think that’s what we did,” she said.
During an hour-long midday phone interview Friday, Smith offered her views about the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of the abortion rights decision with the same fervor that’s gained her nationwide attention in other political arenas beyond the stage.
“I’m thinking about the lack of rights for women, I’m thinking about the fact we don’t have an equal rights amendment, and I’m thinking we’ll see you at the ballot boxes this fall,” she said.
A drawn-out conversation with her on the decision could go beyond the usual spirited dividing lines: former Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the person some blame for setting the court’s events in motion and a patron of Arena Stage, performed the 2014 marriage of Smith to her partner Suzanne Blue Star Boy.
A similarly intense chat would be likely about the court’s other major decision of the week that significantly expands gun rights since the couple, along with some Facebook friends, organized the March on Washington for Gun Control after the 2012 Sandy Hook Massacre.
But Smith’s dominant focus for the day ahead was the evening’s performance of “Drumfolk,” described as an “electrifying percussive dance fused with contemporary art forms” whose theme is based on a revolt and subsequent laws in the colony of South Carolina in about 1740 that mandated enslaved people could not assemble or use their drums which were used to signal the uprising.
“It’s a little-known story that’s being told on stage, and being told through dance choreography, drumming and narration,” she said.
Such little-known on-stage stories have been a hallmark of Smith’s going back to her very first production when at the age of 26 she opened Perseverance Theatre in Juneau in 1979, made possible by fabled off-stage stories such as bringing 50 used theater seats from D.C. across the country to help make her dream of many years possible.
Smith, born in Yakima, Washington, entered the theater upon seeing a touring production of “Camelot” when she was 6 years old.
“I remember everything about that day,” she told the Toronto Star in a 2011 interview. “The seat I was in, what the theater smelled like, that glorious music and the incredible way the whole experience made me feel.”
Smith’s father died five months before she was born, so her mother and grandmother raised her and her older sister Bridget. Her mother moved the family to Juneau when Molly was still a child, hoping for more prosperous and adventurous prospects, with the mother opening a bed-and-breakfast and both daughters going on to become well-known in the artistic world.
At the age of 19, Molly Smith vowed to start a small theater in Alaska. But she began college as a pre-law student at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks before transferring in 1971 to Catholic University in Washington, D.C., which her parents and sister had attended. She got her graduate degree in theater from American University, and then began exploring real-world stage possibilities in area theater programs and as a drama therapist at St. Elizabeths Hospital.
“That was a very important time for me — working with psychotics, criminally insane, drug addicts,” she told the Washington Post in a Dec. 5, 1997 article headlined “The Unsinkable Molly Smith.” “It taught me the ability to deal with the extremes of human emotion. Now in a rehearsal hall, nothing surprises me, quite frankly.”
During her seven years in the nation’s capital there was plenty of time to experience small theaters as well as the prestigious Arena Stage.
“My work at Perseverance has been very much influenced by Arena Stage,” Smith told Playbill in 1998 when she returned to D.C. to become the artistic director there.
But the lure of Juneau and establishing a small theater remained and Smith returned in 1978, toting those 50 used seats obtained from a shut-down D.C. theater company.
Pioneering a cultural gold rush
It took her all of six months to establish version 1.0 of Perseverance Theatre in a church social hall.
“I really wanted to create a theater by, of and about Alaskans, and that’s what we did,” she said.
The first production at Perseverance was “Pure Gold,” a compilation of stories by longtime Alaska Natives and Filipinos recalling the history of their Gold Rush days. She said she got the idea during a walk along the beach with her sister. She cast the six best storytellers of the 35 interviewees for a reader’s theatre piece, but it became a challenge.
“The more I rehearsed them the worse they got,” she told Playbill. In postscript note to the Empire she stated “they were natural storytellers, but they were bored telling their stories to just (me) – they needed an audience.”
During her interview Friday, Smith said it also proved to be the beginning of how productions at Perseverance would be staged and perceived over the years.
“It ended up being very important for Perseverance Theatre and the city because the people came to learn about whose shoulders we were standing on,” she said.
The success of her debut production motivated Smith to find a permanent location for the theater. It turned out to be a vacant bar and liquor store in Douglas where, with $10,000 borrowed from her grandmother and a bunch of volunteers, she converted the location into an 82-seat theater (including those original 50) in 18 days. Her grandmother was repaid in months and the theater would go through a series of seating and stage expansions in the coming years.
Among the early audience members and then theater participants was Bill Hudson (not the longtime local politician who died last fall), who would participate in everything from production work to designing posters during those initial years. He said Smith’s influence at the theater was immediately distinctive.
“She was doing some pretty innovative stuff as far as theater in Juneau was concerned,” he said. “There was a community theater I was involved in, and then community theater rather inexperienced people like myself doing things off scripts. Then, Molly came to town and started doing original scripts and more controversial productions than community theater is likely to do.”
Smith said her bold approach worked because both the theater participants and community were receptive to it.
“I think there’s something very particular about Juneau, that the people that are drawn to Juneau have always been drawn to the arts and culture,” she said. “The thing about Alaska and Juneau is when I asked people if they wanted to be part of Perseverance Theatre they always said yes. That’s not always the case on the East Coast.”
Playing with fire, mud and the Great Flood
Smith said she feels her breakthrough period came within about two years as Perseverance started traveling all over the state to show its productions, including to a proliferation of small remote villages.
“There were so many different examples where this was the small theater that could,” she said.
Smith said there were about 50 to 60 traveling productions and, while the arrival of the company was frequently a circus-like thrill for residents, getting there and back often involved high-flying bravado for the theater members.
“We were fearless,” she said. “We would be on a Beaver plane traveling to a small village. We had one time where we traveled back in a storm on a small fishing boat and we thought we were going to be lost.”
The bravery that made the group popular went beyond the stage in communities, such as one time when a house caught fire in Pelican — the same trip when they ran into a storm and were nearly grounded on the boat trip home.
“We were all part of a long line of people who were passing water along,” Smith said.
While a number of original plays, classics by the likes of Shakespeare and modern American productions were common productions at Perseverance, Smith said she believes they staged more Greek theater than any other genre.
“It was because I felt like Greek plays were like Juneau, full of God and mountains,” she said.
Her productions blended Greek and Alaska elements into productions, such as Dave Hunsaker’s “Yup’ik Antigone” which transformed the Sophocles tragedy from circa 440 BC into a narrative about the Yup’ik Alaska Natives of western and southwestern Alaska. In “Odyssey” she cast eight different actors as the same character who were placed in a major historical event of the moment.
“When they went to Hades — this was at the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill — all the dead animals were there,” Smith said.
Another production, “Genesis,” featured a mud pit on stage Adam was pulled from to symbolize God’s creation of him, and “when Eve bit the apple we had two kids who kicked all of the audience out of the theater,” Smith said.
Outside in a big tent where the production continued, the Great Flood and Noah’s Ark were told with the aid of huge bags of water being poured down the sides of the fabric walls.
A driving storm to fame
“I would say she was famous within a year or two, just in Juneau. In 10 years the theater was known all over Alaska.”
That assessment by Hudson is reflected in the outside talent that was lured to Perseverance during Smith’s tenure and how the theater’s works became major players in the outside world. Among the most notable names is playwright Paula Vogel who, after spending two years at Catholic University at the same time as Smith, became a lifelong friend and collaborator.
Vogel made regular treks to Perseverance throughout Smith’s time there to participate in projects, and was an artist-in-residence at Perseverance in the late 1990s when she wrote and developed the Pulitzer-winning play “How I Learned to Drive.” Smith also produced the world premiere workshops of Vogel’s “The Baltimore Waltz” and “The Mineola Twins” at the theater.
“She’d get into this whole thing about the strength you needed to survive as an individual,” Vogel told the Washington Post, describing the allure that kept her returning to Smith’s hometown and theater. “When a sudden change of the weather could wipe you out, she’d say, there’s also a community of trust forged like nowhere else. And then I went there. And I realized she was right. It is no place for a frail flower of a woman. And the way people bond is truly extraordinary.”
One of the keys to Smith avoiding the complacency in resident theaters during the era was realizing “people are the real resource,” Vogel said. “What’s amazing is how she manages to unite them in ever-expanding circles.”
The 1997 debut of “How I Learned to Drive” was one of two premiers at Perseverance that year that became famous nationally and beyond. “King Island Christmas,” a musical based on the 1985 book written by Jean Rogers and illustrated by Rie Muñoz, premiered during the first of many holiday seasons at Perseverance.
The tale, about an isolated Inuit village on an island in the Bering Sea rescuing their winter supplies and a priest from a boat caught in a winter storm, was getting concert readings in New York a couple months after its premier. Soon after Tony-winning performers were singing the story’s struggles on big-city stages and in a strong-selling soundtrack.
The transformation of the book to stage musician was a longtime quest of lyricist Deborah Brevoort, who moved to Alaska in 1978 and eventually became the producing director of Perseverance Theatre. She also starred as the lead in two plays before returning to the Lower 48 in 1991 for graduate studies and bigger theater programs.
Brevoort discovered “King Island Christmas” soon after the book was published and nurtured hopes of bringing it to the stage. But finding a composer for her fledgling New York theater program proved troublesome until she encountered cabaret specialist David Friedman who, when given a lyric from the story, immediately started writing music that remains in the production today.
“So I asked Molly Smith…to hear what David had written — all four bars of it,” she told The Newark Star-Ledger in 1999. “Even with so little, Molly saw what I saw, and wrote a letter to the book’s publisher and assured them that she’d do it in Alaska. Which she did the following winter, after David and I completed it.”
Success in daring, healing in failure
Smith’s success in being bold was because of her ability to get performers and others at the theater to believe in their abilities to meet the challenges and offer their ideas, said Marta Lastufka, who moved to Juneau and joined Perseverance in 1983 at the age of 19. She described it as “a really vibrant and rich time” in the theater’s history.
“She has an incredible talent as a teacher and her incredible ability to nurture artists,” Lastufka said. “She created an environment where people could really grow and recognize a potential in themselves they didn’t realize they had. She’s done that everywhere she’s gone.”
Hudson, who’s moved on to Colorado where he started his own (more traditional) small-town theater company as well as a local newspaper, said Smith’s openness was about allowing the realities and personas of the community, rather than any pre-set visions, to shape the theater.
“There’s directors who tell you how to pronounce every sentence,” he said. “That was not Molly. Molly was about letting everybody bring their own genius into whatever was being done. Somehow she was able to blend all these visions into something that made sense.”
Not everything staged was successful, for audiences and performers, Lastufka said.
“Perseverance Theatre has had extraordinary successes, but we also had extraordinary failures,” she said. But “those failures taught us as much or more than the successes.”
“We learned so much that the next show we took everything we learned and used it,” she said. “It just grows stronger because of everything, because of the risks taken.”
Among the most daring projects — but certainly not successful in a commercial sense — was Smith’s first venture into filmmaking in 1996 with “Raven’s Blood,” a murder mystery based on the book “Death of an Alaskan Princess” by Smith’s sister. Two Los Angeles-based actors were cast to star in the film, which otherwise relied largely on local residents for on- and off-screen roles.
“I think there was a part of me that wanted to move to a bigger audience,” Molly Smith said.
There was also a far more dramatic and personal motivation.
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I wanted to make this movie of my sister’s book,” she said.
Making the movie was like starting over with a tricycle since the work was vastly different from the Perseverance stage, Smith said. There was also the harsh reality of undergoing harsh treatment that robbed her of her hair, time and customary energy.
Bob Urata, the doctor who treated Smith, said she showed remarkable perseverance in the real-world sense as a patient since “at that time the prognosis wasn’t as good for breast cancer as it was now” and treatment required “old-fashioned chemotherapy with a lot of side effects.”
“I think that kind of strength and that positivity helped her survive this and she’s just kept going ever since,” he said. “It’s been amazing.”
A few years ago Urata and his wife visited Smith at Arena Stage, seeing a couple of performances, and “that was pretty impressive.” Urata said he also ended up serving on Perseverance’s board of directors for years after Smith departed and the significance of her influence is still very much present.
“This was probably the main theater in Alaska,” he said. “Anchorage has some small theaters, but Perseverance has been going for a while since Molly got it started.”
“Raven’s Blood” naturally attracted strong interest when it premiered in Juneau a year after production began, but hopes of finding a national distributor never panned out and today there is barely a wisp of the project in online databases such as IMDb.
But Molly looks back at the project with appreciation that’s both personal and professional.
“I will say making that film is something I am really proud of because it burned the cancer out of my system,” she said.
“Raven’s Blood” also has a legacy far bigger than its small time on screen, since during the COVID-19 pandemic when in-person theater wasn’t possible Smith began working on a series of docudramas about subjects like Black Lives Matter, D.C.’s efforts to become the 51st state and tracking the lives of 10 of the city’s residents during one day of the pandemic in May of 2020.
“I think if I had not had the experience of ‘Raven’s Blood‘ that would not have been something I moved to as quickly and easily as I did,” she said.
Moving on to a bigger Arena
The release of “Raven’s Blood” in 1997 occurred at roughly the same time Smith got a call from a friend and headhunter.
“I was at the theater looking at Mount Roberts and he said ’Molly, are you sitting down?’” she said.
That’s when she learned Arena Stage was looking for a new artistic director to replace Douglas C. Wager, who was departing in June of 1998.
“He said ‘I think you should throw your hat into the ring,’ and he said it’s because you share the same values and that got me,” Smith said, referring to the call with her friend.
“I feel as if I have finished my work at Perseverance Theatre,” she said. “I’ve been called by headhunters before. I’ve always said no, but this time I said yes.”
That started a months-long process that began with 30-40 applicants being whittled down through a series of cuts until Smith found herself as the last woman standing.
“We fell in love, which is just what happens between search committees and artistic directors,” she said. “They made a very brave choice, somebody from 3,500 miles away in this small theater in Alaska with this reputation of doing very interesting work.”
The Washington Post, in its 1997 article, noted the “follow her anywhere” devotion of people she worked with in Juneau. But, the article added, “the only trouble is, outside of Alaska not that many people know her. If yesterday’s appointment automatically thrusts her into the front ranks of the American regional theater movement, the 45-year-old Smith remains an unknown quantity to the public at large.”
“About two weeks ago I was walking down a street in New York, and I had this realization,” she told the newspaper. “I thought I’d better savor these moments, because in a sense they were some of my last moments as a private person.”
Bringing a growing America to growing Arena
Making the transition “from a small capital city to a huge capital city” was similar in many ways when it came to day-to-day theater work, but in a world where things were and still are happening 24/7, Smith said.
“Every day every part of me gets used up,” she said.
She began her newest chapter of her story with some familiar elements, including Vogel becoming the in-house playwright. Smith also returned to her early focus at Perseverance of telling tales of America in a melting pot of historic, conventional, modern and unorthodox voices. Her first productions at Arena included American classics like “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “All My Sons.”
“What I realized after I was here at Arena Stage for a number of years is ‘my gosh, I’ve taken what I’ve written about Alaska, and I’ve taken it writ large here about America and Americans.’” Smith said.
As with Perseverance, many of those classic scripts are recreated in new settings.
“The other piece I’m really proud of is revitalizing the American musical,” Smith said. With “Oklahoma!,” for instance, she updated the homogeneous setting with a cast largely led by actors of color, reflecting the reality they were among the largest groups of people moving west in search of better prospects at the time.
“That was really important and I don’t think there is a production of ‘Oklahoma!’ now that doesn’t have that,” Smith said.
Plenty of original productions also mark her tenure at Arena Stage, from a biodrama about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia titled “The Originalist” to the struggles of Native Americans for tribal rights in “Sovereignty” to her Power Plays initiative that’s staging 25 original plays — one for each decade of America’s history — during a 10-year span that began in 2016.
Yet, the Washington Post declares “the most concrete of her achievements involves actual concrete: the stunning $135 million renovation of Arena’s home on the Southwest Waterfront in 2010.” The 80,000-square-foot space grew to 200,000 square feet, with the two existing theaters plus a new third theater all encased “under a soaring, 45-foot-high glass skin” during the decade-long effort.
“That is for me one of the areas that I look at as ‘oh my God, we were able to do this,’” Smith said. ”At Perseverance Theatre it was building a new theater, so there’s something to do with building that has always been important to me.”
After the final bow, a homecoming encore
There have been only three artistic directors in Arena Stage’s 72-year history and Smith’s decision to step down next July during what will mark her 25-year anniversary caught many people by surprise.
But while her announcement gained wide-ranging mainstream and entertainment media attention, it’s hardly the first time she’s provoked emotional reactions during her time in Washington D.C.
Smith’s arrival was accompanied by optimism about the nation’s character, telling Playbill at the time “Why do we go to Washington? To learn what the American mind is: the ideas, drives and passions that make us American.”
But her time there coincides with what increasingly are some of the most divisive and challenging times in the country’s history. Shortly after Donald Trump was elected president she wrote a column titled “‘Hamilton’ and the danger of attacking the theater” that asserted “we’re currently being tested as a democracy.”
In the months leading up to the election and since, I’ve seen how the incoming administration has ripped up the media — discounted them, lacerated them and told the public that whatever the press says are lies and fabrications,” she wrote. “As the free press goes, so go the rest of us. Plays and musicals produced at Arena Stage, at theaters across this region and around the country involve a search for truth, not the hiding of it; a critique of power, not the exercise of it; an invitation to conversation and insight, not a shutting down of dialogue.”
Smith’s audacity and insistence on bringing that conversation to the stage was, not shockingly, appreciated by all.
“After 20 years of being an Arena subscriber I gave up my seat after three years of Smith’s taking over,” one Washington Post reader wrote in a comment in a story about her retirement, which attracted other critical comments about topics such as the pricey theater renovation and a supposed lack of disabled access. Among the reasons was “her insistence of doing only American plays were, I thought, terrible decisions. I also think she is just not a good director. She always seems more interested in political messages than in good theater.”
Smith, not shockingly, wasn’t all that interested in the reactions of online commenters.
Instead she’s focusing on her next acts, which include plans to resume the global traveling that’s been a constant lure for many years. She’s also being approached about a variety of arts-related projects and finding time for a different type of artistry from long ago.
“I just started throwing pots again after not having done that for 50 years,” she said.
Smith said she also “definitely” plans to return to Juneau, which she has generally done annually to visit family and the theater, while also spending a few weeks at a cabin she and her sister own in Haines.
“I love Juneau, my family is there, I have a ton of friends there,” she said.
Among the friends who will welcome Smith’s return is SueAnn Randall, a Juneau resident since 1973 whose first acquaintance occurred because her kids went to preschool with Smith’s nieces. Randall eventually found herself auditioning and singing at Perseverance, was an extra in “Raven’s Blood,” and her daughter was part of the cast of “Hair.”
“We’ve all been so fortunate by her generously sharing her talents and time with the Juneau community, and getting so many people to get involved with arts and the community on so many levels,” Randall said. “It just takes one person to step through the door and lead the way and she’s one of those people.”