I was happy to have a chance to talk to the effervescent and accomplished Virginia Smith recently about her history with Still Point Theatre Collective. It was not a short conversation. Virginia first connected with Lisa Wagner-Carollo when Haunted By God: The Life of Dorothy Day was still being produced by Catholic Activist group Call To Action. Former Call to Action Executive Director Ray Wohl asked Virginia to re-work the original production of Haunted By God.
“There were three writers: Lisa, Bob McClory, and Paul Amandes. I immediately got rid of two of them,” Virginia quipped. “I said, ‘Lisa, you’re the actor. You’re too close to the material to make decisions about it.’ Bob was a journalist, and he had already contributed all of the factual information to make sure the play was historically accurate – so we didn’t need him anymore. That left Paul, and I worked with him. I told him where I thought the storyline needed more development, and he would write it… and I would cut it to shreds… (chuckles) I also decided that the show needed music. So I asked Paul to write all of the music that is in the play now.” Now, Virginia has a gentle, musical voice, and a ready smile and giggle – so when she recounts this story it doesn’t come across with any hard edges. This is part of Virginia’s gift – to be relentlessly staunch in communicating her interpretations of scripts and characters, in a style that is simultaneously supportive and convincing for her fellow artists. One always has the sense that she is absolutely clear about what choices will best serve the work.
I have heard several versions of this reworking of Haunted By God, and no matter who tells the story, the happy ending is the same. Under Virginia’s leadership and discerning eyes and ears, what was once a somewhat cumbersome play was honed into a beautifully written, acted, and staged one woman show. Lisa founded Still Point in 1993, and at that point the company took over the show’s production. This powerful portrait of beloved Catholic Activist Dorothy Day is still touring in 2015 – to enthusiastic audiences across North America.
For a number of reasons which include Lisa’s long-standing relationship with her, Virginia has been the first choice to direct Still Point plays throughout the years. Virginia directed Deep Listening and Living Water: The Story of St. Gabriel the Archangel Church. She also directed SPTC’s recent collaboration with Catholic Charities USA, Visionary at the Helm: The Bold Leadership of Monsignor John O’Grady, which enjoyed a successful debut at the Catholic Charities Annual Gathering in Omaha on September 11, 2015. These plays were all produced after Virginia had moved from Chicago to Nebraska to teach at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln – meaning that Virginia traveled to Chicago to work on the plays.
I asked Virginia what has driven her to continue working with Still Point over the years, given the distance and her full schedule. She explained that even while she was serving as the Artistic Director of Nebraska Repertory Theatre from 2005 to 2014 in addition to teaching at UNL – she liked having side jobs. A lot of theater work would have demanded more of a time commitment than she had to give with her standing professional obligations; but because Lisa has been willing and able to work around her schedule, Virginia was able to accept the projects.
“We also condense the process. We often do in a matter of weeks or months what might usually take years to accomplish, in terms of developing new work.” She credits some of that to the fact that there is a creative team that has been established for many years – Lisa, Virginia, and Designer Holly Windingstad have worked together for the past three shows, and I was a co-writer for the past two. I know what Virginia means when she points out the value of trust in the creative team.
Virginia also appreciates the opportunity to support Still Point’s mission in producing plays that are centered on topics of social justice and spirituality. To elaborate on her motivations, Virginia said, “I find Lisa and her work inspirational. There is always this blessed way that things come together for these plays – lots of lucky breaks and little blessings along the way.”
Virginia’s extensive background as a theater professional – not only as a Director, but also as a writer, an instructor, and an actor – gives her the perfect skill set to nurture and shape new work. Earlier this year, Virginia was recognized with a Mayor’s Choice Award for her work as AD of Nebraska Repertory Theatre, for acting and directing in numerous roles and productions in Lincoln, and for her contribution as an educator – reminding us that Virginia’s longstanding professional relationship with Still Point is a lucky break and, in fact, a rather big blessing for the company.