By Tom Stajmiger   Published Jan 24, 2002 at 6:12 AM

Welcome to Theater Around Town, my new column at Each month I will interview theater artists working in the Milwaukee area and bring you their stories.

For the debut column, I bring you the story of an actor who is new to the city and has recently formed a new theater company here called Cornerstone. Cotter Smith is a nationally-known actor who has appeared in numerous film, television and high profile theatrical productions. He is perhaps best known for his work on the CBS drama "Equal Justice" and for playing Robert Kennedy in a television mini-series on the Kennedy family.

The following is a conversation I recently held with Cotter.

OMC: How did you first become involved in theater?

Cotter: I began doing plays in high school and college, but I never imagined there was a career for me in theater. I grew up in the Washington, DC area -- the son of a right-wing Republican Federal Judge. Choosing theater as a career was not an option.

I went to college to see what path I would take and came out a teacher. I taught English and Creative Writing, as well as leading the drama program at a high school for five or six years. But the pull of theater and the challenge of acting were too great. It was what I loved to do, but I just wasn't sure you could make a career of it. I moved back to DC and gave the local theater scene a try. It was the period of time when the small DC theaters were just starting to be formed and I had the opportunity to work with many great artists, including Molly Smith, who is now the head of highly acclaimed Arena Stage in Washington, DC.

At the age of 28, I decided to move to New York. I didn't know anyone, but I had saved up enough money so that I could concentrate on acting and not have to wait tables.

OMC: What training did you undertake in New York?

Cotter: I studied for two years in New York with Stella Adler. And because of her negativity towards Lee Strasburg, I was intrigued enough to audition for his school as well. I got accepted and worked with him at the Actor's Studio. It was wonderful training, but what I learned most was that there is not one "method" of acting that works for everyone or every situation. How you prepare for Neil Simon and how you prepare for Harold Pinter are completely different.

OMC: What have been you highest profiles roles to date?

Cotter: Well, I performed off-Broadway with Danny Glover in a two-person play entitled "Blood Knot" written by Athol Fugard. I was in the Broadway production "A Soldier's Play," which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1982. After the Broadway run, I moved with that play to Los Angeles. It was there that I was noticed and offered the Robert Kennedy role. I was very lucky. For whatever reason, I just kept stumbling into work until it paid enough to form a career.

More recently I was in the Broadway touring production of "Art" with Judd Hirsch. I think I've done almost all of the "law shows" on television -- "L.A. Law," "Hill Street Blues," "Law & Order." But it is probably "Equal Justice" and the Kennedy mini-series that I am most recognized for.

OMC: What roles, or types of roles, do you most yearn to play?

Cotter: Actually, I am starting to study singing. I have gotten several inquiries recently for musicals where they are looking for actors who can sing. I am studying voice here in Milwaukee and hope to tackle one of these projects in the near future. But I must confess, it's a little scary. When you are acting, there are several ways to approach a scene and have positive results. In singing, there is only one. Either you sing the right notes or you don't.

OMC: What first brought you to Milwaukee?

Cotter: I married a wonderful local girl, Heidi Mueller. A friend of mine from "Equal Justice" introduced us. He gave me her e-mail address and I sent her a message. A week later I flew to Milwaukee to meet her and the rest is history.

OMC: What work have you done locally?

Cotter: Heidi and I created a Chekhov piece -- just for fun -- that we performed last year called "Dear Doggie: The Letters of Anton Chekhov." I also directed a production of "The Vagina Monologues," acted in the play "Sunshine" and am now teaching an acting audition workshop.

OMC: I understand you have now formed your own company? Who are your partners in this venture?

Cotter: Heidi, Carol Hirschi and I did form our own little company, Cornerstone Theater Company. We are in the middle of attempting to put together our next season. We perform at the Brumder Mansion, which Carol owns and operates.

We enjoyed our work on the Chekhov show so much that we decided, 'What the heck, let's keep moving forward.' We're running by the seat of our pants right now learning how to plan a season and put everything together, but we're having a great time doing it.

OMC: What upcoming productions does Cornerstone have planned?

Cotter: We will be producing "Love Letters" in February. Heidi and I will be in that and I think it is the perfect choice for a Valentine's night out. Then we'll be doing a Harold Pinter play to close our first season.


OMC: What future projects would you like to take on?

Cotter: I have been working with some writers in New York on several new works. I would very much like to introduce some of this new work in Milwaukee. I am also looking at an early Lanford Wilson play. Whatever we choose, it will be fun for the actors. Working at the Brumder, it is a no frills facility. It's all about the acting. The audience is very close to the stage. There is definitely nowhere to hide as an actor.

OMC: What types of work are you doing outside of Milwaukee currently?

Cotter: Because of my family commitments here, I am not currently looking for long, Broadway-type runs. Instead I am seeking more short-term television and movie roles. I've just recently completed an episode of "Judging Amy." I continue to record audio books for Simon & Schuster. In fact, I am leaving for New York shortly after this interview to record a book entitled "Losing My Mind." It is the story of an Alzheimer's patient, as told by the patient and his doctor. It's a fascinating book.

OMC: Anything else you would like to share?

Cotter: Thank you Tom, and thank you Milwaukee for making me feel so welcomed. While I still have my feet in Los Angeles and New York, Milwaukee is now my home.

Till next month, so long and have a peaceful journey.

For more information on Cornerstone Theater Company, call (414) 342-9767. For tickets to a Cornerstone Theater Company production, call (414) 258-5140.

Tom Stajmiger is a long time performer in the Milwaukee area and Artistic Director of Stepping Out Productions.