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After writing her way through the pandemic, her work is taking the stage — or the stream

  • Playwright Marisa Smith's most recent play "The Naked Librarian" is an hour-long series of monologues and is streaming via Northern Stage until Nov. 29. She is photographed at her home in West Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Actor Caitlin Deerin works with Northern Stage Sound/AV Engineer Clif Rogers during the filming of a scene of "The Naked Librarian" at Treasure Island in Fairlee, Vt., in late October. Due to the pandemic, Marisa Smith's play is streaming to audiences from Nov. 12-29, 2020. (Courtesy Northern Stage)

  • Diane J. Findlay is the character Goosie in Marisa Smith's "The Naked Librarian," streaming to Northern Stage audiences from Nov. 12-29, 2020. (Courtesy Northern Stage)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/21/2020 10:26:03 PM
Modified: 11/21/2020 10:25:48 PM

An hour’s conversation with playwright Marisa Smith leaves an interviewer with the impression that she personifies a word not much in use today: heterodox.

The dictionary definition is fussy and technical: “not conforming with accepted or orthodox standards or views.” It’s not the opposite of orthodox, but a broad-minded rejection of it.

“I’m always struggling to find what I really believe,” Smith said, after a rambling discourse that touched on President Donald Trump, President-elect Joe Biden, gender-neutral bathrooms, the role of society, despotism, man-bashing, the Confederate flag, gay marriage and “the general state of the world.”

There isn’t much room in the public sphere for muddling through, making public statements that one might later have to retract under pressure from some outraged faction or another.

Smith, whose most recent play, The Naked Librarian, an hourlong series of monologues, is now streaming as part of Northern Stage’s Tiny Necessary Theatre, does believe in one thing, which for a playwright is more important than any doctrine.

She believes that people are endlessly interesting, and her new show puts that belief on display.

The show opens with the title character, who’s sitting on a bench in Central Park, reading a book. Looking into the camera, as if being interviewed for an oral history project, Goosie tells the story of the love of her life, when she lived on a beach in Mexico with her boyfriend, Pumpernickel. They were young and in love, but Pumpernickel’s sense of duty led him away.

From that opening story, the remaining monologues lead viewers down the generations. The play was a kind of potboiler for Smith, something to work on between full-length plays.

“I think it’s really important to keep writing,” she said.

It came from an idea she’d been kicking around, that a person’s love life reverberates beyond their own life span.

“To know yourself, it’s important to know your ancestors,” Smith said.

It would be giving away too much about The Naked Librarian to name the characters who deliver the subsequent monologues, but there are ties thicker than blood between the first one and the last.

The idea for the play was prompted by two friends of hers who did indeed drop out of their lives and spent a year on a beach in Mexico. Other details are drawn from life, but only as details. Smith’s mother once had a boyfriend who was known as Pumpernickel, for example.

Smith brought the play to Northern Stage with only three of the monologues written. She developed and wrote the final one in collaboration with director Jess Chayes, the company’s BOLD associate artistic director, a position funded by a grant program headed by Carol Dunne, Northern Stage’s artistic director

“It was great,” Chayes said of working with Smith. She had also directed Smith’s play Venus Rising at Northern Stage last year. “What I love about it was that it felt like a true collaboration.”

Chayes specializes in bringing new work to the stage, and she has seen the full range of playwright behavior, including those who refuse to alter a single line at the suggestion of an actor or director.

“I think Marisa has a very strong backbone of character and who the characters are,” Chayes said. Within that, she’s open to suggestions.

Smith has also had a broader range of life experiences than many of the playwrights she’s worked with, Chayes said.

An only child raised by a liberal mother whose own parents were Italian immigrants, and a conservative father from Ohio who taught psychology at Dartmouth College, Smith has a rich family life to draw on. She and her ex-husband Eric Kraus still run Smith & Kraus, a publishing house specializing in theater. She moved into her family home in West Lebanon in 2016, and she and Kraus were divorced in 2018.

Family and relationships are at the heart of nearly all her work, with a side of politics.

“I’ve always loved politics, because politics is the theater of the world,” she said.

The Naked Librarian is, mercifully, politics-free. Each of the four monologues was filmed in a different location and from a range of angles. Often, the actor speaks directly into the camera. It isn’t a movie and it isn’t television. It’s meant to unfold in one sitting, though a viewer can pause the play and resume. There’s no rewinding though. This isn’t YouTube, but is it theater if you’re watching at home?

“Ugh. I’m very grateful that I got the opportunity to do anything in this time,” Smith said. “However, I really miss the theater.” There was only one day of rehearsal “in real life,” Smith said. The rest was done via Zoom.

In person, “you actually feel the energy and the connection and the physical juice between the actor and the audience that brings it to life,” she said.

The pandemic has been a busy time, nonetheless. She had a short play in the Boston Theater Marathon, in May.

“I hate to admit it, in a way, but it’s been a very productive period for me,” Smith said.

Among the plays she’s working on is a commission from Northern Stage, which she called her “artistic home.”

“The first thing I did when I came here was call Marisa and ask her what she was writing,” Dunne said. Smith has now had multiple shows at Northern Stage, including Mad Love and Venus Rising.

The commissioned play is a two-hander set in the COVID-19 era. The idea emerged almost as soon as the state of emergency descended, Dunne said. People are going through pain and suffering, but “on the other hand, we’ve learned a lot about how we’re trying to live our lives.”

Smith is a rara avis among contemporary playwrights: “No one writes comedy anymore,” Dunne said. Older comedies are harder to produce, because they have so many characters, so theaters leave them behind.

“We need a sense of humor, I think, in the United States,” Dunne said. “We need to be able to laugh at our mistakes.”

Smith agrees. The 17th-century French playwright Moliere is a favorite, because he “was always taking aim at the hypocrisies of society.”

She’s also at work writing a play called Outrage, something anyone who’s looked at social media is well aware of. What she thinks of it is a work in progress, but there will be funny characters in it. Of that we can be sure.

The Naked Librarian is available for streaming through Nov. 29 as a double bill with On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco, by Anton Chekhov and starring Gordon Clapp. For tickets: northernstage.org.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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