A Faint Rumor of Existence: Interview with Playwright Chuck Smith

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“A Faint Rumor of Existence” is a play by Chuck Smith that aired on Zoom as part of the One House One Heart virtual one-act play festival. The show focused on a dying scientist who built a robot to keep him company and realizes that the machine has become his one true friend.

Chuck has had 23 one acts read or produced by 36 theaters, at 2 colleges, on a radio show, and featured via podcast in 19 states. Chuck recently discussed his plays and more via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in writing and why did playwriting interest you in particular?

Chuck Smith (CS): I acted in community theater and went to a Northern Virginia One Act Festival as an actor in one of them. There were some original one acts and I thought: “I can do this just as well’. And I have. I was in the Army above NYC and the base had a bus go into NYC Tuesday nights. They would drop us off near the USO and I would have a choice of plays in previews or in decline (Bob Denver having replaced Woody Allen in Play It Again Sam). That was the heyday of Neil Simon and I always loved his comedies.

MM: What inspired “A Faint Rumor of Existence” and how long did it take to complete?

CS: It’s about a dying scientist who is visited by the robot that he created. It touches on a few things I wanted to write about: friendship, death, and artificial intelligence. I wrote it in an afternoon. The head of the DC’s Shakespeare Theater had a series of Q&A’s at the Corcoran with playwrights. One audience member asked the terrible question: Have you ever had writer’s block? She answered that, when one of her characters spoke, someone always replied. That’s how it was when I wrote this play – someone always answered. My question to her was: What is your favorite line in your plays. She said that she didn’t necessarily have a favorite one, but that there was one that always got a positive reaction. A woman’s husband has died and after a while she starts to clean out the basement. She says that she could not bear to throw away a beach ball as it had her husband’s breath in it. A sigh ran through the audience.

MM: How did you find One House One Heart?

CS: I think I found it from a subscription to The Playwrights Forum.

MM: Did you always intended this play to be presented via Zoom or would you like to have it performed live, too?

CS: I wrote the play before the virus. However, as it features two people sitting in chairs, it lends itself to Zoom.

MM: How did you find the actors and how did you feel about the final results of the performed piece?

CS: I thought the actors were well cast. I suspect they were reading from something offstage, but they spoke the lines without much hesitation. Of course, as it was recorded that might have been a factor. Both actors were excellent and I particularly liked the actor playing the robot.

MM: You are quite prolific. So, thematically, what have your other plays been about?

CS: I generally write romantic comedies. I also try to have more women roles rather than men. A play of mine and a friends was once accepted, but later they called me back, saying that they could not cast 4 men and that the play would be canceled unless we reversed the 4 men and 2 women to 4 women and 2 men. I was able to do that in a short time and the show went on. At the same time, the play was accepted by Bakersfield Community Theater and went on with 4 men and 2 women. I think it was the last play they did before they closed.  I do not blame myself. I have written one drama that has been done 9 times. Recently, my play about a female serial killer won a one act contest.

MM: How do other aspects of your life—like your childhood and day job—influence you creatively, if at all?

CS: Occasionally a few personal things come up, fear of Alzheimer’s, my not being religious, and curiosity as to why two people are attracted to each other.

MM: How have you been keeping yourself entertained during the coronavirus lockdown?

CS:  I have been watching a lot of TV series such as Bosch, Fargo, and Mr. Mercedes. Usually, I am a big reader, but except for magazines, I have not been doing much of that.

MM: Are you working on any other plays right now? If so, can you give us any specifics?

CS: I don’t press, seeking the next play. I have glaucoma and they have a test that measures the eye’s deterioration. Lights come up on a screen and I have to press a buzzer to indicate that I have seen them. I am supposed to look straight ahead so they can judge how my peripheral vision is in each eye. Once, I had not pressed the buzzer in a while and I began to look around, not being comfortable with the silence. The test was ruled a failure and it did not count. The next time, I did better. Plays are like that. If an idea hasn’t come to me in a while, I don’t press. At least so far, ideas for plays have come to me. Ten-minute plays are much easier as I don’t have to do much heavy lifting. Get in and get out. They don’t show much character change as they are short, but a number of mine are comedies and resolve themselves easily. In my play in question, both characters die at the end so that resolves the play neatly – like being hit by a bus. I recently wrote a play about chess pieces that were Mafia families at war, seeking to expand their territories to other games such as Monopoly. Eight actors are too many for most theater companies, but I needed four pieces on each side in order to be able checkmate one of the opposing Kings. I’ve only sent it out a few times and I have included a slightly smaller, numbered chessboard so that the play can be staged within the chess moves that each character makes. That’s the problem with one-acts, theaters seeking plays often limit the number of actors to 3-4 and thus I cannot send this play out.

MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

CS: My goals have been to have my plays produced or read. In some ways, Zoom has been good for me this year as some of mine have been recorded and I have a record of plays in places I never would have gotten to. I don’t have any aspirations toward professional theater.  In the over 20 years that I have written plays, I have won $100, $50, $50, and $40, so I’m not doing it for the money.