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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Sense of Character

Milwaukee actor Jonathan Smoots

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Milwaukee actor Jonathan Smoots had a gift for reading aloud when he was growing up in the Chicago suburb of Elmwood Park in the 1950s. That talent pleased his mother, the daughter of a Lutheran minister.

“My mother always thought I was going to be a minister,” says Smoots, 54, the husband of fellow actor Laura Gordon, who is a company member of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. “Of course, there are a lot of parallels between acting and preaching.”

For the past 28 years, Smoots has practiced his dramatic ministry on stages in New Jersey and Wisconsin, both in Milwaukee and, especially, in Spring Green, where he has been a core acting company member of American Players Theatre not once, but twice. Smoots will appear again this year in three of APT’s five productions, the first of which, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, also happened to be the first play APT ever produced during the company’s 1980 inaugural season.

Smoots, a graduate of NorthwesternUniversity in 1980, won the only slot awarded to one of hundreds of auditioning Chicago-area actors. The actors rehearsed while carpenters and electricians frantically built the fledgling company’s first outdoor stage and bowl-shaped auditorium.

“I was privileged to say the first line of the first play ever produced on APT’s stage,” Smoots recalls. “I was Theseus: ‘Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour.’ I was 26.”

Smoots left APT in 1986, but returned when new management arrived in 1994, and has remained there ever since. Despite frequent appearances with the Milwaukee Rep and spending the 1990-’91 season as artistic director for the city’s Next Act Theatre, Smoots considers APT his home. In fact, he eventually sacrificed his core company status with the Rep for one with APT, a conflict caused by overlapping seasons.

The Crucible

Smoots gained an early interest in acting thanks to a high school production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, in which he played John Proctor, an honest farmer with a loving wife tormented by his affair with a young woman. The experience galvanized the impressionable young man’s sensitivities.

“I found it to be an incredibly cathartic experience,” Smoots says. “Sections of my brain were triggered almost as if I had taken a drug, and I wanted to repeat that again and again. Unfortunately, it’s starting not to feel like that anymore.”

Smoots is returning to the 2008 production of Midsummer, this time as the character Bottom. Later he’s playing Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV: The Making of a King and then Sir George Touchwood, an older gentleman married to a young woman in The Belle’s Stratagem. Smoots says that he enjoys the roles he’ll be playing this season, but notes that none of them approaches the initial experience of playing Proctor.

Chalk it up to a natural restlessness or a realization that he’s approaching 59, the age at which his father died, but Smoots says he sometimes longs for change, something to replace what he feels he hasn’t experienced. At the same time, the actor’s sense of character—both his own and those roles into which he feels he fits best—have become that much clearer, a gift of age that, in at least one respect, has led to a level of contentment.

“What I know about myself, the type of person who feels the most comfortable under my skin, is the simple, good-hearted character who is not terribly intelligent but long on integrity,” Smoots says. “I admire those type of characters because they’re not selfish or self-absorbed, not grasping or ambitious. I think Dickens may have said it best when he described his character Joe Gargery in Great Expectations: ‘He knows his place and he fills it well and with pride.’”

From cathartic roles to comfortable souls, Smoots has covered a lot of ground both on stage and off during his years at APT. There are parallels, he says, between the lessons learned on stage and in life.

“There are people who chide me for not reveling more in my accomplishments, but what I’ve learned from it all is how little I know and how flawed I am,” Smoots admits. “I’m now open to learning new things.”

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