Stratford Festival actor E.B. Smith would love the opportunity to play a Jewish character, but he suspects his looks might hold him back.
“It’s been difficult for me because I am of African American decent,” he said, adding that while his mother is Jewish, his father was raised Southern Baptist.
“When the opportunity comes up to audition for traditionally Jewish roles, I’m usually not considered because I don’t look Jewish,” 29-year-old Smith said.
“Some directors are very apt to cast the right person regardless of appearance, but it’s a stigma I think you get more from audiences that come in expecting a certain thing, and if they don’t get [it], there is something that doesn’t ring true for them.”
Ironically, Smith, the third actor in a series of three Heebonics features on Jewish performers working at Stratford, said the Jewish tradition of storytelling is what helped flame his passion for theatre acting.
“I take from my Jewish heritage a very strong sense of storytelling and a communal essence of culture and identity… I enjoy the tradition of oral storytelling.
“I feel a very strong tie between that and Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s is a very Christian perspective, but I think, at the core of it, the tradition of it is very similar. I think, in that regard, [my Jewish upbringing] has helped me a lot.”
Smith, born in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was an active member of Cleveland’s Jewish community – he had a bar mitzvah and attended shul every Friday night – said his acting began as a hobby.
“In high school, I was dead set on going into the Naval Academy. One day, I got cast in The Crucible, in another high school around Cleveland. It was an all-girls school, so they needed boys,” he recalled.
“That was when I realized that it really kind of fit me.”
Following high school, Smith studied acting at Ohio University before moving to Chicago to work for the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.
Smith said it was a “mysterious” phone call that brought him to Stratford to work as an actor in the world-renowned Shakespeare festival last year.
“The festival actually found me. I was working at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, and I got a phone call one day that sounded very mysterious. And the voice said, ‘The Stratford Festival would like to see you audition.’
“I hadn’t applied, and I hadn’t asked for an audition, and it was all very strange. I asked, ‘How did you get this number?’
“And she said, ‘We have people,’” he recalled, laughing.
A year had passed before Smith got a callback from his audition, and then he was invited last year to become a member of the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre, a training program at Stratford that prepares young actors for classical theatre work.
About eight actors are chosen for the program, which runs from September to February, and the participants are paid and offered a contract for the festival’s following season.
In his Stratford debut, having completed his training with the conservatory earlier this year, Smith is currently playing Marquess of Dorset in Richard III, as well as Alarbus in Titus Andronicus. Both plays are running until the end of September.
“I don’t think there is any other place in the world like Stratford… The way this place creates theatre is really unique,” Smith said.
“The fact that it has four different performance spaces and that it has 12 plays running concurrently – it’s rather astonishing. From a logistical point of view and an actor’s point of view, the theatre is unsurpassed – it’s just immense in that way.”
Smith added that the talent of the actors involved with the theatre company is just as impressive.
“The cast in Richard III, I believe, is 20-something people, and they are all pros. And you don’t tend to find that depth of talent anywhere else,” he said.
“People with walk-on roles have the capability of playing any role in the show. And they are happy to do it because of whom they get to work with and they get to do it here. That makes this place very special.”
Smith credited his parents for giving him the freedom to pursue a career in the arts.
“My mother was a musician and a music teacher. And so from a creative aspect, she really understands what I do and why I like to do it.
“My father grew up a jock, and actually had the opportunity to play pro-ball for the Chicago Cubs. He understands it on a different level. He understands the idea of chasing your dreams and working your way up through the ranks.”
Smith said both his parents emphasized the idea that people should do what they love – as long as they’re good at it and can find a way to make a living doing it.
In addition to doing what he loves, Smith believes the performing arts are important for the overall health of society.
“I think it’s really important that we as a society, in the Jewish community and beyond, don’t lose the ability to entertain each other. We don’t need to turn on a TV to be entertained. I think we have stories within ourselves that we can impart.”