Her own superhero who breaks through fear in creation of magic

  • 2017-02-08
  • Anna Vireo

On March 8, the International Women’s Day, Lithuanian audiences will be treated to the European premiere of a multi-award winning performance, “T-O-T-A-L-L-Y!”, written and performed by Kimleigh Smith. Kimleigh Smith is a best-selling author and accomplished actress from the US, whose television credits include: Bones, The Mentalist, Parenthood, Law and Order: LA, E.R., Heroes, and many others. Her solo show T-O-T-A-L-L-Y is a remarkably honest and open performance about her rape, the obstacles she overcame on her journey to heal, and the lessons she’s learned. It has garnered her universal praise and multiple awards, including the Washington Post’s Editor’s Pick, one of Wall Street Journal’s Top Shows to Watch, the Best in Theatre Award, and Top of Fringe Award at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Before embarking on her tour in Lithuania, Kimleigh Smith sat down to talk to The Baltic Times about what drives her art and life.

Why did you choose Lithuania for the European premiere of your one-woman show T-O-T-A-L-L-Y!?

In 2007, I was visiting New York. I was having a great time and randomly ran into a Russian dance exhibit in a little theatre in SoHo. In the audience, I met the beautiful Aiste Ptakauske, a scriptwriter and producer from Lithuania, who was in New York on an artist’s residency at the time. We struck up a great friendship and just continued connecting on all levels. I knew we had friendship for life. Cut to 2010, when Aiste is back in New York to get her MA in Television, Radio, and Film. I in the meantime, get accepted to the New York Fringe, and Aiste finally gets to see my show T-O-T-A-L-L-Y, which I’ve been talking about over the years. I guess a little bug was put in Aiste’s brain that she wanted to bring the show to Lithuania.  We talked about it briefly and rather frivolously, and that was it. Nobody thought it was going to happen. And then I get an email at the beginning of 2016 saying, ‘Would you be interested in coming to Lithuania?’ To be honest, Lithuania wasn’t really on my bucket list until I met Aiste. But my brain came together and I immediately said, ‘Yes!’ I barely even skipped a beat. This tour has turned out to be something that I never thought would really happen, but it has actually become a dream come true. It is such an honor to come to a country, which respects theatre like Lithuanians do. I feel really blessed and honored to be a young black woman to be invited to Lithuania to perform.

Are you doing any research on Lithuania before going on a tour there?

Interestingly, I’ve now started meeting all these people who randomly say to me things like, ‘Oh, my wife is from Lithuania!’ But I want to do more research so that I feel connected to the country, as well as being prepared to understand what Lithuania is like. Also, I want to learn a tiny bit of the language, so that I can get on stage and say something in Lithuanian that’s really cute and fun. I think it means something when somebody takes the time to actually learn about where they’re going, instead of showing up and being arrogant. With everything that’s going on in the US now, there’s so much at stake, not just for me or what I believe in, but in representing America as a country, really. Americans can be so snobby and arrogant. They go to other countries and know nothing about them. I never was that way. Wherever I used to travel, I always learned about that culture to really understand it. That’s why I’m going to learn about Lithuania too.

Why did you choose to write about rape?

When I first had an idea to write a solo show, nothing in my mind would have actually led me to the show that I have now. I did not want to write about rape or any of that. I started taking a writing class, but everything I wrote was utter shite, the worst writing ever. I was so frustrated! The instructor had us do these exercises: ‘Write about the one thing you wouldn’t want to write about’. That was rape. ‘Write about the one thing that you would love to write about’. That was about being an actress. So I had all these different topics, none of which came to fruition.

In 1999, I donated a kidney to my cousin back in Kansas. When you do something like that, something changes in you. I came back to LA awake and ready to do something different. I knew I had to do something more than I had been doing so far. A friend of mine suggested we do a show together. We took a writing class with Paula Killen, who became my director of T-O-T-A-L-L-Y! years later. That was one of those break-through classes where you write for three days, and you put up what you write on the fourth day. Period. And again, everything I write is utter shite. On Saturday, we are going to read what we’re supposed to start rehearsing on Sunday. I have this thing that I read to everybody, and Paula, who is one of the most honest people in the world, says, ‘Well, that’s a really nice manifesto, but what are you really trying to say?’. And I think to myself: ‘Who are you to judge me? You don’t know me!’ I go home crying. Literally! Sobbing like a baby.

The next day I come back and I don’t have anything. I’m supposed to be performing that Sunday for the class and then on Monday for everybody else, and I don’t have anything. So Paula says, ‘Just get up on stage and start talking’. And I think everybody can see that I have nothing and everybody made fun of what I already had. I’m a total wreck. You tend to have a breakdown right before you’re going to have a breakthrough. And I was having an ultimate breakdown. So, I get up on stage and I ask one of my classmates to record it for me. And… it is brilliant! I don’t know where it came from. I think from all the writing from the first class, from the second class, from just thinking about it, this came to fruition. I couldn’t believe it. I took the recording that my classmate had on her phone, I transcribed it, and that became the second half of my show. I performed it on Monday. Standing ovation! People were crying, laughing… it was the whole thing.

So the friend with whom I took Paula’s class and I decided to do our show, The Black and the Jew. Cut to September 14, 2008: it’s two weeks before we are supposed to perform, and I don’t have a freaking show at all. Then one day I go to sleep and I dream the entire first half of the show. And I start crying. I believe in God, so I say to Him, ‘You’re funny! I was trying to write this show for two years and I’ve come up with nothing. And now it comes to me in a dream?!’. And that was the beginning of this show that I did not want to write at all, that I was resisting in tears and kicking and screaming and fear. But I broke through that fear and created something that was really magical. Rape was the last topic I wanted to write about. It was the last thing that I wanted people to know about me. At that point, nobody knew I had been raped, except the rapists, myself, and my one friend to whom I talk in the show saying, ‘This has not happened to me’. I was totally in denial. But this is the show now. It really was a labor of guts, blood, and tears.

What do you consider to be the greatest success of the show?

I was really ready to be done with the show after I did The Black and the Jew. I thought: ‘Two nights, and I’m out!’ But people kept loving it. They were telling me: ‘You can’t stop!’ So I did the festival circuit. And I did very well. I won the One Festival in New York. I won the Best Theatre and the Best Solo Show at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. And that was really a big deal. The awards felt like it was going to be the greatest success of the show. And then somebody, out of the blue, called me and said, ‘I saw your show The Black and the Jew. We would love you to come to our festival in Las Vegas.’ So I did that. Everybody loved it. A couple of months later, one of the women that saw my show in Las Vegas asked me, ‘Can you come to my school and perform?’ I ended up doing that three or four times. Then it has become this roll of people asking me to come do my show at their universities. And that’s what it parleyed into: my little story has turned into a little movement. So my great success is knowing that I created something that is changing people’s lives. When I went to my first university, the entire football team came to the show (and I was gang raped by three football players). A lot of times when people talk about sexual assault, men are never involved. It’s just women sitting around and talking. And my whole philosophy around this is as follows: if we don’t bring men into the conversation, there’s really no conversation. We, the women, are transformed, but the men are not. How can we continue? When a group of college football players came to see the show and were moved and transformed by it, not going: ‘eek, gross!’, but laughing and following it to a tooth, I knew I had something special. What transpired on that campus and the other campuses I’ve been to is life changing. And I believe that is the greatest success of the show.

In Lithuania, you’re going to perform in the evenings. What are you going to do with your daytime?

I’m going to give lectures to students and young adults in Kaunas, Vilnius, and Klaipeda. I will preface my lectures with my story, and my journey, and how I ended up where I am today. Originally, I didn’t want to be an actor. I wanted to be a child psychologist. I graduated college with a psychology degree, my minor in sociology, and started to study for the bar, because I was going to become a lawyer so that I could help children. And then, one day I realized: ‘This isn’t what I want to do! I want to perform’. So I became a professional dancer in Chicago and then an actress from that. I really want to connect young people to this journey, because it’s always been helpful to people to hear that sometimes you may think you’re going in one direction, and you think this is what you’re going to do, and that’s what you want out of your life. But when you get to do what you’ve been put on this Earth to do, when you get that spark, it really changes everything. The day I auditioned for my first play, I knew that was where I wanted to go. But, the biggest part of this story is this-- in writing my one-woman show, I’ve put everything I loved doing together. Now I get to help people the way I always wanted to. I get to help students and young adults change their lives, as well as do what I love, which is dance, act, and sing. Although in the course of my life, I was going to go in one direction, and then I went the other direction, both of those directions have come together. And now I am whole. So that’s really what this is about. My whole philosophy is about being your own superhero, and that is being the most amazing self that you can be. So in my lectures, I’ll be talking a lot about steps you have to take to honor your superhero and be the awesome person that you’re going to be, so that you can take flight and live a powerful life. These lectures are going to be a nice journey along my life, but not in the show way, rather in the behind-the-scenes way of who I am.

Considering everything you’ve been through, do you believe in the concept of your ‘second half’?

I believe that there are many soulmates for us. Which one you meet is unbeknownst to you, depending on where you end up. I’ve met some amazing men in my life that I loved dearly, but none of which I would like to spend my life with. I’ve yet to meet a person that makes me a better person, and that I make a better person. I want that. I do believe there is a second half that lifts your spirits. It’s like in friendship: you meet some friends that lift you up, and some friends who you are exhausted by. I believe that’s the same with relationships. I’m really excited about the idea of meeting my second half that lifts me up, and whom I lift up, and we become better people because of each other.