Graham Smith, 65, of Charlotte, N.C., and Chester County, a gifted, productive member of the theater community in the Philadelphia area, died Sunday, Nov. 1, of a heart attack at his home in North Carolina.
He was an actor with People’s Light in Malvern, performing most recently in The Children, a play staged this year before the coronavirus forced the playhouse to shut down.
Acting was Mr. Smith’s life. He honed his thespian skills as a youth in his father’s magic show, Saucy Sorcery, and at college. Later, he owned the stage for 43 years while performing in regional theater up and down the Eastern seaboard.
The Florida Repertory Theatre called him "a giant,” said an obituary his family posted on the People’s Light website.
"Graham Smith’s range ran the gamut from the title role in King Lear, to the dotty old servant Firs in The Cherry Orchard, to gripping contemporary dramas like Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children, " said Cameron Kelsall, a Philadelphia area theater critic. “Every time I opened a program at People’s Light and saw his name, I knew it was a guarantee of quality. He was an old-school journeyman actor, the likes of which are becoming increasingly rare.”
Mr. Smith liked to perform with actors who didn’t simply parrot their lines but let the play evolve through newfound listening and reactions, hoping for richer nuances. “It made the play lifelike, not simply staged,” the family wrote.
One of his goals was to perform the role of Shakespeare’s King Lear 100 times; he did so 62 times. Overall, he performed in 130 plays, 33 of them at People’s Light.
His favorite roles were Robin in The Children and Mr. Webb in Our Town, both at People’s Light, as well as C.P Ellis in Best of Enemies at the Florida Repertory Theatre.
Although Mr. Smith “was a joy to watch on stage,” perhaps his most challenging role was as a helper for his mother, Nancy Smith, when she developed hearing loss and dementia several years ago.
“Graham was a marvel to behold as he broke through the barriers and connected with her,” brother Curtis said in a family remembrance posted on the People’s Light website. “He made her smile, laugh, and carry on a meaningful conversation.”
Born in North Carolina to C. Shaw and Nancy Smith, Mr. Smith was mischievous and saucy. In junior high school, the story goes, he refused to write an essay, saying to his teacher, “I’m evangelical, and the topic is against my beliefs.” In fact, he was a Presbyterian.
Despite a propensity for procrastination, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Davidson College in North Carolina and a master of fine arts degree from Hilberry Classic Theatre at Wayne State University in Detroit.
Tenacious and stubborn like a terrier, Mr. Smith gave his drama projects his utmost attention. “It was all or nothing; it was either lights on or lights off, analogous to how he lived and died,” his family said.
Abbey Adams, the People’s Light executive artistic director, said she met Mr. Smith and Audrey Brown in 1996 while directing Twelfth Night for the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival. A year later, Adams invited Mr. Smith to come to People’s Light to act in Valley Song. Brown followed in 1998 to stage-manage As You Like It.
Though the Smiths maintained a home in Charlotte, over the next 22 years People’s Light became their artistic home.
“There’s no actor who taught me as much as Graham Smith,” Adams said, “no actor who could flummox me more with a new idea right as we were about to make the previous one happen. No actor who could make me laugh as hard — often at myself.”
Mr. Smith was a dog lover who took great delight in rearing a series of golden retrievers as pets.
“Children, young actors, and dogs loved being with him because he was so present, so respectful, so interested in them,” Adams said.
He is survived by his wife and brother. A memorial service will be held later.
Memorial donations may be made to People’s Light via https://www.peopleslight.org/support/donate/ or the Graham Smith Fund with Playworks/First United Methodist Church for the development of the 2021 Theatre Diversity Project via http://charlottefirst.org/contribute.