Interview with Jeff Smith
By Tereza Pavlíková and Blanka Šustrová
Since Re:Views would be incomplete without interviews, we decided to introduce a member of the Department staff in every issue of the magazine and ask them about their work, interests and opinions. For the first issue we picked Jeff Smith, a scholar, theatre director, filmmaker – in short a truly Renaissance man. Jeff has been working at the Department for over a year. He told us about his work as well as the Gypsywood Players, theatre, Shakespeare and Lego animation.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up near Chicago in the suburbs, in the Midwest of the USA.
Yes. I had a lot of advantages growing up. My family’s not wealthy, but my parents were teachers. They encouraged reading; I like to read, and I read a lot as a kid. I was assured of getting a good education. I had very good public schools, and also scholarships to private universities and really I was well educated at every level, I was just extremely lucky that way, and I suppose it was maybe inevitable that I would end up working in education.
You studied other things as well, but why did you decide to study English Language and Literature?
When I was younger, I thought I would be studying something in the sciences. I actually was pushed that way, because when I was in primary school, there was a lot of encouragement for science education so that we’d win the Cold War. I was very interested in science, if you asked me when I was twelve – that time when NASA was flying people to the Moon – I would say that I wanted to be an astro-physicist or astronautical engineer or something like that.
But then I got to literature, I think that the bridge there was science fiction. I also had outstanding English teachers, generally outstanding teachers at high school. So I took a course in English literature and I took a course in Shakespeare, and I wrote papers that they liked. I’m sure I was doing it sort of amateurishly and like a teenager who was overestimating his own abilities, but other people perhaps were not even trying for that, so I got noticed that way and was strongly encouraged to apply for scholarships.
And after high school?
I went to a local, provincial university that my mother graduated from. I liked it for a lot of reasons – it was smaller, it had a great arts program and it was Lutheran and I grew up Lutheran, so it just felt culturally congenial. I got an outstanding education there and I was lucky at every level with my teachers and the encouragement that I got.
So at the university you went for an English Language and Literature major.
No, not even as late as my third year of university. I wasn’t planning to be an English major. I thought I was going to be a journalist or political scientist at that point, I was already working as a newspaper reporter for the local newspapers, even before I went to university, covering local politics and things like that. As I said I also studied some other things, but mostly I was taking humanities courses. I wanted to take art, history, politics and a wider range of courses that weren’t strictly speaking English department courses, but all you had to take was like two of their courses and then you could take a bunch of other interdisciplnary courses and get them credited to your English major.
That is clever! But apart from English, you studied at a film school, didn’t you?
I did eventually, in my thirties, get a graduate degree in a film school, because I was teaching at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), which happens to have one of the top rated film schools, because it’s right there by Hollywood, and I was able to do a degree in their program in the evening. So I taught during the day and I was a graduate student again in their program in the evenings. And after I finished that program – at that point I was in my mid-thirties – I did actually try to get work as a television writer. I got some encouragement on that too from people in the industry who saw my writing, but in the end it didn’t work out – it’s a very tough business. So at that point I had a master’s degree in English Language and Literature and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the film school, and had done the course work for the Ph.D., though I hadn’t taken any exams or done the dissertation. So I decided “Well, I guess I was not meant to be a TV writer, but to write other things,” and I’ve always had ideas for things I want to write, so maybe I’ll write novels, maybe I’ll write plays, but the first thing I’m going to do is the dissertation, get the Ph.D. So at least I have steady employment.
Why did you leave the U.S.?
The idea was not just to be somewhere else but also to get experience teaching literature and film, because the other jobs I had were teaching communications, business writing, writing for mass media, more practical sort of subjects. So I thought that if I’m going to be competitive for a professorship in the fields I actually studied, I need some experience teaching courses in those fields.
Have you had any teaching scholarships?
I had three Fulbright scholarships. The first one was as a graduate student to do research in the UK, in London. Which I went and I did do, but also while there, to have something to do other than sit in the libraries, I got involved with a theatre group, I ended up writing and directing some work for them, including a show that was produced at the theatre festival known as the Edinburgh Fringe. The second one was a teaching fellowship in Bulgaria. I was offered a regular appointment there and considered staying, but for various reasons chose not to at that time. When I was applying for the third one, I looked at several countries in Europe, looking for countries or universities that wanted someone to teach American Studies. There was interest from a university in Sweden, one in Estonia . . . but the most interest was from the KAA department in Ostrava. The chairwoman there, Renáta Tomášková, was really encouraging and offered me what sounded like an outstanding opportunity, so I took that one, and that’s what led to my being here, because when I arrived I got to know Jeff Vanderziel – he’s on the Fulbright commission for Czech Republic.
So you just bumped into Jeffrey Vanderziel and it was immediately clear that you were going to join the Department?
The critical thing was the fact that just by chance they needed an Americanist just as my appointment at Ostrava was ending. I learned this the day I came for the guest lecture here in Jeff’s class. And it came up accidentally, he wasn’t recruiting me for it. I was here to talk about cultural geography, but as we were chatting he learned that my original graduate training was in a literature department, and they needed someone to teach American literature. So I applied and I got it. I think it might have helped that I’m pretty close, I hope, to qualifying for promotion to docent. I mean on paper I’ve met most of the requirements. I’m working very hard now on a habilitation thesis that I hope will be really the last big hurdle there, and that’s an obligation I think I have to this department. Having docents helps the department, and I do feel like I owe them that, I owe them my very best effort.
What is the topic of your habilitation thesis?
I wish I could describe it as simply as I can describe the topic of my second book. But the topic of that book is the history of American presidents in fiction and film, the way they’ve been represented in the arts, and part of why I like that topic is that it can be explained in a sentence, which is very useful at cocktail parties. I’m not sure I have such a description for this one, although my best attempt would be that it’s about how certain movements in American Protenstantism in the 19th century influenced American literature. I hope, when it’s eventually published in some form, it will put a number of pieces together in a way that people haven’t seen them put together before, perhaps clarifying some things that are less clear when the writers in question are treated separately.
Aren’t you worried that after you will be docent, you will get more time for research and less time for teaching? Because that’s what’s going to happen.
Well, I’m going to continue to teach as much as possible until somebody finally tells me to stop, because I like to, especially now that I’m in a situation where I really can develop and teach courses that match my interests, rather than “This is what we need somebody to deliver even though we don’t really care about it, so here you go,” which was often the message in the less valued programs I’ve worked in in the past. Here I’ve been encouraged to come up with new topics. I like teaching, I’ll continue to teach and work with students as much as is reasonable given other duties. And second, I want to do what this department needs done. I want to be a good team player. And they definitely want me to be a docent, so I’m working hard on that.
You are in charge of the new BA thesis seminars, right?
Yes. As a graduate student at the University of Chicago I had been an assistant in a course that taught advanced writing. We assistants got a training course from the professors who designed the whole thing and then they supervised us while we taught little groups of undergraduates, so I thought why not to try it here with the BA students? I’m trying to actually serve three populations here, the bachelor students writing the theses, the Ph.D. students who are now delivering the instruction to them, and the faculty, who is going to see better bachelor theses and would find that a lot of questions that students would come to their supervisors with individually will be answered in this course. That’s my hope, so that that the professors have more time to do their research and can ignore the students (laughs). Just kidding!
Let’s move from the department business and talk about something more fun. Theatre! Do you have any favourite playwright? Or anything you would like to direct?
I like directing Shakespeare, and I’ve done it a couple of times already. I’ve directed Measure for Measure and Othello. Technically I was working with professional actors but these were small theatres, the actors were unknowns, I wasn’t directing the Royal Shakespeare Company and I couldn’t say “You know, I want Patrick Stewart here and Ian McKellen there, bring them to me! David Tennant, I need him as well.” I really didn’t have that, I had to make adjustments. I reedited Othello so it could be played by seven people. The original cast is like 20 people, but you find that lots of them are doing more or less the same thing, so you can put them together into fewer characters.
If you can reduce Richard III’s 48 characters to 10 we would love to see it.
I will think about that. At the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, I saw King Lear done by one man, a woman, and a rag doll. I’d be interested in directing Hamlet in a way that I’ve haven’t see it done, because Shakespeare was funny, and his tragedies are funny, and almost nobody gets that. “Oh it’s Shakespeare, oh it’s a tragedy, oh we must be super-serious at every moment”. And they just ruin it! So I would direct Hamlet so that it would be funny in the places where Shakespeare intended it to be. I think that Hamlet is best understood as an intellectual, he “thinks too precisely on the event,” I think that’s one of the lines. Hamlet would be a character who would be surrounded by books a lot of the time. I see his famous speech “To be or not to be” as him coming on stage reading two books. And he thinks “this writer says ‘to be’ and this one ‘not to be’” and then some of his lines are actually quoting the books, like “whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows . . . ” or “to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them”.
This “to be or not to be” scene sometimes tends to be quite melodramatic, especially when amplifying the suicidal attitude.
That’s what they do exactly. I think he’s dealing with a philosophical problem, and he’s got contending philosophies in front of him at that moment, represented by books. I’ve never seen that done. Hamlet eventually becomes man of action and he fights this great swordfight. The greatness of Shakespeare is this amazingly fluid ability to just put all these elements in play, there’s action, there’s comedy, there’s philosophy, there’s poetry, there’s music, there’s mystery and suspense, I mean all of it at once, sometimes in the same scene.
Apart from directing, have you ever had any acting ambitions?
Well we did a regular Hamlet at school, I played Guildenstern, and it was a classic, and although I love the professor who directed it, he made it the standard tragedy, there was not one funny line, and it was four hours long.
Like Kenneth Branagh’s version.
Yes. So it was not a great production, but I got to play Guildenstern in a full Renaissance costume, with the tights and all . . . and I tried to convince the director to stage Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and put me and my buddy who played Rosencrantz back in those roles, and he clearly thought it was beyond us. I don’t remember the exact words, and he put it kindly, but what he meant was: “You can’t possibly do that play”.
You told us at the Gypsywood Players rehearsal that you’ve worked with Bill Bailey. What was it like?
Bill Bailey was young, unknown and he was the musical director of my original musical about John Belushi, an American comedian who died young from a drug habit. Bill was a genius! I mean it was obvious, what he could do with music. You just said: “Bill, can you give me something that sounds a bit like Shostakovich but also with a kind of a jazz riff and transpose it into A minor, please?” and he just boom boom boom! There it was. I never actually asked for that . . . but if I had, he would’ve done it.
You are currently the artistic director of The Gypsywood Players. Was it your idea to stage Animal Farm this year or was there any other reason?
Oh there is a major reason, there is a huge reason! I’m pleased you asked. Because I want everybody to know this. It’ll be in the program notes too. The Gypsywood Players have existed for almost 50 years. Next year will be the golden anniversary. Jeff Vanderziel and also Tom Kačer told me this history. Jeff is very proud of it. And he also told me that they did Animal Farm in 1989 and happened to be performing it just at the time of the Velvet Revolution. And it became kind of a local event. So I thought, why don’t we do a revival of that legendary production of Animal Farm? It’s for the history.
Animal Farm is a musical. Were there any problems about the staging?
It was written for the National Theatre of Great Britain which has resources we don’t have. At the audition meeting, it was looking a little questionable. At that point I had 2 musicians, no musical director, and 5 people who said they could sing and only one was male and not enough actors for all the roles that were written in the script. So I’m really pleased that more people have come forward, I think our musicians recruited other musicians and other singers and they’re doing spectacularly well. We will even have original music composed just for this production.
But I have to say I didn’t pick it because it was a musical. If the original 1989 production had not been a musical, I still would have picked it.
You’ve mentioned you studied film at UCLA. Have you ever thought about shooting a movie?
I did make a short movie, actually.
You did? Can we get a link?
No, because this was before we digitalized everything. I need to find it and dig it out of the storage garage in Los Angeles where most of my earlier posessions are currently stored. I haven’t been back to LA since 2012, but I mostly stuffed things into a garage and just came here with what I needed. The short film is a parody of Michael Snow’s experimental movie Wavelength from 1967, it was a graduate school exercise, really. Wavelenght is 45 minutes of a camera tracking and zooming across a room to a photograph of the ocean. It’s interesting but kind of pretentious. So I made a parody, a 10 minute comic parody called Shortwave. I could dig it out and digitalize it one of these days. The same things that happen in Wavelength happen in Shortwave but played for humor. The thing I was proudest of was one monent, when a man, played by myself, because it was just me and a couple of friends doing the whole thing, falls out of a window. I couldn’t for some reason just fall out of the window, maybe because it was too high, so I had to do this with special effects. This was very primitive and crude and I had no money, because I was a graduate student, but what happens is that I lean out the window, I appear to lose my balance and then we see what appear to be my legs disappearing on the other side of the window but it’s just a stuffed pair of blue jeans. But people who’ve seen the film didn’t know that. They thought I fell out of the window. I was really proud of that.
You’ve shown your classes examples from YouTube of classic stories remade as Lego stop motion animation. Why are you so fascinated with those?
Because it’s astonishing to me that – well maybe somebody would do that, because somebody out there would do anything – but there’s this whole industry! What is that about?! How did it happen? How did I never hear about it? It was just by accident because I was going to talk about Beowulf in my Literature in Performance course, so I go on Youtube to see what people have done with Beowulf besides that Angelina Jolie movie and . . . oh! Legos! I think it’s a phenomenon that somebody should explain. And I think it could be a great topic for a master’s thesis. (smiles)
Do you like Brno as a city?
Yes, I do.
That was quick.
It’s a beautiful city. I mean . . .
Even the clock on Svoboda square?
The clock is interesting. It doesn’t overwhelm the space. Look, I spent a long time in LA, where Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall completely takes over a whole part of downtown, with this entirely weird look. Basically, he makes every building look like a wadded-up old piece of toilet paper. My theory is he takes a tissue, he blows his nose, he tosses away and he draws it and says: that’s my next building. I like classic architecture. I like what I see when I walk around the streets here. And when you say the clock . . . It’s one little thing! If Frank Gehry got to work on the square, half of it would look like a wadded toilet tissue.
In LA, we have minimalls. There’s hundreds of these in LA only. Crowded little parking lot because you’ve got to have a parking lot because it’s LA, and nobody goes anywhere except by car! The minimall is like 6 shops. (draws a diagram) Dry-cleaners, a pawn shop, a donut shop, one may be a Subway franchise and that’s like the classy thing. And one is a beauty salon. That’s the landscape of LA. And then there’s thousands and thousands of the apartment buildings like the one I lived in for a long time. Which was nice in some ways . . . I mean it was quiet, it was well located, but they all look like cheap motels. Some of them have swimming pools and palm trees. Those are the nicer ones you see in the movies. But there’s many others, one or two steps down from there, like the one I lived in. And I lived in it because it allowed me to live in a neighborhood that I couldn’t otherwise afford. It’s like those buildings in the movies, where criminals live or where police go to arrest somebody or where’s a drug deal is happening or whatever. They are the last thing that is architecturally interesting. They are built just to be entirely functional.
Well, that is quite different from the historical buildings here.
In my appartment I have a view over to the cathedral from the bedroom window! And I see a castle from my office! The view from my office in LA was the heating ducts on the roof of the building. The birds that landed on it, and sometimes they came into the office itself. Maybe I’m easy to please, but no, I like it here.
Did you experience a cultural clash when you first came to the Czech Republic?
Yes. Everybody speaks Czech and I don’t.
Are you learning Czech?
Would you like to?
Sure I’d like to but I will never learn it at the necessary level of fluency. I could learn enough to have simple conversations, though. I find it a real struggle to learn foreign languages. My excuse is I’ve only been here for two years. I haven’t really experienced any cultural clash here but I can tell you funny stories about living with the British.
Well, tell us.
Ok, I’ll tell you one from the theatre. I’m directing some kind of comedy sketches and musical numbers. Small cast. We were always rehearsing under pressure because the sketches for this particular revue were based on events in the news. We got scripts on Tuesday morning and had to perform them on Tuesday night. We’re working on it, a musical dance number, and there was the choreographer and the musical director. And their job is to work something out, show it to me and I’m supposed to say “yeah, do that” or “no, change it this way”. I don’t have to know anything about music or dance myself, the more I know the better but I just need to be able to articulate my reaction and on this particular occasion I had trouble articulating my reaction. So the choreographer shows me the steps and I’m just like “naaah”. I don’t have a very distinct reaction. And all the other people present fall into an attempt to interpret what was I saying.
So I’m sitting there and they’re having an argument about what I think and I’m the one person who can’t really contribute to it because they’re having it in British English (laughs). So one faction argues that I don’t like the number because I think it’s “eggy” and the other faction says I don’t like it because it’s “naff”. They’re having an active debate about it, and the one person who can’t help them is me because I don’t understand them.
Well, George Bernard Shaw did say that England and America are two countries separated by a common language.
That’s true. Nevertheless, the biggest cultural clash I’ve ever experienced was at a French hospital. That was one week of one massive cultural clash. I was in France trying to learn French, and I came down with apendicitis and needed to go to a hospital. I thought, well, I can just go up the street, it was a city, Montpellier, famous for its medical education. Hospitals everywhere. I had passed a hospital several times on the street. It’s four in the morning and I’m in severe abdominal pain. I go to the hospital, there’s some guy on night duty, not a medical person. I’m struggling with any French at all, I can say maybe five words. I have a dictionary on me, I look up how to say: “I’m in pain”. So I go to the guy, point at my midsection and say “mal”. I didn’t know enough French to read the signs, and it turns out I’m in the maternity hospital! So even this night security guard could tell that I was probably not in labor. He quickly ruled that out. He calls an “ambulance” that’s more like a delivery wagon and gets me to the real hospital.
I don’t know whether or not I’m particularly good at adjusting to other cultures. Maybe as I grow older I just find that I would rather live in a nice place, and in most cases it happens not to be in America. But I’ll just do what I need to fit in there, at least not to be a problem for the people here because it’s important to me to be able to live here and also not to make myself unwelcome. I want people to be pleased that I’m there. I assume when there’s a cultural clash, it’s my fault. It’s not like everybody else should be adjusting to me. And yet it seems they do because everybody speaks English to me. Which is really nice of them.
Well, we guess that’s it! Is there anything we haven’t asked you and you want us to?
Not really. I mean I’m really happy to be here. It’s just been the greatest opportunity I’ve ever had in my career. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. And I’ve done some interesting work in the past, I think, even including the theatre job and journalism.
I like the people here. The thing about academic work is that you don’t interact as much with your co-workers as you do in some other jobs, because you’re all given your particular, quite different assignments. Especially if you’re doing research, it can be pretty solitary. So I do like the fact that I’ve had the opportunity to team-teach together with some colleagues. I didn’t really get the chance to do that in the past. It’s interesting to approach a big problem, like how to teach a certain subject, along with a group of other people. But mainly it’s what I’ve been allowed to do, the freedom I’ve been given, and how closely the duties I’m given track with what I’m interested in anyway. This is what makes this job great. It doesn’t feel like work. I would get up in the morning and do this anyway. But they’re paying me to on top of it! I get to do what I like doing anyway.
Thank you for the interview. We’re lucky to have you.
Well, I’d like that view to become as widespread as possible. (laughs)
That’s why you’re in the first issue.
Oh, really? I’m really pleased to hear that. I would like everybody to have the feeling that they’re glad I’m here, and I’m going to work really hard to see to that.
Jeffrey A. Smith, M.F.A., Ph.D.
- 2006: Ph.D., English Language and Literature, University of Chicago
- 1993: Master of Fine Arts, School of Theater, Film and Television, University of California at Los Angeles
- 1981: M.A., English Language and Literature, University of Chicago
- 1980: B.A. with High Distinction, English (minors: Humanities, German), Valparaiso University