This past weekend Erskine Smith, a very dear friend and mentor of mine passed away. He was 67. Erskine was the founder, spirit and soul of the Victoria Playhouse - located in Victoria by the Sea on the south shore of Prince Edward Island. It's a small town with a big name and a big heart. That heart is a little quieter today with Erskine's passing. If you think I have any skill at presenting - it is due in large part to what Erskine taught me. He directed me in the play North Pole Tenderfoot that I wrote an
d performed. Under Erskine's teaching I learned how to communicate and connect with audiences at a much deeper level.
Erskine was a true master. Here's the math - he performed, directed and or was creative director for theatrical productions that had over 200,000 audience
members over 30 years. That's true mastery!
As I learned the news last night - I reflected on the many lessons I learned from him. Some of those lessons might help the readers of this blog. I'm going to tell the stories - and let you connect the dots...
Lesson 1: Where are you going in the second act?
I had just walked Erskine through the first act of North Pole Tenderfoot. As I prepared for the second act he asked me "where are you going in the seco
nd act?" I explained that my idea was to make it really different. The first act would be comedy and foolishness the second act would get darker, deeper and would leave the audience thinking. I waited - not knowing if this was a good idea or not. Erskine's response was immediate, "Great. Many playwrights have just one idea and they repeat it in the second act. Great plays surprise you and go somewhere different in the second act. Lets see how it goes."
Lesson 2: Who is right the Playwright or the Actor?
One night - as I was talking to audience members after the show on the sidewalk - Erskine came to me and asked "How are you feeling about tonight?" He then moved on and let me think. From the way he asked me it was clear he had something to say. But first he was going to challenge me to think about the performance.
After the audience left - I answered him "Tonight - the Actor (me) was very happy and the Playwright (also me) is very frustrated." He nodded his head yes. I went on to explain, "The actor took the comedy over the top and fell in love with
the laughs - the playwright is upset that the actor didn't follow the script."
Erskine then asked "Who is right?"
I thought for a moment and said "The playwright. The actor needs to follow the script. The play is better theater as written then as performed tonight."
Erskine then simply nodded. What impresses me to this day is how Erskine was able to get me to think and discover for myself - with so few words.
Lesson 3: “Tonight we travel to the top of the earth. Ladies and gentlemen, The Victoria Playhouse is proud to present the world premier of North Pole Tenderfoot.”
With those words - those very clear words - Erskine introduced North Pole Tenderfoot each night. In a simple statement he declared the purpose of the show. I would then walk on stage and say as he instructed:
“Tonight we’re going on an adventure to the North Pole – to t
he top of the earth, to the spot around which the whole earth spins. Leading our expedition will be
Paul Schurke of Ely Minnesota – a genuine adventure hero. My name Is Doug Hall, by day I help the world’s leading companies invent big and bold innovations. On this trip I’m a rookie, a raw beginner, a tenderfoot as Admiral Peary called rookies.
Erskine explained that it is important that the audience understands the premise of the show quickly. Confusing audiences like with innovations is not a good idea.
Lesson 4: Trust the Story
During intermission of the second night - Erskine came down and sat with me and we talked. He asked me as he often did "how are yo
u feeling." I explained that it was really hard tonight. It seemed that no matter what I tried to do - the show was not nearly as good as it had been on opening night.
Erskine explained that it was a normal pattern. You spend so much energy getting ready for the opening that it's common to have less energy the second night. He then suggested that I stop worrying about the audience - and just tell the story. It's a great story he said, trust the story.
In the second act I calmed down - and just told the story. A more positive rhythm developed - and the show ended with a standing ovation.
Lesson 5: You can't fake passion
I first met Erskine when my wife Debbie and I attended a play that Erskine was directing and acting in. I laughed so hard and loud - that my ribs hurt. Not from laughing but from my wife hitting me because I was embarrassing her. Erskine was so passionate about theater - he would transform himself and the stage. He was the master of the unexpected - be it a look, a pause a small aside. A performance by Erskine was filled with layers of depth. He could be a dictionary definition of "meaningfully unique." Every performance had meaning while also being unexpected. At storytelling events I heard him recite some of the same stories over and over again - each time with a new twist - a new view on the world.
Erskine - I will miss you….
I will miss hearing the new twists you put on old stories.
I will miss learning from you.
I will miss laughing with you.
I will miss sailing into Victoria this summer to see you.
I will miss standing on the sidewalk outside the theater solve the world's challenges.