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.
Now at Covenant, he met and married Mary Bargar, a talented musician. In 1976 they came to San Diego to work on a Billy Graham crusade, and Smyth fell in with the original Lamb's Players, a gospel-spieling troupe of youngsters who traveled in an old bus, playing mostly college campuses out of their headquarters in a machine shop in El Cajon. Smyth and his wife were invited to join, she to act and he to found a resident theater ensemble.
Here was Smyth's opportunity to work out his faith in a community of like-minded artists and to establish himself in an atmosphere of strong opinion, mutual caring, and forgiveness. Forgiveness was going to be needed.
Prayer and share in five minutes." The words come over the loudspeaker in the LP playhouse just before noon every Wednesday. Staff members take their lunches and meet on the stage in the heart of the building.
On this particular Wednesday in February, they also brought their coats. The stage was bare except for some tables and an aluminum ladder. Cool neon work lights shone from above the rails in the ceiling. The building was a Christian Science church when LP bought it in 1976 for $91,000. Smyth was among those who came down to look the place over. The company had its heart set on buying another building (a Jewish temple) near SDSU but couldn't afford it. National City seemed an unlikely setting for a theater; but when they walked into the church and saw the little vestibule where hymnals and Christian Science Quarterlys were passed out, they thought: "box office." Then they walked into the auditorium and saw, instead of pews, theater seats.
Sitting in the pale green seats with shapely hardwood trimming, the staff opened the meeting with two hymns, which they sang a cappella; the member who usually brings his guitar was tied up with a medical appointment. They shared news: one member had just found an apartment; another's son was nervous about changing schools. Vickie Smith, the costume designer, read an eight-year-old's hilarious essay on God, which had been sent by her sponsor, an elderly woman in San Bernardino. About 40 percent of the company's $948,000 annual budget comes from donors who sponsor individual members of the company.
The group then turned its attention to friends and relatives in need of prayerful support. Smyth said he particularly wished to hold up the boy who was about to enter a new school. He knew how frightening that can be.
Last, the members prayed for themselves. Three turned to God for more patience in time of stress.
There followed silent prayer, a benediction, and a five-minute break before the administrative team reconvened in the same place for a business meeting, at which the stress theme was immediately taken up again.
Deborah Gilmore Smyth, the theater's principal actress and wife of Bob Smyth (who was divorced from Mary Bargar in 1982), said she was going crazy in the box office. Telephone orders had nearly doubled for two consecutive weeks since the company had moved Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat from National City to a rented stage in the Lyceum Theater in Horton Plaza. Deb Smyth, whom Jones of the Union calls one of the most versatile actresses in San Diego, works the box office in the day and stars in Joseph at night. She had run into the meeting from the box office to ask for money to hire part-time help.
Among those present were three other actors: Kerry Cederberg Meads, David Cochran Heath, and Chris Turner. Meads, a brassy blonde, doubles as the company's resident playwright, having written one or two scripts a year since 1978. At this moment, she was consumed with producing the annual banquet for the theater's supporters. The banquet, seven days away, would involve an elaborate stage show at the Meridien Hotel in Coronado. She had brought to the meeting a two-page production agenda and a head filled with details (salads would be preset at 7:10 p.m.; still need vases for flower arrangements). The outline of her next script was due in two weeks.
Heath, tall and slow-moving, doubles as the production manager/carpenter and has been with the company for nine years. Turner, round and bearded, is the graphic designer and has been a Lamb's Player since 1976, when he was 19.
Every actor in the company has a hand in building, staging, designing, writing, publicizing, or selling the shows. By doing as much work as theater organizations twice its size, LP can pay its actors a decent salary - up to $36,000 a year - and the actors can afford to put down roots and raise families. Heath, who is married to another member of the company, owns a home and has two children. Turner, married to a former member, has a home and three kids. His first-born is about to start piano lessons.
Although it employs outside actors of all persuasions, Lamb's Players is the only theater in town that relies on its own ensemble in producing a year-round season. This classic ensemble theater has been achieved at the price of ensemble everything, where members can't get away from work or each other. During one two-year period, four couples at or near the center of the company went through divorces.
"...And so I need some help in there, because Stephanie is gone, Ruth isn't answering the phone anymore during lunch, and Beth goes home in the afternoon with her kids," said Deb Smyth, finishing up her plea for more part-time help.
Turner said, "Sure. But you know, I'm kind of concerned about the ongoing problem." Deb Smyth started to look annoyed, and he softened his tone. "I know, I know you need another person. Fine. I'm just pointing out it's been going on for some time, that's all. it seems like we get someone and then -"
Deb interrupted him to defend a part-timer who had taken a few weeks off to do something else. "She's good, and I don't want to have to train someone -"
"But you're going to have to train a new person anyway," Turner pointed out.
"Well, okay, but I don't want to lose the person I have."
"I think it'll be all right to go ahead and hire someone, temporarily," said Bob Smyth quietly.
Other voices murmured assent.
"We've got the shekels anyway," said Turner, making a little joke. Joseph, in which Turner plays Isaac and a few other roles, was pulling in enough extra money to cover the expense.
Talk flowed easily into how long they could extend the run of Joseph and whether they should add an extra show on Tuesday or Sunday evening. Sunday was chosen to let the cast keep Tuesday off.
On extending the run, there was some question as to whether the remote stage microphones used in Joseph would interfere with another show scheduled to open on the Lyceum's main stage in mid-February and run through the first week in March. That show would use remote microphones too, and if they operated at the same radio frequency, sound from one show could unintentionally be miked into the other. They decided to extend the run of Joseph and iron out the technical difficulties later. The name of the other show: Ain't Misbehavin'.
Adjourning, the actors made notes in their time-planning binders, with the exception of Deb Smyth, who made a fast exit to the box office. Everyone else stayed for the production meeting that followed.
If, 5 or 15 years from now, Lamb's Players is anything like what Bob Smyth hopes it will be, with a 400-seat theater of its own in downtown San Diego, this year will have been central to its success. This would have been the year it started to break out of National City.
Back when the theater was new, it appeared to be a toss-up as to which was the greater obstacle: its location or the reluctance of reviewers to take a Christian-based ensemble seriously. The original Lamb's Players had been modeled on the roving, agitprop street theater that once flourished in San Francisco. LP was founded by Elza Terrell and her husband Steve, a former TV actor who played the boy Clarence Day on Life with Father. Said Steve Terrell, "I saw the crowds that these Marxists were drawing and I thought, 'Why can't we do this for Christ?'"
Terrell's plan was to establish one resident ensemble to support various evangelistic road shows. in 1979 the ensemble applied for membership in COMBO, then San Diego's main financial support group for the arts. That's when the Union's Jones did some checking and pointed out that LP's background had far more do with proselytizing than its COMBO application had made it appear. "They said something about being a commedia dell'art-medieval-Renaissance-gobbledygook troupe, and I just wanted to set the record straight," he said. The company withdrew from COMBO forthwith. Two years later, the Terrells moved to Northern California, and the evangelistic road shows were gradually dropped.
Meanwhile, the critics were won over as word got out that LP shows were worth seeing. they looked good, the acting was competent and sometimes excellent, they did not preach, and the company's play selection was reasonably broad.
The players sometimes turned heads by bringing off a full-blooded version of a big classic, using a minimal cast and solid stagecraft. Their Doctor Faustus in 1982 was the first LP show that Jones, who had not reviewed the company until then, regretted not seeing.
Carol Davis, who writes for the San Diego Jewish Times, was persuaded by word of mouth to see LP. She recalls, "When I heard they were doing Fiddler on the Roof, I said okay."
She despised it. The village rabbi was double-cast as the show's piano player. He wore ankle-high pants. The beard was not flattering. "It was terribly low-budget," she said of the show. "They had no feel for it. But I have them another chance." She now reviews nearly all of their work and finds that some if it deserves comparison to that of San Diego's Actor's Equity houses (the Globe, the La Jolla Playhouse, the San Diego Repertory Theatre).
Fran Bardacke of San Diego Magazine can't forget her first trip to Lamb's Players. "It was at night, and I guess I got off on the wrong street, and I certainly didn't have very good directions," she said. "Anyway, I never found it. I missed the show."
The playhouse is at the corner of Plaza Boulevard and E Avenue, two blocks from where the new Radisson Hotel marks the redeveloped heart of National City. For all its allure, the playhouse could be on the dark side of the moon. Even with a critical following and 2500-member subscription list that guarantees sellouts for most of its performances, LP suffers from its location. With only 175 seats, the playhouse is too small to generate much cash for expansion, and building a bigger playhouse in National City could be folly.
"There seems to be this barrier at the 94 freeway," said Smyth. "You can't get people to go south of it." This year, the company decided to risk moving a show to a rented stage downtown, not to make money but to broaden its audience base. The payoff: the Lyceum audiences have produced hundreds of new names for the mailing list. The company estimates that a third of the people seeing Joseph are seeing a Lamb's Players show for the first time. LP has thought about looking for a bigger playhouse in the suburbs, said Smyth, "but there's an audience downtown that you can't reach any other place."
The company has already commissioned drawings for its ideal theater. It would be twice the size of its present playhouse, have a modifiable thrust stage and be located in downtown San Diego - where, no one knows. For the time being, LP has set aside enough money to build a scenery and costume shop on the lot next door to its playhouse. It will give the staff some breathing room. For the future, the only means of overcoming the stigma of National City is to produce plays that critics and audiences will venture to attend.
Break for ten minutes?" said Smyth's assistant at a recent night's rehearsal for The Nerd.
"Five," said Smyth.
"Back in five minutes!" the assistant announced, checking her watch. Actors and various others, none of them LP staffers, headed for coffee and stale brownies.
Actor talk: "Bob is a strong director. He tells you what he wants. But I like that. I like a director who gives you something to work from. it doesn't bother me. I'm easy - hey!"
"You talk to other actors in San Diego, and they'll say there are three directors that everyone wants to work for: Des McAnuff, Doug Jacobs, and Bob Smyth."
"You look at the people who've been here for years, and you know they could be working in Los Angeles or New York, and you wonder, why do they stay? Would I stay? I don't know."
Back in rehearsal, Smyth frequently tells the actors to "just have fun with it," "just motor through it," "just play with it." Almost as frequently, he stops to show them exactly how he wants it done.
One of the players is doing a bit where he pretends to recognize a long-lost friend - a bottle by the name of Jack Daniel's. "Try doing a '30s movie," Smyth suggests. "You know - at the train station? 'Jack! Is that you, Jack?'"
Smyth becomes a breathy, lovelorn woman clutching a scarf at her throat and reaching out to the man in her past. In the movie, steam from the locomotive would be rising about her. Himself again, Smyth says, "try it. Just play with it. Go crazy."
Some actors are annoyed by directors who crowd them with examples. One is Deb Smyth, who had her share of run-ins with Bob soon after she joined LP in 1979. "She was one of those actors who comes out of college director-proof," he said. But they worked it out, Bob said, and had a respectful, we're-both-pros relationship before they became friends, and that friendship later led them into marriage.
The two were paired onstage last year in the LP production of Much Ado About Nothing. They played Beatrice and Benedict, two of Shakespeare's most fascinating lovers, who, with brilliant wordplay, perform the mating ritual of sharks, grazing each other with superficial wounds.
Taking it up a notch, the other two lovers, Hero and Claudio, were played by Smyth's former wife Mary and her present husband Lance Kidd. About ten years ago, Mary and Bob were still married, she fell in love with Lance, then an actor with the company, and moved to Oregon, where Lance eventually joined her. After the Smyths' divorce, the Kidds were married and returned to Coronado.
"It was very, very painful for me and everyone," said Smyth, "but eventually we did work things out where all of us found some real comfort and reconciliation and a sens of forgiveness."
Seeing Smyth on the same stage with Lance and Mary Kidd was a triumph of reconciliation or an outrage, depending on one's perspective.
"Some people came to me and said 'What in the hell are they doing here?'" Smyth said. "A couple said, 'I never thought I'd see those people on your stage again, and here are your season tickets.'"
Smyth added, calmly: "If there is anyone you shouldn't have to explain forgiveness and reconciliation to, it should be people of faith."
"I fell short of the glory, as we say," admitted Mary. "Well, we all did." She said her self-centeredness and immaturity were largely to blame for her feeling unloved by Bob at the time, though she didn't think much, either, of the counsel she received from pastors after she'd taken up with Lance. One told her to find help elsewhere, not in his congregation. As for Smyth, she said, "On the very day the divorce papers came to the door, I thought, 'We can turn this whole thing around. It doesn't have to be this way.' But with Bob - you can't tell a man like that, 'It's me or the theater.' Not someone with his vision."
Sometime after Smyth and Deborah Gilmore married five years ago, the couples met for dinner in La Jolia, toasted each other, and sang "Auld Lang Syne." They met later for breakfast in Coronado, where Smyth broached the subject of their returning to the LP stage. "It's been a healing and a blessing," Kidd said. "Whatever other people may think, it's what we know. Everyone has come out better."
Though the Kidds will probably return soon to Oregon, Mary continues to contribute to the company. She was the musical director for Joseph, which LP finally extended to March 31, the maximum run available at the Lyceum.
Lamb's Players founder Terrell, summarizing the difference between his and Smyth's visions for the company, said, "The job of a Christian is to spread the word and message of Jesus Christ.... Bob's stance is that evangelism is not that important. As long as you can keep a Christian theme going onstage, the message might also come through."