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NMSU theatre department head forges a new path with Center for the Arts

At age seven, Tom Smith stood at the center of a backyard stage where he had a starring role in summertime plays created by his sisters. Entertaining friends for a nickel, he said the trio never really needed the money; they just liked making it. The youngest of three, Smith collected the laughs while his sisters collected the nickels.

A man in front of a woman gesturing with his right hand
Tom Smith, theater arts department head and professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, left, works with a student on the main stage at the Hershel Zohn Theatre on campus. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

"I was never allowed to be the director of the piece, but I was always the one who could get big laughs, because I was always the one who could be very over the top and get big responses from people." Smith said. "And I became really addicted to that sort of recognition."

Today, Smith commands the stage at New Mexico State University's Center for the Arts. As the academic head for the theatre arts department, he oversees the academic courses and hires the theater faculty. He also manages the theater's production season, where students gain practical experience in acting, directing and design.

Originally from Redmond, Wash., Smith came to NMSU as a freelance director through the American Southwest Theatre Company's guest artist program in 1998. A full professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, Smith teaches directing, playwriting, acting and improvisation.

"At that point in time, I thought this was kind of fate," Smith said. "I happened to be here directing, and I always knew at some point I wanted to go into academia and teach, and the timing worked out really well."

As a kid with the knack for comedy, Smith starred in many classroom productions growing up but by the time he entered junior high, things had changed for him. Without being on stage, he no longer felt popular, so he auditioned for a play.

"And I had this absolutely fantastic theater teacher in junior high, who was incredibly inspirational," Smith said. "I used to go there after school and talk to her about plays and theater and things, and she had all the time in the world for me. She really changed my direction in what things I was passionate about, so from that point on, I was hooked on theatre."

Smith earned a bachelor's in theater, plus secondary education certification, in 1991 from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. During his senior year, he discovered a passion for directing and applied to graduate school, earning an MFA from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1994.

"The biggest misperception that people have is that if you major in theater, all you can do is theater," Smith said. "So, if you're not very good at it, then you've wasted an entire degree. We always look at it as not just providing you job opportunities, but more importantly providing you job skills."

Smith pointed to creative problem solving, meeting deadlines and collaboration as job skills provided with the theater degree.

An award-winning playwright, Smith finds inspiration from news events, interesting people or just things happening in the moment.

"Sometimes I sit in a coffee shop, and I just eavesdrop on conversations, and I think to myself, 'How did this couple get to this point?" Smith said. "Then I'll create a story that sort of justifies this moment that I'm seeing in real life."

His published works include "A Christmas Carol," "Drinking Habits" and "What Comes Around..." among others.

He is the recipient of the Robert J. Pickering Award for Excellence in Playwriting, the Playworks Award, the Orlin R. Corey Outstanding Regional Playwright Award, the Richard Odlin Award, and a Seattle Footlights Award.

Smith's personal favorite of the plays he has written is titled "Eurydice and Orpheus." It is based on a story from Greek mythology about the nature of love and longing.

"It became really fascinating for me that I was able to sort of graft some contemporary ideas on to this work that is 600 years old, and adapt it to modern sensibilities," Smith said. "I was really proud of that play, and I was really proud of the ideas explored in that play. It's the kind of play as an audience member that I would be really intrigued about."

He said he strives to provoke discussion from the audience immediately following a performance.

"If they want to go grab a cup of coffee somewhere or some dessert, and talk about the play, I feel like I've been really successful," Smith said. "If they can just go home and not think about it again, I feel like I've been able to distract them, but I haven't really been able to entertain them."

The highlight of Smith's career came with the opening of NMSU's Center for the Arts where he had a front row seat on the project that began several years ago.

"To see it go from ideas we talked about in a room to actually come to life," Smith said. "That's kind of a once in a lifetime thing. It's very rare that you get a theater building built in your lifetime, and when you do, you usually have very little say in it."

"No matter what, if I'm remembered for nothing else, I'll know in my heart of hearts that I have a little bit of my thumb print somewhere in this building," Smith said.

Smith said marketing and publicity for the Center for the Arts are his biggest challenges. He believes that while the Las Cruces community understands visual art, music and dance, the theater might still feel foreign to them. He said there have been shows that made him extremely proud, yet audience attendance was small.

"I don't think that people think of going to see a play as an option on the weekends the same way that they do to go see a movie," Smith said.

"Picasso at the Lapin Agile," a quirky play by funnyman Steve Martin, is the next production on stage in the Center for the Arts. Set in a Parisian bar, a chance meeting between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein have them challenging each other's ideas about art, science, life and love. The show will run April 19 to May 5. Smith will play a supporting role in the production.

Next season's productions include a mix of comedies and dramas, beginning with "Red," which won the 2010 Tony award for Best Play. Then, "James and the Giant Peach," will be run free of charge for Las Cruces Public Schools. "A Christmas Carol," which the theater department runs every three years, will be presented as a musical version.

In spring 2014, Smith has "Aunt Raini," planned. This is a play Smith wrote about "Leni" Riefenstahl, the official documentarian for Adolph Hitler. Closing the season will be "The Misanthrope," a period comedy about a man who demands his friends speak to him honestly, no matter the cost.

Smith's work has been produced at national and international levels, but he is hoping for a run on the Broadway stage.

"It's not that I'm not happy with where my career has taken me, but I know the focus for me right now is to try and get my work out there more, and to become more prominent as a playwright and an artist," Smith said. "Ultimately I think something like that will best serve the students and the institution."