Lakewood Playhouse is young actor's theatrical break

Feb 14, 2011

Right from the beginning, the Lakewood Playhouse made an impression on Minnesota-transplant Jeffrey Alan Smith.

"When I auditioned for the show, I was kind of taken aback because I’d never seen a theater in a mall."

Yes, a mall, with an Old Navy and a Bed, Bath and Beyond.  But the Lakewood Towne Center also has a 160-seat theater called the Lakewood Playhouse.  And this is where 23-year-old Smith has gotten his theatrical break.

He's the lead in the Northwest premiere of "My Name is Asher Lev,"  which opens in Tacoma before moving to the Lakewood Playhouse.

The play, written by Aaron Posner and adapted from the novel by Chaim  Potok, is about a young Hasidic artist who challenges his family and faith in order to pursue his art.

The lead role is especially challenging to play because the character ages several times in the production, managing artistic director Marcus Walker says.

"In the whole play he goes back in time. He’s 3, he’s 5, he’s 7, he’s 12 and yet, he’s still 25 and telling the story."

The role was the first Smith auditioned for since moving here after graduating college from Minnesota State University, Mankato. He's like a lot of other actors in the community theater scene, folks who juggle paying jobs with flexible schedules to they can devote the time to their art.

Acting dreams for little pay

Shane Regan is with Theatre Puget Sound, an advocacy group that hosts a talent database and an extensive list of local auditions. 

"Most of the actors I know, if they have some free time, they will be doing a show. If they have some more free time. they’ll be doing a second show."   

There are over 100 community or "fringe" theaters in the area putting on low-budget -- or no-budget -- productions, sometimes in unusual venues like a hotel room or a yoga studio. It's the exception when an actor gets paid for performances (never mind the time put in for rehearsing).

But the community and "fringe" theaters are the places where actors like  Smith can get their break.

"There’s only so many paying acting jobs. For the most part you have to get your work in at the community fringe level and then kind of work your way to the big leagues, so to speak," Regan says.

Last year, membership in the organization reached its highest number ever: 1,700 people who can't quit the stage.

Like Smith, who performed in 30 productions while in college. 

"One of the best feelings I’ve ever had is being in front of an audience and hearing nothing but silence. And knowing that every single person is in the palm of my hand," he says. 

In order to act, Smith does graphic design work out of his apartment and works at a clothing store at Southcenter mall. In order to prepare for the role, he's visited a local Hasidic school, learned more about the Jewish faith, and is working on pronouncing words in Hebrew. Assistant director Rebecca Polyakovsky, who is familiar with the Hasidic culture, is also serving as a consultant.

The Lakewood Playhouse was founded in 1938 and its only dark years were those during World War II.

Walker has been with the Playhouse for a decade. He's been acting since the Seventies and when he's asked if he's ever thought about quitting theater, he replies: "Oh, all the time but then you give up life. I don’t want to give up life."