Smith taking a bow with 'A Chorus Line'
By Wayne Harada
Vanita Rae Smith, 66, the prolific producer-director at Army Community Theatre, is retiring after a 32-year theatrical career here.
She has timed her exit with her current production, the backstage musical "A Chorus Line" (playing this and next weekend at Richardson Theatre at Fort Shafter), because it captures the heartbeat and essence of her love for theater.
"Timing is everything in show business, and a lady always knows when to take a bow," said Smith. "It is best to leave ACT near the top of my art and not just fade away behind closed doors."
"Vanita is a theatrical institution in town," said Jo Pruden, a theatrical colleague for 40 years, who has worked with Smith as box office manager for 13 years, and was directed by Smith in at least 15 productions.
"It's kind of an end of an era, if she no longer is associated with Army Community Theatre," said Pruden. "She decided it was time — but I can't see her fully retiring. She will be involved in theater, in some capacity or other. It's in her blood."
Smith has been the face and the pillar of ACT, an organization with early roots at Schofield Barracks, when productions were free and largely attended by a military audience. At the more centrally located Richardson Theatre at Fort Shafter, Smith has raised the bar of old and new musicals — ACT's hallmark — over the past dozen years, with shows such as "Miss Saigon," "Cats," "Aida," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "Guys and Dolls" and "Curtains" that have drawn fans from all over the Islands. She has been at the helm for 30 of ACT's 66 years.
"I will miss the art, the directing," said Smith. "It's hard to give up the shows. But not the management part of the job; that was often a pain in the butt."
Officially, Smith has been ACT's managing and artistic director, and had been tirelessly working on a transition plan that would enable her to depart with a replacement in place. She hired Brett Harwood, who is ACT artistic director, more than a year ago, with intentions to groom him as she prepped for retirement.
"I had hoped to work on a succession plan over five years, so there would be a smooth transition," she said. "But after some tears and a lot of soul-searching, I have decided the time is now, however inconvenient. So I've got to go."
She plans to exhaust her vacation time and then retire. That will allow her to openly launch a business plan or job search.
"A Chorus Line" has a special place in her heart, since she spent an afternoon with the show's creator, Michael Bennett, prior to the show's 1975 opening. She was program chairwoman for a division of the American Theatre Assoc-iation attending a convention in New York at the time, but she never saw the show on Broadway and also missed Jason Tam, a Hawaii native who, as a youth, performed on the Army stage, during the revival two years ago. "During the rehearsal process, so many memories have flashed," she said. "A Chorus Line," symbolized by the musical's iconic hit song, "What I Did for Love," magnifies Smith's accomplishments.
Smith launched her Army career at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., where she had interrupted service because of Hawaii ties; she arrived here in 1969, staying through 1973, and returned to Missouri where she established dinner theaters at Fort Leonard Wood and in Fort Knox, Ky. But she returned in 1982 — to stay.
She has directed nearly 130 plays, including 25 productions at Manoa Valley Theatre and a handful at Windward Theatre Guild. After the MVT production of "Doubt" here, it was staged in a regional theater competition in 2009.
Smith was awarded the American Association of Community Theatre's outstanding service award at Sardi's on Broadway a few years ago for her "significant, valuable and lasting service" to community theater in America.
She also was an architect and co-founder of the Hawaii State Theater Council's Pookela Awards, which honor achievement and performance among member theater groups.
As Army's entertainment honcho, Smith also produced a string of Fourth of July all-day spectaculars at Sills Field at Schofield Barracks, capped with "The Flags We Follow" narrated by Jo Pruden and capped by aerial fireworks.