For Pittsburgh Theatre
September 30, 2018
Recently, Saige Smith finished up a run as Poncia in Point Park University’s The House of Bernarda Alba. Smith is a Pittsburgh native and a senior Musical Theatre major at Point Park, and we had the opportunity to sit down with her.
The House of Bernarda Alba tells the story of a widow and her five daughters. When Bernarda Alba’s husband dies she imposes a period of mourning over her house. The cast is all-female and while a male suitor is mentioned in the play, he is never seen on stage. Over the course of the play the relationships between the women deteriorates plunging them into darker and darker situations.
On stage as Poncia, a servant to Bernarda Alba, Smith is fierce. Poncia is the only character who is able to confront the terrifying Bernarda Alba and often tries to convince Bernarda to loosen her reigns on her daughters. In Poncia, Smith strikes the right balance between servitude and righteous anger, able to show the multiple sides of Poncia’s personality.
Tell me a little about yourself.
I’m a senior Musical Theatre major at Point Park. I love all kinds of artistic expression. In addition to my theatre dreams, I’m also working on an EP and I hope to tour with some original music in the near future. This fact probably wouldn’t be considered fun, but it always shocks the room when I disclose that I’m allergic to avocados.
What was your childhood like?
My childhood was very cool. My Dad and older brothers formed a jazz band called COL, which stands for Center of Life, a nonprofit organization my dad, Tim Smith, founded in Hazelwood. They’d often collab with other skilled musicians, and I remember being really small and just having to go downstairs to the basement to hear some of Pittsburgh’s finest Jazz artists. I was always surrounded by music, and once I was old enough I made sure that I auditioned to attend Rogers Middle School, now known as CAPA 6-12. Once I got in there, I had opportunities to perform regularly, so I think that’s where I initially learned how to combine my love of art and my work ethic.
When did you know you wanted to go into theatre?
I saw my brother perform in the ensemble of Elton John's Aidia, and I still remember feeling goose bumps from the chords. I was so ready to get into this theatre life! Seeing Margot Bingham play the role Aida solidified in my mind that there was a place in theatre for girls who looked like me.
What has your time been like at Point Park?
I’ve received so much precious technique at Point Park. What I love about this program is that you get the opportunity to work with several different acting teachers before you leave the program. Because each teacher’s technique is different, I’ve been inspired through theatre in countless ways. Point Park has opened my mind to the beauty of different perspectives, and opened my heart to trust and flow with creative experimentation.
What other shows have you been in?
At Point Park, I’ve been cast as Margie in A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol, Frieda in The Bluest Eye, Mafanwy in The Sea, Olympia in Big Love, the Ensemble of Kiss Me, Kate, and now Poncia.
How would you describe The House of Bernarda Alba.
The House of Bernarda Alba is the reflection of a shame-based society and the persistent hope that sparks rebellion within that society. It’s a tragedy about sexual repression, and the lust that comes from that. But mostly, it’s about fear. Fear of what people will think or say. Ultimately that kind of fear is what drives this play. Fear alters perception, which is why I love the acronym, False Evidence Appearing Real.
How do you get into character?
To get into character, I usually run through the backstory that I have made for my character, Poncia. I take a few moments to center myself in those circumstances, and then the circumstances of whatever point of the show we’re in. Then I physically get into character by allowing myself to have more weight, breathing deeply, staying grounded, and practicing with the cane that I use throughout the show. Our cast also has a ritual we’ve done every rehearsal and show so far called Sacred Space, where we connect with our breath, then our body, then each other. For a show that gets this dark, it’s hard to go from laughing at memes to living in the prison that is Bernarda Alba’s House, so I’ve found Sacred Space to be very valuable.
Do you prefer musical theatre or straight plays?
It’s hard to choose between musical theatre and straight plays because I like them both for different reasons. I love to sing and my first introductions to theatre were through musicals, so they definitely tug at my heart. However, I love the freedom I feel when I’m developing a character for a straight play. Sometimes musicals are so iconic that you feel like you have to do them the way the original cast did it, and though that can be true for plays, I’ve personally always felt free to put my spice in straight theatre roles.
What will people take away from the show?
I think people will take away that the suppression of natural emotions has some serious consequences. Turning a blind eye to the crisis in yourself can cause crisis for others, which is chaos. I hope they take away that letting go and loving is better than holding tight and oppressing, no matter how much protection is intended.
How would you describe Poncia and her role in the show?
Poncia is salty. She, a servant for 30 years, has the audacity to confront and warn Bernarda when no one else does. She has the wisdom to see the future before it happens. Mostly, she has love in her heart for the girls, though they annoy her daily. Poncia is a romantic who just wants the girls to experience the vibrancy of life, but she’s forced to serve them and watch them pale in The House.
Poncia is often the voice of reason and the family’s collective consciousness. How do you play this?
I keep in mind that Poncia has lived a significantly different kind of life than the other women in the house, aside from the Maid. A lot of times, I believe Bernarda can’t see the truth because of fear of the public gaze, and the daughters can’t see the truth because of their naivety about life in general. But my character is seasoned. Poncia lives in duality. She understands the well-to-do life, while struggling in grit. She’s often in situations where she must remain silent while conflict in the plot unfolds. She’s always watching, which makes her very wise, and often a better guide to the daughters than Bernarda.
The cast is all female. How has that affected the dynamic of the show?
We all feel very connected to the themes of feminine modesty and sexual repression. We’ve all had different lives, but with the political climate these days, it’s not hard to feel targeted as a woman when birth control isn’t always accessible, and presidents have “locker room talk.” We’ve created a sisterhood in each other.
There’s a lot of music involved in the show. How does that affect the show?
The music serves pulls the audience into the play. The songs tell of dreams women long for, and the quest of love. They transition the audience from one act to the next, and accentuate the drama. If you listen close, you can even hear the narratives of some of the characters in them.
There are a lot of class issues in the show. How does the play speak to the times and current political climate?
The way the society in works is through fear. Bernarda treats her servants and even the poor women who mourn her husband’s death like they’re second class citizens. She doesn’t give them a right to their own opinions, or even a platform to speak most of the time. Even her daughters, though privileged, are not free around her or in her house. In our current society I think that there are many who are made to feel like second-class citizens because of their lack of wealth or education or culture. In reality when we invalidate groups of people, we strip away their opportunities, and put them at a disadvantage. I think audiences will find that systems set up to oppress others are very hard to dismantle, so some suffice to make do within, but freedom will always be a hard fight.
Do the political aspects of the show influence your portrayal of Poncia?
Yes, to me, the validation of a woman’s mind is so important to her development. When she is suppressed and steered to think that being smaller and more compliant is safest for her survival in society, her growth is stunted. And as all of this is happening to the daughters, their fascination of men and sexuality grows. My character is the buffer between those ends of the spectrum. She’s able to give the daughters moments of feminine freedom because she understands how society works, but also cares for their independence. It’s Poncia’s job to battle between the appropriate social conduct she must maintain as a servant, and the wellbeing of the oppressed, which is why she can seem contradictory and conflicted at times.
What do you want to do after you graduate?
After graduation, I want to pursue a career in acting and music in NYC. I’m planning to audition everywhere I can, and hopefully I’ll book somewhere soon, but for right now, I’m soaking up these last few moments of college.