Eric Damon Smith enjoys a busy acting life in Chicago. But he says he owes a lot to Milwaukee.
The actor, a native of Milton, southwest of Whitewater, spent nine months during the 2002-03 season as an intern at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.
"I learned, really, how the professional theater works," he said of his time in Milwaukee. "I was really amazed by how much art was happening here."
Now, after 10 years, Smith is making a triumphant – and hilarious – return to the Milwaukee Rep stage as Bud Davenport in "Gutenberg! The Musical!" which premiered last night at the Stackner Cabaret.
He calls his return to Milwaukee "a sweet homecoming" to a "peaceful, beautiful, manageable" community that is uniquely supportive of its performing arts community.
"My acting professor (at Hofstra University in Long Island) came to Marquette after I graduated and ran the program here," he said, referring to Phyllis Ravel, artistic associate professor at Marquette University. "So I communicated with her and she said, ‘Eric, I love it here. There are artists who can afford to have a home and a family.’ And that rings true. You can navigate a life here that doesn’t have to do with just struggling to work and find work.
"When you’re based in New York there’s a ton of work you can get but a lot of it’s out of town. So trying to build personal relationships and maintain personal relationships can be really difficult. You see a lot of people that work here at the Rep and people out at APT (American Players Theatre in Spring Green), you know – there are tons of actor couples and theater couples and they’re able to live a really beautiful life and pursue their art without some of the grind you have when you’re living in a larger market."
Smith knows a thing or two about "the grind." He’s lived in New York, London, San Francisco, Minneapolis and now Chicago, working steady jobs at restaurants and devoting every spare moment to his acting career.
"In the non-equity scene you do Thursday through Sunday so I work Monday, Tuesday Wednesday (at the restaurant)," he said. "I have very few days off during the run of a show. But, you know, you hustle."
He has a sincere love of Shakespearean theater, and his roles have included Bassanio in "The Merchant of Venice" and Oliver in "As You Like It" during a stint with the Riverside Theatre in the Park in Iowa City. He has also played Jaques in the Muse of Fire Theatre Company production of "As You Like It" in Chicago. He was nominated for a Jeff Award honoring excellence in Chicago theater for his turn as Flaminio Scala in the regional premiere of "The Glorious Ones."
"When I left college, my professors were basically like, ‘You know you’re not going to work until you’re 30, right?’" said Smith. "I’m 6’2" and I have a low voice. The guy who plays Romeo in college is going to play Romeo professionally. And I was like, ‘I know, I get it.’
"You learn a lot about yourself through an audition process. I learned how to navigate my energy. You want to go in and solve as many problems as you can for a director or casting director. That’s your job in the audition room – and also maybe inspire something in them. Especially if you’re going in for a callback and it’s you and a bunch of 5’8" blond guys. You have to be like, okay, well, I’m here for flavor. So then I need to give them so much flavor that it might change their mind about what they want to cast."
He never lets rejection get to him. In fact, rejection isn’t even in his vocabulary.
"It’s funny. I don’t – the word rejection, I don’t – it’s not rejection. No one ever calls you and says no. As an actor, you don’t get the call!" he jokes. "In the non-equity market there’s a lot of love that people try to pass around, so you’ll get an email that says, ‘Thank you so much for auditioning, all offers have been accepted,’ and that’s just to be like, well, they went with somebody else. So it’s funny – the word rejection’s never come into my thought process about it. I’m unhappy when I don’t get a role – but you just know when you go into an audition."
He says that when he left the callback audition for "Gutenberg! The Musical!" he knew that he it was a good fit.
"I said to my dad, ‘You know, I did the kind of callback that if I don’t get it, it has nothing to do with me,’" he recalled. "And that’s where you want to be in your auditioning process."
He has an enormous affection for the play and for his character, Bud Davenport, who together with his longtime friend Doug Simon (played by Gerard Neugent) writes quirky and deliciously awful Broadway musicals.
"Our first was a Stephen King musical that wasn’t very well-received, but we think it’s fantastic and that it totally still has legs," said Smith, speaking as his character. "And our second was about vampires, which just didn’t work, we knew that from the beginning. And now we have written some really huge, expensive, grand musical about Johannes Gutenberg – with one ‘t’ – who invented the printing press. We couldn’t find a lot of information about Gutenberg so we have taken a historical fiction track in writing this.
"The show within the show is...spectacular and ridiculous," he said. "Stupid and touching. And we just think it’s the bee’s knees. It’s the best thing since sliced bread.
"Working on it is…I mean, we’ve left with laughing headaches. It’s a lot of fun. I’m working with Gerry Neugent, who’s hilarious. One person will have an idea and another person will riff on it and we’ll take and sometimes we’ll take it way too far and then we have to reel it back."
He says that having "a very healthy pretend life" has helped in his preparation for the role of Bud. "I am doing dance recitals constantly in my living room, all the time," he said. "It’s the living out your dreams in private thing. Bud is very much about that."
He says that the show is laugh-out-loud funny, and that audiences can expect "to possibly piddle themselves. I say that with confidence. It’s funny. It’s really funny. And it’s rooted funny. You’re just seeing these two guys just go for it. And there’s nothing funnier than when someone is absolutely committed to something that is just..stupid. Sad. And just going for it."
As for the future, Smith says he’d love to return to Milwaukee for another show.
"I would love to come back. That’s some groveling I’ll do at another time once the show’s open and hopefully well-received," he joked. "Coming back here…I’m taking my equity card for this show. And I had really been holding out for something that was right, that felt right, that was with a good company. It’s a sweet homecoming. It’s nice to be back."
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.