As a shy kid growing up, Tom Smith’s mother recommended he take an acting class in junior high to help get out of his shell. From there, everything changed.
“I had one of those teachers people talk about — a theatre teacher who made that class so amazing and wonderful and inspirational that it completely changed the course of my life,” said Tom Smith, the new artistic director of theatre at Pacific Lutheran University. “She saw something in me that I didn’t see myself. She was amazing and got me started on a lifelong passion for theatre.”
Smith joined PLU this fall after 16 years at New Mexico State University, including six as the theatre department head. He brings extensive experience in directing, improvisation, theatre management and playwriting.
Smith is ready for new challenges and hopes his background can further community involvement and program growth at PLU.
Coming from a large state university he’s excited for closer student interactions, smaller class sizes and the opportunity to work with highly motivated students.
“I believe there are things we can do artistically to supplement the fantastic theatre that is already going on in Tacoma and Lakewood,” he said. “I want to discover ways we can better connect the theater program to the community it is serving.”
Smith has three immediate goals: spend time with students, alumni and community members to find out what types of theatre interest them; examine the current curriculum to ensure it best prepares students for the profession; and grow the size of the program.
“I hope to better showcase the amazing work that’s being done at PLU, especially the student-driven work. I also want to build an audience that reflects the great quality of productions we do,” Smith explained. “It’s also important to me to highlight the aspects that are unique to our program — our connection to the community, our artistic perspective and the talents of our amazing faculty.”
Smith had always wanted to teach. It is in his blood: his grandmother, father and sister are all teachers.
Since his mother’s recommendation in junior high, Smith has never looked back. He participated in theatre in high school and his undergraduate years at Whitman College, where he graduated with a bachelor’s in dramatic arts and secondary education certification. He spent time attending and leading improvisation workshops and started his own improv troupe in college.
“I acted a lot in my first few years of college because that was all I had known. In high school, you acted. You didn’t design or direct,” Smith recalled. “When I realized I was overly-opinionated about acting — that I felt like I had ideas how other actors should be doing their roles — it became apparent to me that I should explore directing.”
He went straight to graduate school and earned his Master of Fine Arts in Directing from University of Missouri-Kansas City. After, he became a freelance director and traveled the country directing shows for nearly five years. In addition to directing, he also began an accomplished career in playwriting. His work as a playwright includes productions in 16 countries.
While working and directing for Creede Repertory Theatre, a summer theatre in Colorado, he found himself working with playwrights to edit big, complicated scripts to fit the needs of touring productions.
“Eventually, I told the artistic director that it would be easier to just write a script ourselves and he told me to do it,” Smith said. “I did, and that play was produced the following summer. It’s what really launched my playwriting career.”
Each summer after that, he wrote for more touring productions, and eventually realized he liked writing plays — not just for Creede Rep, but for other theatres as well. Like many playwrights, he’s best known for a handful of plays. His best-seller is a farce called Drinking Habits, about a group of nuns secretly making and selling wine. It’s been produced in more than a dozen countries and has been translated into five languages. His work has been performed in large U.S. cities such as Seattle, Kansas City, San Francisco and Chicago, as well as in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Holland, New Zealand, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
“It’s amazing to think that people in Latvia or Ireland or Australia are performing a play I wrote in a small coffee shop in the middle of New Mexico more than ten years ago,” Smith said.
After graduate school, he freelanced as a director for a few years, and eventually was hired to direct at New Mexico State University.
He served as head of the theatre department and achieved the rank of full professor. He was also awarded a Regents’ Professorship, which is the highest honor given to faculty.
This spring at PLU, Smith will make his PLU directing premiere with “Moon Over Buffalo” by Ken Ludwig in Eastvold Auditorium. The production will run May 11*, 12, 13, 19, 20 at 7:30 p.m. and May 21 at 2 p.m.
By Natalie DeFord ’16