STATEside met up with veteran actor Lindsay Smiling ’99, who is performing in the Illinois Shakespeare Festival this summer as Duke in The Comedy of Errors, Macduff in Macbeth, and the Grandfather Clock in Failure: A Love Story. The festival, hosted at Illinois State’s Theatre at Ewing, opened last weekend and runs through August 10.
Smiling has performed across the nation with companies such as Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Pennsylvania Shakespeare, Syracuse Stage, Pittsburgh Public, and Milwaukee Rep.
STATEside: What led you to acting?
Smiling: I was always a math and science guy in high school. Math was always what I thought I was going to do. When I transferred from the College of DuPage to Illinois State I double majored in theatre and math. The theatre classes at Illinois State really challenged me and helped me think about the world differently. When I would do a scene or monologue in class I always felt energized as a person. I decided I wanted to focus on acting and graduated from Illinois State just shy on one credit hour for the math major.
STATEside: Did you begin acting right after graduation?
Smiling: After graduation I moved back to Chicago. I found myself not taking it seriously. It’s a mistake a lot of actors make. In school everything is right there in the department. In the real world you have to seek out auditions, network, and make contacts on your own. I would go to a couple of auditions and hang out with my friends. After a while I decided to go to grad school. Wanting to get out of my comfort zone I went to Temple University in Philadelphia and was really focused there. It was really all about the work and becoming a professional actor.
I got cast in shows right out of grad school. I got a nonunion job right away. After that I auditioned for a part at Freedom Theatre and was given a union card. Since I had the card I decided to go to New York City. Through the first theatre in Philadelphia I worked for I lucked into getting a casting agent. It took a while to get going, but because I was focused I have had some success. Once people start hearing your name they begin requesting you.
STATEside: What kind of roles do you normally play?
Smiling: I feel lucky because it has been all over the map. I didn’t do Shakespeare for some time after grad school. You are cast as what people see you. Since I am a bigger guy and a black actor, it is hard for people to see me as a younger, mid-20s guy as opposed to a leading type. I’ve had a wide range of roles ranging from character work and leading man to playing age. All of this has stretched my vocabulary as an actor.
STATEside: You’re playing several roles in the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. How do you switch between characters?
Smiling: It kind of goes back to something we lose from when we were young. When we are kids we pretend all of the time. Once you’ve done the work on the play, you throw yourself into it and go for what comes to you. There’s a lot of empathy that goes into who these characters are. You try to put yourself in their shoes and see what their values are and how you connect to them.
STATEside: Which role are you looking forward to most?
Smiling: I have always had an appreciation for Macbeth. One of my first classes at ISU was with Kim Pereira, and most of the semester was spent working on Macbeth and gaining an appreciation for Shakespeare. There is a double meaning for me doing that show at the festival; and the emotional journey Macduff goes on is grand.
STATEside: What was your reaction when you got the request to come to the Shakespeare Festival?
Smiling: I was really excited to come back and see what the festival had become. The theatre itself had changed. I was a box office manager at Illinois Shakes when I left here in the summer of 1999. They were still using the temporary stage—totally beat up, with no back stage. So I was excited to see what has developed with the festival. (Uptown Normal has also been a shock to me.) I was excited to see some of my former professors because Illinois State was a stepping stone into my career.
STATEside: What do you have planned for your next project?
Smiling: After the festival concludes I will get to work on some new material. I will be working on a play with Paula Vogel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who is writing about U.S. veterans. The jumping off point for that is Don Juan Comes Back From The War. The play will open in the spring. It is a great opportunity.
In this business I plan out a little bit, but I also keep myself open to wherever my work takes me. This matches my process as an actor. I start with ideas of what the play is about, but it is not until you get a group of people together that you explore the themes and learn what the play means to you. That’s the power of theatre. We get to discover who we are through these stories as people, as a community, as a society, and as a country.
Steven Barcus can be reached at srbarcu@IllinoisState.edu.