“I saw an open door and I walked through it. That’s really been my secret to success. I know when there’s an open door, and I have the guts to walk through it.” That’s how Sidonie Smith, an American actor, when she was still in school, built an enormously successful career as an actor on the European stage while also helping other actors find their path.
Speaking with me from her home in Berlin, Sidonie says “Things are just as unstable here as they are in the US from a performing perspective. I’ve been writing a lot, I’m a coach so I’ve been reformatting my courses, reaching out to people I’ve been meaning to talk to for so long. Sometimes you have to just take what is, and decide why it’s great for you. I’ve gotten to get back on YouTube and be more consistent with the content I like to gear towards performers. I feel like there’s a lot of tips and advice on how to be better at your job, but not a lot out there to tell people how to survive their job. How to really thrive, and not give it your all and have nothing left for themselves.”
In her work as a coach, Sidonie has been helping other actors and performers keep their creative spirits going while everything has been shut down. “What you do is what counts, not what goes viral,” she said. “I encourage people to make art for themselves. We’re all just itching to make beautiful things. I don’t want anybody to feel like making beautiful things means I have to make it beautiful enough to share with the world. Just make the thing. Just get busy.”
For Sidonie, even though production is shut down in Europe as it has been in Hollywood and Broadway, she is doing everything she can to enjoy the moment and has some great advice for just getting through it: “Now that it’s warm and beautiful, I’ve just been getting outside. I’ve just been breathing in the air that’s not in my apartment. As far as my physical activity, I am not necessarily pumping it out gym style or jogging, I’m just walking. There’s enough stress in the air as it is, I’m just getting outside and moving, and making sure to do that once a day.”
Helping other actors find their path
Through her coaching courses, Sidonie says that one of the most important things she tries to impart to her peers and other professionals is that, “So many of us suffer from perfectionism, and we’re falling prey to the comparison trap, the comparison lie. That’s the worst way to measure yourself, because you will always lose. And so I love to talk about how to build true confidence, how to define success for oneself. A lot of us go out into the world and have great aspirations and an idea of how we want it to go, and it’s going to go differently from that. But that’s good! I think we decide sometimes that success will mean that I finish school, go to New York, land my first Broadway show within a year, and then I keep working forever and ever, and that is success. And anything other than that means I haven’t done something worthwhile in the arts, and that’s just not the case.”
Self-direction – and taking charge of one’s own path to success – is really the heart of what Sidonie is talking about, and it just makes a lot of sense to anybody in the arts. “At any point, we need to know that we are the ones who decide what success is. We decide what the win is. If you are making the decision as to what is a win, you have a much better chance of hitting your goal and hitting it happily as well.”
“My favorite thing to do is teach people how to self-hack,” she adds. “There are always general tips that can be given about how to have more confidence, how to sing a certain note cleanly every time. But if you learn how to identify when and what makes you feel afraid, then that is the ‘teach a man to fish.’ So my courses are designed to teach a man to fish, in the area of stage fright, or in the area of body image on the stage, which is going to come up, no matter the gender. If you are being seen, then body image is a thing.”
Playing the European Stage
Sidonie has played some of the greatest theater roles throughout Germany and Austria, and doing so is a very different experience from Broadway. “One major difference is that it’s not localized here. We’re spread out all over, which means if I have an audition and I need to show up three to five times, I’m probably flying to Vienna each time, or flying to Hamburg. So the commitment for auditioning costs more literally, but it costs more energy as well. As far as German speaking theater goes, it’s spread out over three countries, so they might be casting in Zurich, or they might be casting in Berlin, and you just have to decide where you’re going to invest and where you’re going to take your chances.”
It may mean a little more travel, but it does carry with it the advantage of seeing a lot more exciting destinations. “I’ve seen a lot of places I wouldn’t have gone to, because an audition was there and I decided to visit a friend and stay over. Or maybe the callback was in two days and it didn’t make sense to go back home, so I checked out Zurich for example, and that’s how I got to know that city.”
The translation is obviously a big difference, and it’s not just words that have to be translated. “A lot of the shows on my resume are Broadway transplants. Working with translations is a beautiful, terrifying art form because you’re not just translating from one language to another with a lot more syllables,” she explains. “You are also translating the culture.” She gives the example of having played a role in the theater production of Legally Blonde. “The setting opens up in a sorority house, and I don’t have to tell you anything about the assumptions and stereotypes you need to know about these people. You see a sorority house and 14 screaming girls, and I’m like, ‘got it.’ In Austria, that’s not a thing. You have to weave into the translation, which is already a tough art form, the culture of the American college campus, and that’s really tricky.”
From American student, to Star of the European Stage
I asked Sidonie how she, as an American actor, come to be such a big part of the European theater scene. “It goes back to the point I was making about how things will be different,” she explains. “First, I got my bachelor’s degree in string performance. I’m a violinist and a violist. When I felt the tugging at my heart to do theater, I decided to go to grad school, and figured I would go to New York. But one day, I was in my grad school acting class, and a woman did a short workshop, and invited me to do a three-week local technique workshop in the Alps, in the south of Germany. I took that chance, and through that, I was invited to study at a conservatory in Hamburg, and that school was part of the biggest producer of musical theater in Europe. So I saw an open door and I walked through it.” She went back home, sold everything, flew back to Germany and started three weeks later. “I got my first contract here, and just never stopped.”
Sidonie has played countless roles. What was her all-time favorite? “That’s a hard question,” she said. “I loved Aida. That was the first show I ever saw on Broadway, and it was starring a tall, lanky Caribbean girl like me, and so I saw myself in her, and that’s a role I adore and I got to play it in German. And I loved playing Joanna in Sweeney Todd. It’s a beautiful opportunity with non-traditional casting, and there’s a song about her golden hair. In our production, we sang about my raven hair. And I’m always thankful for the opportunity.”
All dolled up, just because
Sidonie posted a beautiful picture of herself on social media, with the caption, “Got all dolled up, just because.” Part of a larger trend of dressing up while staying at home, some people (myself included!) put on their finest to take out the trash or walk the dog, just to feel good about themselves. “If it makes a difference for you, it’s not silly. At the end of the day, you’re the one that you’re taking care of. You’re the boss of you. And I noticed that I felt more inclined to be productive, to be motivated, to write the article, to email back the person, if I got ready for the day as if I were going somewhere. And so I get ready every day, and I don’t feel like it’s a waste of makeup or laundry detergent. Because it’s got me doing the things I want to do.”
Sidonie weighs in on Hairspray
Recently the producers of Hairspray made a decision to announce a change that affects how the show is cast, and to ensure that casting remains true to the character’s nature. More to the point, this production, which depicts the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, tells the story of integration in the teenage music scene. “When it comes to theater, the story is king,” she says. “And so if you can’t serve the story, then I feel like if it’s important to you, if it’s in your heart to spread the message, you should find another way to spread the message. If you happen to be in a situation where you desperately want to talk about integration in the 1960s, but you can’t cast Hairspray in a way that in my opinion it should be cast, which is how it was originally conceived, then you make it your mission to tell that story in another way. I don’t think it’s a terrible thing to say that you can’t do Hairspray. Because if it’s important to you, you’ll find another way to get that message out there, or find a piece that you can cast appropriately.”
Coming up next: Memphis, the Musical
While Sidonie continues to coach, her next project will be playing the leading lady in Memphis, the musical. Tour dates are not yet announced, but it will be the first time this production has ever been done in German.
Dan Blacharski is editor-in-chief of TheVivant.com.