A Conversation with Keith Randolph Smith
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with actor Keith Randolph Smith (Class of 1986) as part of our salute to Black History Month. His career, namely in the theatre, has always impressed me, and his work ethic and craftsmanship has made him one of the most powerful forces of the American theatre. The conversation didn't disappoint.
You’ve had a great career and been a part of countless theatre productions. But even for the best ones, there comes that time when they just aren’t working. What have you done during those times to stay inspired, to stay “in shape” so to speak?
Well, it’s a balance. You have to find some way to maintain your personal balance, I believe. However that plays out for you, because there isn’t necessarily a perfect “one-size fits all" way of doing it. You experience things, and you find what works for you… I have so many, I guess, tools that I’ve picked up from so many people along the way, just from experience.
So do you really find the idea of experience and “living a life” to be essential?
This thing [acting] is an engaging way to live life. We work on ourselves because ourselves are our tools—we have voice, heart, mind, spirit. It’s funny, when I hear from high school students and middle school students that they want to be an actor, I tell them this: “Get rid of every idea you have about acting, because it’s not necessarily about the lights and show!” You know, there’s a business element to it—if you don’t have any money, it’s hard to live.
So, keep in mind that the entertainment industry is at times just that: an industry?
Yeah. You gotta have a place to live, you gotta have a phone, some kind of internet connection so that agents can contact you, and all that. And then if you’re not acting, you still have to have somewhere you’re getting money… and that experience. And who knows, the experience may inform your acting work. So, I’d say that you gotta be present, you always gotta be present… Even when it can be soul sucking, spending all these hours doing something that you don’t want to do, but then eventually you can do something you wanna do.
What about beyond your life. Do you find politics, history, and what’s happening in the world to be important to you?
Those things, yeah, they affect me in the way that I understand the world. I try to read so that I can be informed about what’s going on. There are so many things: criminal justice interests me, social justice interests me—and that includes everything: gender rights, women’s rights, human rights, and those things affect my heart, mind, and spirit, and I’m sure that it threads in through my work. And another thing, I love doing new plays. I love workshopping and seeing what writers are curious about, seeing what questions they’re asking, because chances are I’m interested in that too. And sometimes it will affect what I choose to do.
In terms of selecting material, which you’ve been lucky enough to do, is there ever a time that you approach text that you don’t totally connect with? Then what?
You always want to be of service. So, how best can you serve this story? Collaboration is important too… I’m not interested in marionette theatre, like a whole bunch of puppets on stage! I have a heart, I have a mind, so I like to collaborate on things. I don’t believe there are bad playwrights or bad actors, but we’re all just trying to work on our craft… we’re working and building our skills. There’s only two things you are in control of: being on time and being prepared. So be there and be open to the moment.
There it is: preparation is essential. Always coming into the room ready to go.
It’s a skillset, acting is a skill, and you have to practice it. You don’t immediately come out of the womb and you’re Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky! You work and you practice and train, and yes, some of it is natural talent, but it’s usually the better players that practice harder and longer and better. So always do the work!
Is there a specific way you like to work, and a particular process you follow?
There’s a lot of ways in, you know. I was taught at The Academy; objective, place, relationships, and that… you know one of the first things I learned was Respect for Acting by Uta Hagen… and even now, sometimes you just gotta go back and read it! Thank god for those people who wrote down their knowledge and experience. That’s part of that service: you have something to pass down to people. And what you do is—and this is something Harriet Tubman said to enslaved people she was leading to freedom—is this: “Just don’t stop.” And that’s completely true of acting.
In the spirit of not stopping: where can we next see you?
In the spring, COVID permitting, I’ll be in a show with Roundabout Theatre Company, and I’ve been sending in tapes for different series and films and all that… I’ll be around.