One thing Robert Smyth likes about his used Merkur is that it's a turbocharged car with no sign on it saying "turbocharged." Power without show: that's Smyth (he pronounces it "Smith").
At 40, he is the artistic director of Lamb's Players Theatre, the 13-year-old ensemble company in National City that is prospering because of - or in spite of - its stance as a family of Christian artists.
Except for its Christmas festival, the company's plays are not bombastically Christian. In one season, the play selection included Rhinoceros, an adaptation of Dracula, Dames at Sea, and Godspell. On record, the theater declines to call itself Christian at all. One reason Smyth gives is that "Christian theater" usually means second-rate. Lamb's Players is not in the same league as the big regional companies, the Old Globe, the La Jolla Playhouse, and the San Diego Rep, with their out-of-town guest artists and subsidized summer seasons. But it has come to be regarded as one of the best locals and has done so with a full-time core group of only a dozen artists, most of whom have houses, families, and a commitment to making their careers not only in theater but in this theater.
Welton Jones, theater critic for the San Diego Union, disregarded the company in its early years but now says of Lamb's, "Certainly now it is one of the major theaters in town." As Jones describes the company, "They're kind of like a commune but without many of the day-to-day survival problems. They seem to have things under control."
Any observer of LP operations would come away with the picture of a group of people committed to working at a pace and in a setting that would tax a saint. But Smyth seems to have found a way to cope; as he often says, "It depends on your perspective at the moment."
He delivers the phrase with understatement, for better equivocation. He really means it, sort of. Once, describing the chaos that can ensue in the late afternoon when children run into the insanely overcrowded LP offices to be handed off to their moms or dads, Smyth said the racket can really get on your nerves or, conversely, cement your belief that a theater ensemble is centered on the concept of family - depending on your perspective at the moment.
Another time, he called a meeting of the theater's production staff to instruct them in the time-management system used by himself and the theater's administrative team. Everyone from costume designer to carpenter was given an elaborate binder and a box of specially designed inserts for tracking tasks day by day, week by week, throughout the year. "It can free up your creative time by giving you a system for remembering all the noncreative stuff," said Smyth, "or it can be just more paperwork - depending on your perspective at the moment." With his wisecrack delivery - monotone with a grin on the side - the LP leader seems to be admitting to a pretty wide slice of relativism: "Whatever works for you" or "No standards apply."
Fundamentally, Smyth has found the world to be a relative sort of place, but one where standards do apply. The son of an advance man for Billy Graham, Smyth grew up in a household of this-is-right-that-is-wrong evangelism, but he lived a little before finding his faith. Long hair, pot, Zen, anti-war demonstrations, the takeover of a university building, inner-city youth work, communal living in Topanga Canyon - every jot and tittle of the '60s resume is there for Smyth.
"At the end of all that," he said one day at lunch in a quiet Mexican restaurant near the theater, "I said to myself, 'Maybe the world is nihilistic.'" He laid one hand carefully down on the table, marking the end of a spectrum. "Maybe we are just this collection of atoms, swirling groups of chemical reactions, and nothing really applies but the ability to survive.
"Okay. I can handle that." Big smile.
"I'm a pretty strong person, and I can do what it takes to survive. But if you admit" - down went the other hand - "that the spiritual world has a place in your experience - if it exists for you - then, coming from my background, certain things follow from that. You have faith. You honor your faith with your work. If your work is as an artist, then, that's what you do."
He backed up a step to say that a turning point in his search for faith came in his early 20s, when he settled a debt with his father by working at a Christian youth camp in Maryland. he loved the way the other counselors got along or, more exactly, the way they fought out their differences while still caring for one another. Having strong opinions and standing up for them while cherishing the people who disagreed - this was new to him. He was the person who had dropped out of college when his parents asked how he could love God and still have long hair.
"in all the situations I'd been in in the '60s, it was like a series of snapshots," he said. "In every snapshot, everything was perfect, everyone was in love, until it wasn't perfect and everything fell apart and you just moved on to the next frame. It was a series of perfect snapshots that added up to disappointment."
After that summer at camp, he accepted his faith and saw that he could also take a stand for his personal opinions in a community that prized healing and forgiveness. he could keep his opinions and his relationships intact; the elements didn't cancel each other out.
He had also come under the influence of a career-bending book. Francis Schaeffer's The God Who Is There, which argues for art as the sublimely relevant means of exploring faith. At Schaeffer's suggestion, he enrolled at Covenant College in Tennessee and became more engaged in theater. As a kid, he'd been a jock (an overachieving one, considering his medium build and his sport of choice: shot put), but through his family's travels he had been exposed to the London stage at 13. Soon thereafter, he auditioned for a play at his public school in Pasadena. He believes he won the part of Mr. Ambassador in The Mouse That Roared because the audition reading contained the word "Potomac," and, sophisticate that he was, he alone pronounced it correctly. He was good in the role and decided to hang onto acting as a fall-back (after sports) for making friends.