Edie Smyth

Edie Smyth the Grand Dame of Woodstock Theatre

Story and photos by Geoff Dale

For more than 50 years the name of Edyth Smith – better known to everyone as Edie – has been virtually synonymous with theatre in Woodstock, throughout and beyond the confines of Oxford County.

One of the original members of the local company, Edie began her illustrious career in the early 1950s by selling tickets and greeting patrons at the door, familiarizing herself with basic aspects of the business, then quickly moving on to tackle off-stage work, acting and directing intricacies.

Now 94 and still a regular theatre-goer, she vividly recalls with fondness those early days, her long-time associations and the pleasure of belonging to a popular acting troupe.

“I really like the people in theatre,” she says, with a broad smile. “Some folks like Bob McDougall, Ed Bennett and his wife Leona who ran the library back then and so many others through the decades. We all loved presenting these productions to the audience. It was even fun just to sell tickets at the door, getting started by handling the little things.

“We did some great plays back then, like Solid Gold Cadillac in 1959 with Valerie Smith. That was one of the first for me. I was working backstage, doing a lot of the makeup  It’s not just the applause that attracted us to the theatre but rather being part of something that was really happening. You might be on or off stage but you participated in something really important.”

As she chats about her life in the local theatrical world, she recalls the numerous productions work-shopped to appreciative audiences of up to 100 in the large room above the badminton facilities at 320 Hunter Street, then to the Woodstock Collegiate Institute (WCI) auditorium for major presentations.

“There were some wonderful plays like They’re Playing Our Song and Jamie Boy,” she said. “It was great participating in such fine productions whether you were acting, directing or taking part in off-stage work.

“You know I preferred acting because I was a real cut-up. It didn’t matter whether it was comedy or drama. I enjoyed all genres. Then there were those lovely unexpected moments like the time one actor ate the banana placed in a bowl on stage. It was supposed to be used as a fake gun.

“Another work featured one of the leads about to shoot someone. However, there was no sound from the gun so he simply yelled bang, bang. They loved it and roared with approval at the actor’s quick-thinking. Those made our work even more fun – just little bits of unanticipated happenings you dealt with in your own personal way.”

As for Woodstock, Edie describes the city as a very good place for local theatre with people lining up and filling up the auditoriums whether it was the library basement, the Hunter Street facility, burned down in 1954, or the much larger WCI centre.

“In the early years I was concentrating on makeup and working on props,” Edie added. “It was a great learning experience, getting to know and understand all aspects of the theatre world. Then came acting and during the 1980s more directing.

“I believe the last play I appeared in was directed by Sue Miller.  Like I said acting was more to my tastes because it’s more me than directing. These days it’s a bit difficult to get up and down those stairs but I am still there as a theatre-goer.”

When it comes to keying in on her contributions over the years, long- time friend and theatre colleague Brian George, a respected director/producer and musician, puts it succinctly.

“She’s been our security blanket right from the beginning,” he said. “Theatre has been such a big part of life here in Woodstock back to around 1946 with the workshops at Hunter Street and major shows at WCI.

“In the post-war era theatre was important to folks. Edie was such a presence, who loved everything about the grand productions the company staged for appreciative audiences. Back in the 1950s the list of plays was truly impressive from The Silver Whistle and Hobson’s Choice to Harvey and many more.”

For the two, their first collaboration was George Feydeau’s A Flea in her Ear, a French farce set in France at the turn of the century. In the local production, which also featured Martin Donley, Brian played a doctor while Edie was the maid.

“I had just moved to Woodstock after teaching in Toronto for six years,” Brian said. “I got a job focusing on vocals and instrumentation. It was quite the time for me with packed boxes all over the place. There I was at the end of summer, a teacher and musician new to town and now involved in little theatre.

“I later directed Edie in our 1995 production of Anne of Green Gables. She was one of the lead villagers and great fun to work with. We knew we had the audience really with us when the husband demanded Mary get him the flashlight. Then out of the blue an audience member yelled back, ‘get it yourself.’ That’s what you call audience participation.”

While Edie’s first love was local theatre, her acting exploits didn’t end with just the Woodstock theatrical troupe. While working on They’re Playing Our Song, some young cast members suggested she should head off to Toronto in search of an agent and the potential of paying jobs.

“After those directing chores, I first told my husband (Dom) what I planned to do,” she said. “Then I boarded the train and before I knew it I had the same agent as the late actor John Candy. That led to work on TV doing commercials which was great fun and paid very well indeed.

“The first and maybe the best was in 2000 for the Saturn car. I and another woman were sitting on a veranda, freezing cold with heaters under our seats to keep us warm. We were watching two young men staring at the three-door vehicle. While they were looking at the automobile, we were looking, well directly at their backsides. It was so funny.

“The director told us it would be as easy-as-pie. We just looked up and smiled and apparently a lot of people saw that particular commercial. I remember heading out to Toronto during that awful snow storm but it was worth. We didn’t have a lot of money then so getting a cheque for $1,500 U.S. was great. It was like getting paid for just showing up, almost stealing the money.”

Yet while the money for commercial work proved attractive, Edie admits to this day her heart belonged on the stage in front of a live audience.

“It was that connection to people I enjoyed and I never got nervous about learning my lines,” she said. “I was nervous when others forgot their dialogue. And of course there were the times when you got an immediate reaction from the audience.

“One time, the daughter of one character walked on stage and poured me a glass of wine, well not quite a glass. Well I gave her such a look about the amount. Then the audience just broke out laughing. The actress then threw herself on the floor laughing as well. I wasn’t trying to steal the scene but my reaction got a big laugh. By the way, we’re still friends today.”

Over the span of more than half a century in the theatre it’s no easy task pinpointing favorite scenes or productions but Edie does point to a few that stick in her memory.

“We did The King and I in 1963 and my three sons Michael, Richard and Dan were in the production with me,” she said, with a chuckle. “I’m not sure they really wanted to be there but it was fun knowing where they were on stage. I was the mother. In another play they were in top hats and tails, which pleased the audience.

“I also loved playing Marilla in Anne of Green Gables, a real favourite of mine. The audience response was just wonderful. I recall during the curtain call people came right up to the stage with one little boy asking if he could talk with us. That’s what theatre is all about to me.”

Woodstock’s production of Arsenic and Old Lace in 1988 where she and Elsie Barlow played the two devious spinster aunts also came with one of those classic unforeseen moments. This time it was collapse of a rod when the curtains were pulled down.

“The fellow who did it quickly saved the day by adlibbing after the incident,” Edie said. “He looked around and said ‘we’ll have to get that fixed’. Again that’s what theatre is all about; the chance to think on your feet when something unexpected happens. If you do so quick enough, you often make the scene better and the play just continues on without a pause.”

Always working well alongside directors, crew and other cast members, she also enjoyed award ceremonies, particularly the Dominion Drama Festival ceremony in Kelowna, British Columbia she attended in 1972.

A fan favorite, Edie relished applause from the audience and in recognition of her efforts over a period of 50+ years; the theatre auditorium was fittingly named after her in a show of both affection and respect.

“Oh I’m not bragging about that but it was certainly an honour,” she said. “I also remember when an artist wanted to get a picture of an older lady’s hands. She sketched my hand in pencil; a work that made its way to Toronto, Montreal, won an award in New York, then presented at an art show at Craigowan and presented to our theatre group to put on the wall.

“It’s supposed to be a work of art. I’m not sure about that but then again.”

Like many of the dedicated volunteers who contributed to the Woodstock theatrical scene during its more than seven decades in town, Edie also did her share of work on the executive.

“Edie, like me and others, did a lot of work as an actor and director,” said Brian. “We also served years on the board. She was the treasurer for 15 years or more, ending that role around 2000. Rob Utting was in that position and I was. In fact, I’m back at it now.

“So much of the success of Woodstock Theatre is due to the continuity of volunteers for long periods of time, as new members come and go. Edie has done it all, directed, produced, worked behind the scenes, stage managed and so much more. It’s been a pleasure working alongside her. And I really did love seeing her on those TV commercials, so much fun to watch.”

Outside of the local theatrical scene and her television work, she also got the opportunity to see and mingle with other talented Woodstock artists who branched out into other venues.

“Both Matt Cassidy and I worked in Grand Bend around 2002,” she said. “We were in different productions at the same time but it was wonderful to have a chat when our paths crossed back then.”

While not on stage Edie actually time left over for a full time job that did not involve acting, directing or make-up chores.

“I worked at Firestone and really enjoyed my employment there,” she said. “I started out as the plant nurse but no-one ever seemed to get sick so I ended up in personnel. You could say I am a people person and that came in handy both on the job and in theatre.

“And yes I was really a nurse but strange as it might seem I never got to play any kind of a medical person.”

Brian said people like Edie and others with creative aspirations and goals simply love finding themselves with a local theatre company on and/or behind the curtains.

“People find a creative outlet where they can sooth that part of their soul,” he said. That allows them to have that special moment. Sometimes when you direct, get to decide all manner of production like who delivers the lines and in what way, what the sets should look like and how costumes should be, well it’s a bit like playing God.

“Edie has been wonderful for such a long time.”

Does she still appreciate theatre all these years down the road?

“Well you know some productions are better than others,” she said, with sly diplomacy. “But in the end the company always does its best so I very much love spending an evening watching local theatre. It’s been a big and very important part of my life and continues to be.”

Geoff Dale was born in London England, Geoff has been a journalist/photographer for the past 42 years. Formerly a freelance broadcaster for CBC-Radio, he has written for several dailies, weeklies and magazines throughout Canada and the U.S., focusing on entertainment, culture, business, agriculture and sports. The author of three books, he is currently writing the first biography of Shemp Howard, the original member of The Three Stooges and devoting some of his time to the video coverage of Canadian musicians in concert.