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Meet Jan Alexandra Smith: Globe Theatre’s Alice

February 7, 2013

Jan Alexandra Smith fell in love with ballet at the age of three, and until adolescence her dream was to be a dancer and choreographer. Alas, it became apparent at that point in her life that for better or worse her natural body shape was not suited to classical dance.

As one dream was dissipating, however, another was taking form. During a visit to Stratford for the Shakespeare Festival, at 16, she became enchanted by the comedy As You Like It, and fell madly in love with theatre on the Jan Webrebound.

Her family was in the process of relocating from Toronto to Edmonton, which seemed like a setback at first, moving away from “the scene” rather than towards it, but the silver lining in this cloud was that the University of Alberta had one of the better theatre programs in the country.

During her studies, it dawned on Smith that theatre is more than a performing art. It is also a business. The revelation, she says, “can be very disorienting to a naïve young student.”

Later on, she would make another, equally startling, discovery. “Once you become of a certain age, it’s no longer quite so romantic to be living out of a suitcase,” she says, smiling.

To this day, Smith considers “theatre people” extremely fortunate if they have the chance to make a living from a labour of love, and despite the fact that the road they travel is a bumpy one, she has never wished she had taken some other route.

Law? Medicine? Engineering? “I had absolutely no interest in any of that,” says Smith, who was exposed to the arts by her family, and whose greatest inspiration was drawn from the performing career of her mother, Isobel Smith, whom she describes as “the best actress I’ve ever known.”

Looking back, Smith says: “I’ve worked hard, but I’ve also had opportunities. It’s been kind of cool. I feel too grateful to have regrets.”

That last statement is all the more impressive in light of the fact that Smith’s professional life has included a period in which she suffered from stage fright. It began in 1993 and it lasted a decade. The feeling of anxiety and panic was intense for three years, and while it eased up after that, it would be seven more years before it disappeared entirely.

The onstage coping strategy can be summarized in a phrase Smith recites like a mantra. “Listen and respond. Listen and respond. Listen and respond,” she says. “That, and stay relaxed.”

Abandoning her career was never an option. “I refused to let (stage fright) hold me back,” she says.

These days Smith splits her time between Ontario and the West. She has a house in Port Hope and a condo in Calgary. She has performed across Canada from Victoria to Charlottetown and most recently, of course, in Regina as the female lead (with Daryl Shuttleworth and Natascha Girgis) in Globe Theatre’s production of Henry And Alice: Into The Wild.

Interestingly, Smith herself is more like Diana, Alice’s younger, free-spirited sibling. Her Alice is taken from a sister-in-law in Edmonton, a businesswoman of “sophistication and exquisite taste,” and she plays the character as a woman who is determined to find solutions. “Henry defaults to the negative,” she says. “Alice defaults to the positive.”

As with every role she takes on, Smith lives for those moments when “it just cooks.” The actor’s attention onstage is usually splintered, she says, but occasionally there comes a magical night when everything narrows into a singular sharp focus and the result is an involuntary surrender to a total engagement with the audience.

“It’s an indescribable feeling,” she says, “but that’s what makes it all worthwhile.”

Henry And Alice: Into The Wild runs from January 23 – February 10, 2013. Visit the Globe Theatre website for more details, cast information, and to purchase tickets.

Nick Miliokas is a freelance writer and editor based in Regina. You can reach him by email at rozenstern@rocketmail.com.

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