Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Barry Smith is laughing
I’m what is known as a “working artist,” which is a noble euphemism for “not famous.” About 6 years ago I quit my day job to try my hand at making a living performing my multimedia comedy shows. Since then I’ve been consistently performing in small theatres, theatre festivals and colleges across the US and Canada – all as a “working artist,” meaning my time on the road hasn’t exactly been a blur of 5-star hotels and rock star excess. Case in point: at the moment I’m writing this from a Ramada Inn in South Carolina. From my hotel window I can see a waffle house and a fireworks stand, both of them boasting a glowing “OPEN 24 HOURS” sign. Probably the exact same thing Bono sees when he looks out his hotel room, right?Lucky for me, I happen to be a fan of both waffles and fireworks. In a few hours I’ll be on stage at a downtown theatre, but before that I’ll spend the better part of the day in my hotel room, working on various projects. A few hours before I head to the theatre I’ll rehearse my show, pacing back and forth and muttering aloud. This, after all, is my job. Tempted as I am, I’ll abstain from the waffles and fireworks. I flew to this gig, and will fly home the following morning, but sometimes I travel in my van. I decided that if I was going to have a job that required being “on tour,” there was no way I wasn’t going to have a van. I bought a used Dodge, a lumbering behemoth with a carbon footprint that would make Sasquatch jealous. To me, being on the road in a van is pretty luxurious, though nobody else is likely to look at my van and think “luxury.” They’re more likely to think, “Is that seriously a CB radio?” Or “Is it supposed to smell like that?” Yes. And yes. For the first year of touring my van had this pesky habit of spontaneously not running. I’d be on the highway, going with the flow of traffic, then would notice that I was lagging behind a bit. Tapping on the gas to catch up I’d realize, hey … the engine is dead! And I’m still, technically, driving! Over the past few years I’ve replaced enough van engine parts that this doesn’t happen anymore. And yes, the CB actually works, so smokey reports are at my fingertips.
• • • •Before I left on my first tour I called up a friend who tours with a ballet company to ask him for some generic on-the-road advice. He didn’t even have to think about it: “Eat when you can, sleep when you can,” he said.That seemed pretty simplistic, and I kinda though he was joking, but now I get it. I’m not always sure where I’ll be sleeping while on tour – sometimes it’s the van, sometimes a hotel, and sometimes it’s a stranger’s couch. The theatre festivals where I perform during the summers will arrange accommodations for the artists, and these are always with members of the community. So I get a spare room, or a couch, or a pile of blankets on the living room floor. And I usually get a new friend out of the deal. It’s pretty bold to open up your house – often for weeks! – to someone you’ve only exchanged a few e-mails with. My fellow “working artists” sometimes like to swap horror stories about the places they’ve been housed, but I’ve only had good luck so far, and nobody seems to want to hear about that. A few years ago one of the people I was scheduled to stay with got called away on a family emergency just before I got to town. She e-mailed me saying sorry, she won’t be there when I arrive, but the key’s in the mailbox, make yourself at home, I’ll be back in a week. Now, I’ve lived in small towns for much of my life, so I know this kind of trusting hospitality happens, but it’s nice to be reminded that it’s happening in other parts of the world as well.As for eating while on tour, well, if you’re holding out for organic, free range, grass fed, hormone-free … anything … you may want to always have a snack with you.Still, you can only eat Cliff Bars for dinner so many times before you get hungry enough that you’ll even eat Poutine, the Canadian staple that consists of a pile of fries, brown gravy and cheese curd. They say you eat with your eyes first. Bad idea when it comes to Poutine, as it looks like something a grass-fed, hormone-free animal just threw up. As if there were any doubt, I’ve now totally talked myself out of waffles.Because of my “working artist” status, I don’t get whisked away to an over-stocked green room after my show. (In fact, I still find it surreal when I see my name on a dressing room door.) This means I’m not secluded from the people who come to see me perform. I sometimes do a Q&A after a performance, as well as getting to talk with people one on one. Because my shows are about personal things, like all the crappy jobs I’ve had or my misguided spiritual quests, people often want to share their stories with me. To me, this is the best part of being on the road. It’s one thing to visit another place and see new faces, but in this context people want to come up and connect with me, to share some part of themselves, to tell me a bit of their story. And who are these people? In a world overflowing with entertainment options, they’ve come out to see some guy they’ve never heard of do a comedy show about his life. It’s these sort of people who make it possible for there to even be such a thing as a “working artist.” I also get to meet and work with an ever-changing cast of theatre owners, student body members, artistic directors, technicians, volunteers, ushers and all the many people it takes to make a “solo” show happen. As much as I love performing, it sometimes feels secondary, as if if the real point is the interactions and opportunities for connection. • • • •I wasn’t trained to be a performer. No theatre school, no high school drama club, no community theatre – unless you count my appearance in Aspen Community Theatre’s production of “The King and I.” I don’t count this, as I played a cloud. So I’m figuring this all out as I go. Besides the eat/sleep advice, nobody told me how to be on tour, or even how to be on stage. It’s been hardcore trial and error, and it’s difficult for me to imagine learning such things any other way. I’m still relatively new to this career, but I’ve heard other far more seasoned performers confirm this: the nature of live performance is that no two shows will ever be alike. Ever. The differences may be subtle, and not always bad, but they will be there. I experienced this way back during my second ever performance, where the audience wasn’t quite as lively as the previous night. I was confused by this. Last night that joke was funny, but tonight … blank stares. The next night, third show ever, it was funny again. Isn’t funny always funny? Every time? What happened?This mystified me for quite a while, until I read some of Mark Twain’s letters to his wife. Like me, he was also on the road, telling personal, funny stories in venues across the country. But unlike me, he didn’t use Powerpoint. And, also unlike me, he was Mark Twain! In one letter he was complaining about how the people at his show just stared dumbly, and how he was fed up with this business, ready to give up performing altogether. Mark Twain bombed! The next letter told of the howls of laughter and approval and thunderous applause that last night’s show received. I have to assume he was telling the same stories at each show. After reading this I realized that if Mark Twain was having this experience more than 100 years ago, I’d better settle into it, ’cause this is how it is.And now that I’ve settled in, I appreciate the difference in experiences. Many of my gigs are at theatre festivals, where I have no say in what my venue will be like or what the performance times will be. This means that sometimes I’ll have to do a Tuesday afternoon show in a middle school gymnasium with folding chairs, and other times I’ll do a prime time Friday night show in a state-of-the-art 300-seat air conditioned theatre. Often in the same week. And I’ve had good shows and not so good shows in both settings. And sometimes the shows I thought were not so good were ones that people later commented on having really enjoyed. And vice versa. I’ve been so wrong about this stuff in the past that it’s shocking.It could be that being on the road not only means that some things are out of my control, but also none of my business.• • • •There’s a lot of down time on the road, so I invent weird little art projects to keep myself occupied and engaged. Most of them involve documenting my time on the road, which means I take lots of photos. Lots. In addition to the obligatory me-standing-in-front-of-stuff shots, I also like to photograph the scenery. Except that I have my own specific definition of “scenery.” I like signs on the sides of dumpsters, and signs on doors, and signs in public bathrooms. I take pictures of all the good ones. And other stuff, as well. Unremarkable stuff. The food I eat, the places I sleep, my van broken down on the roadside, graffiti, posters stuck to phone poles. For me, it’s all about seeing all this minutiae – life’s literal snapshots – as art. It’s this weirdo approach that’s led me to this performing gig to begin with, so there’s no reason to stop now. Just because my life on the road isn’t taking me to far off exotic lands (on offense, South Carolina) doesn’t mean that each experience isn’t unique and precious. Friends I meet along the way are always teasing me about my excessive photo snapping. I’ll whip my camera from my pocket and take 10 pictures of something that most people wouldn’t look twice at. I see their point, but to me it seems unthinkable to walk past a sign on a door that reads, “This door is about to hit you in the face” and NOT take a picture of it. What kind of life would that be?• • • •Later…Tonight’s show was in a brand new 100-seat black box theatre. The crowd was responsive and enthusiastic, and I got to chat with people afterwards; then I went to dinner with some of the people who run the theatre. We talked about art and music and movies and comedy and books and tech gear and … yeah, one of those great evenings on the road. They liked my show and said they’ll have me back soon to do it again. So I’ll get to come back to this theatre, to reunite with my new friends, and, if all goes well … I’ll get me some fireworks and waffles.
Local co-curator and host Alya Howe will be presenting this years’ offering entitled “Optimism and Activism” on Saturday Jan. 28th at The Launchpad in Carbondale, featuring six new and returning performance artists from Iran, Nigeria, Mexico, and the US featuring poetry, music, dance, film, comedy, and opera.