Opera House Theatre Company’s Justin Smith talks about the resurgence in local theater and his hopes for expansion into Brunswick County.
Maybe it’s the history behind the centuries-old theater house of Thalian Hall, or maybe it’s the stage, the warm embrace of dim lighting and the velvety red seats that makes me understand the romance and allure of live theater. Especially as I settle into an aisle seat next to Justin Smith.
The actor and artistic director describes the instant love he felt for theatre after he saw his first play, Peter Pan, at 6 or 7 years old. He was instantly hooked.
“I wrote a Christmas play when I was in kindergarten,” he recalls. “I’ll never forget. I played Santa Claus … but theater was always something I strived to do. And you know, sports kind of took over my life for a little while, but I kept my hand in theater always, I was lucky to have unbelievable programs.”
“Probably never played basketball, right?” I quip about his stature. Smith is 6 feet, 7 inches tall.
“Probably not,” he jests. “No, I played a little basketball and went to college on a scholarship. And I chose the college because they allowed me to major in theater.”
Early in his career, because he is a large guy, Smith came upon more villain-type roles in film and on stage. But fortunately, he says, one of the great things about the Wilmington theater scene is how deep the well is for actors.
“I had so many opportunities to play roles I’d never get to play anywhere else,” he says. “Lots of leading man roles and lots of things that many people would never give me an opportunity to do because of my size.”
Smith’s last part was in Opera House Theatre Company’s (OHTC) City of Angels in 2016. He played the apt role of TV producer Irvin S. Irving.
Smith was artistic director at City Stage (now Level 5 at City Stage) and Carolina Theatre Group for 17 years and has been OHTC’s artistic director since August 2018. But unlike the demanding micromanager he played as Irving, Smith says that in reality less is more behind the scenes.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned in the 20-plus years I’ve been doing this type of job is knowing when not to speak,” he muses. “Knowing what part of the process you’re in; knowing when the five-alarm fire is going off — that’s probably when you speak the most.”
For the theater layman (like myself), each production has a director, choreographer, creative team, etc., and the artistic director may carry varied responsibilities and wear many hats.
“For me, it is literally overseeing all aspects,” Smith says. “Right now I oversee marketing, and I oversee naming the creative team. … I’ll be watching the director’s vision, and I will try to help fulfill that vision.”
Additionally, a small army of choreographers, set designers, actors and volunteers help make each season happen. Smith describes it as a cauldron of talent. When he became the executive and artistic director, he took over for Alice Sherwood, who is the daughter of founders Lou and Mary James Criscuolo and now is company manager. Rounding out Smith’s core team is youth theater coordinator Jason Aycock, director Ray Kennedy and producer Tina Leak, who came aboard shortly after Smith.
“She’s been a driving force for fundraising and helping in that aspect, which is really important,” Smith says. “Ticket sales are amazing, and they’ve been great this whole summer, but you just can’t sustain a whole company that way.”
For 35 years Opera House Theatre Company has been one of the Cape Fear’s longest-running companies. Smith recalls somewhat of a resurgence of theater companies in the ’80s and early ‘90s, and again in the mid-’90s to mid-2000s, of which he attributes at least some to the thriving and growing area in general. However, the real influx of artists and actors in particular came with the film industry boom in the ‘90s.
While Hollywood East’s film industry isn’t what it once was and the Cape Fear region is seeing a natural attrition of companies and venues, the theater community is still thriving. There are usually two or three shows every weekend. In fact, as Smith and I sit in the almost empty theater, the lights dim and brighten as they are tested for an early August production of Billy Elliot: The Musical. Directed by Cathy Street, the story is about a young boxer with a passion for dance set to a score by Elton John. It’s one of many shows from OHTC’s 2019 season that Smith is particularly proud of.
There’s more to come before the end of the year. Smith is planning to bring Opera House into Brunswick County, and with it attention to Opera House and Thalian Hall and everything they haer to offer audiences.
“In October we’re looking to do a haunted little forest out in Leland,” Smith says. “We’re hoping to do it as a fundraiser for Opera House and nice thing for the city. Last year we did a preview at the Leland Arts Center, which was great. And we’ve done a lot down in St. James this year. One of our big goals is trying to find those inroads to Brunswick County.”
Looking ahead, Smith wants to keep with a true community theater-type model while also offering quality productions closer to what folks might see at the Wilson Center these days. “In other theaters, this would be on the low end of a regional theater but on the high end of community theater,” Smith clarifies.
“We’re trying to establish a new lane that leans a little more on the regional side of community theater,” he continues. “We will still involve the community, having auditions for the community, but this year, we’ve been fortunate enough to bring in people to fulfill needs and who have specific skill sets.”
Want to see a show?
Folks can keep an eye out for Opera House Theatre Company productions, as well as auditions, on their website at operahousetheatrecompany.org.