Published in KPBS On Air Magazine October 1996
It may be blasphemous to say so, but this is a Christian group that produces damn good theater. (Is that blasphemy?) Well, it’s no sin — and no secret — that Lamb’s Players has been getting great critical and audience attention. But that’s no surprise to its Artistic Producing Director, Robert Smyth. “We’ve been doing what we do for 13 years now,” he says, confidently. “We haven’t really changed. But the media has begun to look beyond the big theaters. We’ve always had a strong audience base. Yet there was still that feeling among a lot of people, ‘Lamb’s who?’ And that’s why we took ‘Joseph’ to the Lyceum.” (“Joseph” refers to Lamb’s two enormously successful National City runs of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat , which went on to further success this year at the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza).
Smyth leans back in his tiny partitioned office in the Lamb’s Theatre Playhouse, formerly a Christian Science Church. (Note the close alignment of doctrine and drama). He looks uncharacteristically formal, in a starched shirt and tie. He is calm, soft-spoken, intense in a way that reflects his combined commitment to his religion and his vocation. Even the theater’s name reflects that coalescence. “First off,” he says, “Lamb carries the agrarian, Biblical image from Revelations (the lion and the lamb). Plus, John the Baptist refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God. And it’s also the name of the oldest acting club in America, named for Charles Lamb.” Smyth has no problem intertwining theater and faith. “We’re not out to be self-righteous or judgmental, or to beat anyone over the head. But we try to explore ethical and moral issues.”
The two iridescent threads weave an intricate fabric of passion and belief. And the wide-ranging theatrical presentations in a Lamb’s season are cut from the same cloth. This year, there was Larry Shue’s comedy, The Nerd, which touches on issues of tolerance and obligation. Then, Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, a Wilde morality tale of faithfulness, honesty and blackmail. Currently running (through July 22) is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, adapted from a fantasy by theologian C.S. Lewis– rich in moral issues and Christian symbolism. When Smyth joined the Lamb’s Players in 1976, they were a touring street theater based in El Cajon, working out of a quonset hut machine shop. Steve Terrell was Executive Director, and Smyth was brought in to set up a resident ensemble. Terrell and Smyth didn’t exactly share an artistic vision for the company. When Terrell retired in 1980, Smyth became artistic director, and he consolidated the group. He cut down the touring: there was a full-time dance group, a magic show, a mime company and a reader’s theater. “To do our best work,” Smyth decided, “we need not to scatter.” (Keep in mind, with a religious/theatrical bent, this is all about ‘good works.’)
Lamb’s is still an ensemble theater, the only repertory company in San Diego with year-round, salaried artists. But the group expanded too far too fast. That led to a good deal of debt, and a paid staff of 43. In his gentle, understated way, Smyth refers to “a major staff reshuffle” two years ago. Only ten people remained on salary after the shuffling was over. The touring company was shut down (but will be reinstated this fall). Now the financial situation has stabilized. Two new staff members were added recently, and another six will come on by the end of the year.
Everyone continues to do everything for the theater, from sawing to sweeping to selling tickets. “Our biggest problem,” Smyth confesses, “is saying ‘Let’s NOT do something.'” But the artistic director has big plans. “I’d like to build our own space, whether that means taking on an existing building or starting from scratch. We love working in the round, and we love the intimacy of this space. We’d like to keep the intimacy, but double the seating to about 400. First we’re doing a study, then a capital campaign. I’m surprised at how strong a response we’re getting from our loyal South Bay audience, saying ‘Stay where you are.'”
The company artists are about to turn builders again, adding a scenery/costume shop next to the theater. The long-range plan is for the Main Stage to move to the new facility (whether in South Bay or downtown), while the existing space houses a full-time professional children’s theater. “There’s a real commitment to families here; there are always kids running around. A tremendous point of frustration about theater in America is that it demands transience. There’s no sense of home, community, stability for a family. We try to get away from that.”
But does everyone involved with the theater have to be Christian? “We don’t ask that question of people who act on our stage,” says Smyth. “But all the people in our company are people of faith… If we don’t say we’re Christians we wouldn’t be who we are. It’s central to how we work.” And yet, they avoid calling themselves a Christian theater. “We don’t try to downplay it. We don’t call ourselves a Christian theater because we’re not only for Christians… But we like to make our audience consider the bigger questions of life.” And isn’t that what theater is all about, anyway?
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.