Charles Smith is the newest Distinguished Professor.

Photographer: Kevin Riddell

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A life of writing, teaching and the stage

Ohio University’s newest Distinguished Professor, Charles Smith, professor of playwriting, has a reputation for reaching out.

He reaches out to his students to create a collaborative learning environment; he reaches out to the community to share his passions and to educate; and he reaches out to the world through his critically acclaimed and internationally performed plays.

In honor of Ohio University Founders Day on Feb. 17 and Smith’s Distinguished Professor Lecture on Feb. 18, Ohio University Compass reached out to him to learn more about him.

Compass: Can you tell me about the role of collaboration in your classes?

Smith: We run the workshop as a professional playwriting workshop. And, what that means is when we bring in these graduate students, they are writers. I tell every student that comes in, You are a writer. I am a writer. The difference between us is that I may have a little bit more experience than you do. And, what I can do is expose you to techniques that other writers have used, but we’re all writers here. We’re all facing the same issues; we’re all struggling with the same problems. I can help you with your problems. In time, you can help me with my problems."

How does it feel to be named a Distinguished Professor?

Distinguished Professor! I don’t know. The first thing I thought, I fell into the old joke, "I thought you guys were a distinguished group of fellas! But then, you admit someone like me. So, it makes me question your sensibility and taste." But, you know, it’s an honor.

And, when I look at the list of people there, I’m deeply honored. And, there were a couple of different colleagues, William Condee and Bob Winters, who convinced me. They said, "We want to nominate you for this." And, I said, "These are big shots." And, they said, "We think you belong in this group."

They really had to convince me. It’s an honor, and I’ll do what I can to represent the arts in the same way the other fields are represented.

What was the first play you wrote?

I was writing fiction before I became a playwright, and I was just fascinated by these epic stories – "The Iliad" and stuff of that sort.  I was just fascinated by these.

 It was relatively late in my career, so to speak, when I saw my fist play. I was 24 when I saw my first play. I had just gotten out of the Army. I went to a community college, and I wanted to take English courses, but they didn’t have any English courses that I hadn’t already taken.

So, I took a theater course. The first day the guy comes in, he looks at me and goes, "You’re an actor?" And I said, "I could be." And he said, "Come to rehearsal tonight; that’s gonna be class."

I sat backstage during the run of the play and I thought, You know, this is storytelling like the storytelling I’ve been doing in writing fiction. The only difference is a community of artists come together to tell the story.

Instead of giving a short story to somebody and they go away and read it, you get to be with the viewer, the reader, as the reader is experiencing the story.  I just absolutely love that.

During that time, I sat backstage and I wrote a number of plays. Probably the first one, I think it was called “Bluff.” It was about a blind man who encounters a businessman on the street, and there’s a question about whether this blind man is really blind. And, this delightful theater in Chicago, generous theater, produced it. My one act play. People actually came to see it and of course I was delighted and they made the mistake of giving me encouragement, so I kept on doing it.

Can you tell me about your work with the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago?

I’ve been with Victory gardens Theater for probably 25 years now. I went there out of graduate school and started as an intern. I was reading scripts and eventually, they started producing my plays.  And I’ve been in residence there, one of the playwrights.

The program that I run here, the playwriting program, I have the same expectations of the student writers; I’ve built that based on my relationship with Victory Gardens and how their artistic director [Dennis Zacek] is.

It’s a unique relationship with the writers…. When I was an intern there, my first experience was with Dennis and another writer. He had produced a different writer and the reviews of this play were bad. They really just ripped into this writer.

They said, "You have no right writing about this subject; you don’t know anything about it; and the things you do know about it are bad." They said nothing good about it, and I thought, It’s over. Dennis will never produce this writer again.

With a review like this, and it felt like the review even threatened the artistic director. Why are you even producing this writer? I thought, It’s over for this writer; this writer will never be produced by this theater again.

And I remember sitting in the theater and Dennis was sitting there with the writer sitting next to him. Dennis read the review, he handed it to the writer, and the writer says, "Yeah, I read it." And, Dennis says, "Well, what’s our next play?”

And I thought, Wow. And, that’s when I realized that the support and the dedication was there. He was not looking for a play to produce to become a hit. He was looking for a writer to support.
When you support the writer versus supporting the individual work, what you end up doing is contributing to the art and contributing to the culture. 

"Free Man of Color" to have Cleveland premiere

"Free Man of Color," the award-winning play written by Ohio University Professor of Playwriting Charles Smith, will make its Cleveland premiere, Feb. 10-27, at the Notre Dame College Performing Arts Center.

The play's three-week run, hosted by Notre Dame College in collaboration with Ensemble Theatre, begins at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 10. Ohio University President Roderick J. McDavis will be among the patrons in attendance.

A special performance of the play will take place on Sunday, Feb. 20. The performance is sponsored by the Ebony Bobcat Network, a group of Ohio University's African American alumni and will serve as a fundraiser for Ohio University's Urban Scholars Program. Tickets can be purchased for $35 online at or by calling 216-321-2930. Parking is free.

"Free Man of Color," which was commissioned by Ohio University for its Bicentennial Celebration in 2004, portrays the life of John Newton Templeton, Ohio University's first African-American graduate. During the play, Templeton interacts with University's first couple, President Robert Wilson and his wife, Jane, whom he lives with at the time. The play addresses race, culture and the differences between education and assimilation in America.