Kirsten Holly Smith sees theatre as a direct medium to the soul.
“No other art form affects you so immediately and as passionately as theatre,” she said. “It can move people to different emotional heights than other art forms.”
The actor, who took on the role of Dusty Springfield, proved her point during Forever Dusty.
Over a ninety minute stretch, she had people laughing in fits one minute and, at another moment, they sniffled—some sobbed—during a particularly moving scene.
Last week, I wrote about the bio-musical Forever Dusty. I was curious about what would compel any actor to take on such a demanding project.
Born in Pittsburgh, Kirsten Holly Smith started singing lessons at the age of eight. “I always knew I wanted to sing,” she said. “I put on little shows when I was a kid. I called myself Kirsten Hollywood Smith.”
She attended high school in Denver. That was where the acting bug bit. She auditioned for university programs and received several scholarship offers. She was awarded a full scholarship for her fine arts degree in theatre and music from the University of Oklahoma.
“It’s the second oldest program in the country, next to Yale,” she said.
She has a multitude of skills, many of which benefit her on stage. She’s been involved in volleyball, yoga, softball, boxing, bowling, skiing, skating, swimming, basketball and martial arts. She also plays guitar and sax and dances in jazz, tap, hip hop, modern and ballet styles. Specialized performance skills include martial arts, stage combat, dancing, singing and voiceover. She can pull off numerous accents, including Scottish, Irish, British, Texan, New York (Brooklyn and Bronx), Russian, Southern, French, Italian and Cockney.
She explained that her fascination with Dusty Springfield related to the 1960s singer’s courage, naivety and her absolute love of soul music.
“She couldn’t stand up for herself being a gay woman,” said Smith. “Maybe that translated into her standing up for a different race. That’s a theory. She voiced herself in that way. She truly felt that all people should be treated equally. She was raised in a strict Catholic family. I think that being told being gay was a crime for her entire childhood, she had to deny feelings. She was a shy woman with a different persona. She was two very drastic people. She never felt good enough.”
Smith performed daily, and twice on Wednesdays, for many months. We met up after one of her matinees. I asked her how she, or any actor, recuperates after such an emotionally and physically demanding performance.
“I’m very spiritual,” she said. “I meditate and pray. I was raised Catholic, but converted to Judaism. I take good care of myself. I don’t party. Every once in a while I have a glass of wine. But I have to stay centered. This is my baby. I have to make sure I’m ready to do each show.”
Given her choice of location for our dinner, Zen Palate, she eats well too.
Watching and listening to Smith onstage during a second viewing was unnerving. From the voice, which matches Springfield’s in interviews you can find on YouTube, to the body language, Smith captures the singer’s persona, even the intricate movement of her fingers when she gestures with her arms. Smith also faithfully portrays the heart and soul of the shy and vulnerable Mary O’Brien, the woman who became Dusty Springfield. From the finicky artist in the recording studio to the vulnerable and insecure woman slicing her arm, Kirsten lived Dusty on stage.
Kirsten Holly Smith said it was the voice that first drew her to Dusty Springfield.
“It was the sound, the rawness, the vulnerability,” she said. “I love voices and imitating them. Dusty’s voice was very challenging. I couldn’t figure out where and how she made the sounds she was singing. I was intrigued by who she was and her phenomenal story. People don’t necessarily remember her as much as the Stones or Beatles, but she was just as influential.”
Smith received an arts grant in 2006 from the University of Southern California to develop the project in its early stages.
People who came into contact with this musical were drawn in. Jorja Fox of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation offered financial backing and publicity support for the original Los Angeles run of the show.
Smith’s talent isn’t confined to musical theatre. She’s also performed in Chekhov’s Three Sisters and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
“It’s very important in your base to know Shakespeare and other classics,” said Smith. “The Brits acknowledge that. So do the Australians. You can see it in their actors. Even if they’re not doing Macbeth or Hamlet, they can take a superficial TV script and bring a depth to it.”
Over several years, Smith developed her one-woman show into a multi-actor musical, intending it for a New York stage.
There were bumps along the road. Smith damaged her vocal cords after a fish oil capsule lodged in her throat. She ended up working with Dr. Linda Carroll, a speech pathologist, and Bill Riley, voice teacher.
“I had to rebuild my voice,” said Smith. “It took about a year, but now it’s stronger than it’s ever been.”
Smith sees the theatre as crucially important to a culture, but fears the medium is not nurtured the way it needs to in order to survive.
She explained that theatre needs to be accessible to younger audiences if it’s going to survive.
“It’s too expensive for a young person to see a Chekhov play,” she said. “We have to determine how to keep theatre alive and fresh and have young people interested in it.”
On November 18, 2012 her show opened Off-Broadway at New World Stages. After two extensions to its run, it closed on April 7.
Each time I saw the show, the theatre was full.
“Why end now?” I asked.
“We really wanted to end on a positive note,” said Smith.
She has advice for actors and young people hoping for a career in theatre.
“If it’s your dream, don’t give up on it, no matter what,” said Smith. “Dreams do come true. Go for it now. Don’t wait for some future moment. That moment may never come. Live life fully. Let your life inform your art. Enjoy your life with all its ups and downs, knowing you can always use that to inform what you’re doing in your artistic endeavours. The quicker you believe in who you are, the more you will accept yourself and your talents. You’ll move through life with confidence in your own abilities.”
What’s next for this actor? After her New World Stages show ended in New York, she said she was excited to see as many other productions as she could before heading to Los Angeles. She has a screenplay and hopes to turn Forever Dusty into a movie. She’ll be putting the show on in L.A. and then heading to London, England with the production. After that, there’ll be a tour with the show and there have been requests to license the script. She also wants bring it back to New York with a Broadway opening.
“I’m not going to stop,” said Smith. “It’s going to get bigger and brighter. I know the power in it. There’s definitely a connection between the audience and her story.”
That there is.