Identity. It’s an issue we all struggle with at one point or another; sometimes for our entire lives. Who we are and how we are perceived by others becomes a very important element in our day-to-day social interactions. It can color our world view. And, in some extreme cases, it can even affect future generations.
These are some of the elements at play in Tom Smith’s latest incarnation of his decade-long journey into the life of infamous director, photographer and actress, Leni Riefenstahl. Though only loosely based on the historic persona, his recently completed play, Aunt Raini, hinges on the issues that made Riefenstahl such a controversial figure.
“I believe the play is about how we choose and construct our own identity and whether or not society has the right to impose on us how we should be remembered,” Smith says. “I find myself, as a playwright, really gravitating toward that. In all of my plays, I’ve discovered really recently, I gravitate toward the idea of identity and who gets to control and construct that identity.”
Smith, department head of New Mexico State University Theatre Arts and Artistic Director of the American Southwest Theatre Company began working on Aunt Raini in late 2003, the year that Riefenstahl died. Although he admits that he’s not usually a fan of documentaries, he found himself engrossed in a television program he stumbled upon one evening and was instantly hooked by the subject matter: Riefenstahl. More importantly, he was taken by her story.
“I became really intrigued with the bigger idea of how we can construct our own past and how long we should be penalized for things we’ve done in our past,” he says, “I decided that she was such a theatrical person in real life, it made sense to try and make her a theatrical person for the stage.”
And so began the journey. Over the ensuing years, Aunt Raini went through several incarnations after work-shopping it across the country, including a reading series in Boca Raton, Florida, a production at the Black Box Theatre in Las Cruces and another run at SUNY-Fredonia in New York. Through those runs, Smith said the play underwent “massive transformations,” including the loss of one character and a stronger definition of the title character.
“I did a ton of research,” he says. “Even when I wasn’t working on the play, I was interested in new information that was being released on her. I think that the rewrites over the last ten years have gone from being based on her life and heading more strongly toward it being about her life.
“In earlier versions, I felt like if I was too accurate to her life, the play would feel too biographical and not dramatic enough, but as I started to add more real-life detail, what I found was I was able to see a much clearer theatrical arc for the play and there’s more specificity to things and I feel that it’s really strengthened the play.”
Still, it wasn’t until the play was added to the 2013-14 season for NMSU Theater Arts that the real work began. In fact, Smith feels that it has been the most difficult of all his plays to write.
“I feel like when I first wrote it, I wasn’t quite at an age where I understood the two protagonists opposing points of view,” he says. “I was a little too close in age to the younger generation in the play and felt that the play skewed a little too much toward her. I always knew that the play needed to have two really strongly opposing points of view. Now that I’m ten years older, I get ten more years of wisdom and, ten more years of feeling that I can understand the other argument. I’ve never felt, before this production, that the play was really saying what I wanted it to say in the way I wanted to say it. I feel that I have finally gotten to that point.”
The play finally where he wants it to be, Smith decided to collaborate with another local playwright, Mark Medoff, as director of this latest production.
“When we were looking for a director, I knew I didn’t want to direct it myself, because I think that there is better collaboration on a new work when we have an outside opinion on the play,” he says. “Mark was very interested in directing at our theater and it felt like a good match-up, between working on a new piece and working with a director who is also a playwright. I’ve never collaborated with him before this, but I have to say, it’s been just great.”
Cast by Smith and Medoff in the play are Claire Koleske, as gallery owner Katherine, Aaron Hernandez, as Katherine’s boyfriend Joel and Josh Horton in the role of a student director. All three NMSU theatre majors are joined on stage by professional guest artist Stephanie Monday, from Chicago.
“What Stephanie brings to the table is a great sense of professionalism,” Smith says. “She did a ton of research herself, in preparation for the role. She came in with a real clear sense of who this character is and her journey throughout the play.”
Brought in as part of NMSU Theater Arts’ guest artist program, Monday has the dual role of acting as educator to the students in the production. Smith hopes that for those students whose aspirations are to become professional actors, they will benefit from working with the actress and, perhaps, model themselves after her.
“Stephanie came in the first day off book, with her accent down,” he says. “Those are the kinds of things we want to impress upon our students. We want them to see first-hand how much work and dedication goes into being a stage actor. Stephanie has really been able to provide that for them.”
To further enhance the experience and more fully encompass the range of themes within the play, as well as introduce Riefenstahl to the uninitiated, Smith has also collaborated with other departments on the NMSU campus with a symposium during the week leading up to the premiere of the production at the Center for the Arts.
Included in that symposium will be a lecture titled “Leni Riefenstahl and German Cinema,” by Dr. Richard Rundell, followed by a screening of Riefenstahl’s film “Victory of Faith,” at 4 p.m. Tuesday, February 18; a presentation titled “Women and the Third Reich,” by Dr. Andrea Orzoff, followed by an exhibition of photographs of and by Riefenstahl, at 4 p.m. Wednesday, February 19; and a keynote lecture, titled “Documentary Dilemmas: Fact, Fiction, Argument,” by Dr. Monica Torres, followed by a presentation by Smith, titled “Translating History to the Stage,” at 4 p.m. Thursday, February 20.
“It’s a full experience,” Smith says. “By the time the play premieres our audience will know almost as much about the character as I do.” He hesitates, laughing. “Almost.”
Performances of Aunt Raini run Friday, Feb. 21 to Sunday, March 9. Performance times are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $10-17 and available at the Center for the Arts box office Monday through Friday, between the hours of 12 and 4 p.m., through Ticketmaster, or by calling 646-4515. For more information, visit http://www.nmsutheatre.com