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A Conversation with Michael Smith

Arts Education Assistant, Kate Boisseau chatted with song-writer, musician, performer Michael Smith about an assortment of things -- including his past, present, and future creative endeavors.

From Victory Gardens Snow Queen Interactive Study Guide, November 2008

Kate Boisseau: What do you like about Chicago?

Michael Smith: Chicago is a gorgeous and cosmopolitan city and anything can happen for you if you can please people here.

KB: What brought you here?

MS: I came to Chicago because my wife Barbara and I (we did a duet thing) were getting so much work here in folk clubs, which at the time (middle seventies) were thriving in the city.   Steve Goodman, a local singer-songwriter who was well known nationally, had been singing my songs and so folks here were somewhat familiar with some of them.  We had been living in Detroit, almost accidentally.   It was where our traveling rock-and-roll band broke up but for us there was little work there.

KB: When did you start playing music? How did this interest develop?

MS: I have been interested in music, in some way though, all my life, or at least certain kinds of music. found Roy Rogers and Elvis Presley to be beautiful, mysterious and glamorous and they played guitars.   I thought guitars had something to do with the worlds they lived in, and that the guitar was, physically, a beautiful thing.  I was fifteen when I started playing the guitar and writing songs. I was inspired then by admiration for Harry Belafonte and also the Kingston Trio, two popular folk-oriented acts of the time (1957).

KB: What inspired you to adapt The Snow Queen?

MS: The Snow Queen was my favorite fairy tale when I was seven or eight.   We had a very old Andersen book with nineteenth century illustrations.  I knew it quite well, having read it a bunch of times.  I knew it could be an enchanting musical.   It almost was already, in my mind.

KB: Have you worked on a lot of other adaptations? If so, what have they been?

MS: No, I haven't worked on many.  One was a show called "Pasiones", which was a collection of songs from the Spanish Civil War.  One was a revue of songs about art called Hello Dali and another was a personal memoir called Michael, Margaret, Pat & Kate, about me and my sisters.   Next, I'm due to perform in a show I wrote songs for, and, through writing the songs, essentially adapted.   It's a version of "The Selfish Giant," by Oscar Wilde-- a beautiful story.

KB: How long did it take you to develop the Snow Queen script?

MS: I started working on it in 1993.

KB:This is the third year this play has been produced.   Last year's version was different than the first year's.   What changes can we expect this year?

MS: It's become a more thorough and polished piece of work.  There have always been songs added and subtracted.   Still true this year.  It's almost done, though.  I do believe this version is it.  Maybe.

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KB: Does it still challenge you creatively?

MS: It has been a challenge from the beginning, but I believe it is almost complete.

KB: What is it like to perform in a show that you have written?

MS: It is an indescribable emotional experience, and I'm constantly critiquing the structure of the songs.   I get lost in it, and get very emotional even though I have to be businesslike and play that bass.   What I mean by this is it's an awful lot of fun, and a privilege.

KB: Who are some people you regularly collaborate with?  What do you enjoy about these collaborations?

MS: I work with people whom (generally) I wish to please.  I enjoy pleasing them, and if in a particular situation I don't please them, I try to find solace in pleasing myself at least.

KB: How did you develop a relationship with Victory Gardens?  Are there other theaters you have relationships with?

MS: I was fortunate that my first piece (Michael, Margaret, Pat, and Kate) was accepted for production by two theaters, VG and another.  I liked the people at VG better.  Peter Glazer guided me in the adaptation and kind of lit a candle in the dark.  I have also been fortunate to do the music for The Grapes Of Wrath for Steppenwolf and to perform with them on Broadway-- a major experience of my life.  And I am very happy to work with Children's Theatre of Chicago.

KB: What is your relationship with the Old Town School of Folk Music?  How does this relationship help shape your music?

MS: The Old Town School has given my wife and I employment and encouragement for many years, and many wonderful friends and collaborators. I think of Old Town School as my first and most important audience.

KB: What other projects are you working on right now?

MS:I'm starting work with Blair Thomas on a musical version of Moby Dick.  Wish me luck.

KB: Where else can we find your work?

MS: I have a website: michaelsmithmusic.com.  I've recorded a bunch of CD's.  I'm on Youtube looking even heavier than I am.  Twice a year I play at Fitzgerald's, in Berwyn, and once a year at World Folk Music in Beverly.

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