The Newman University theater program was still in its early stages during alumna Chelsea Smet’s freshman year. In fact, it wasn’t even an option to declare a theater major at Newman in 2011.
By the time she graduated in 2015, Smet had participated in nearly every production offered, earned her Bachelor of Arts in theater and even wrote an award-winning play that gained national recognition through the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Now she’s started her own theater company, Smet Theatrics, which is based in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, and performs in Overland Park, Kansas.
“There’s something really special about the arts departments at Newman,” Smet said. “And that’s not just within the arts — it’s across the board.”
The inception of Smet Theatrics
While attending graduate school at MidAmerica Nazarene University, one of Smet’s acquaintances was starting his own company but needed a director. Smet gladly accepted the offer to direct any play of her choice, and she landed on “We Live Here” written by one of her favorite playwrights, Zoe Kazan.
“I cast some of my peers from Mid-America that I had worked with previously, and I met a couple new peers from State Fair Community College through that,” Smet said. “We all kind of became a unit very quickly.”
As the crew started hanging out, they transitioned from being “theater friends,” to “real friends who shared a love of theater.” Cally Beckman, one of Smet’s best friends, commented at one of these get-togethers: “I wish we could just do whatever show we wanted whenever we wanted.”
Beckman looked at Smet and both shared the same thought aloud: “Why couldn’t we?” They immediately set to work on planning their first show.
“I am very fortunate that my father, Paul, agreed to bankroll our first production,” Smet said. “He designed and built the set, which he loved because he’s a project guy. I was also able to meet a really wonderful team of women called Sharp Women LLC, who got us set up with a rehearsal space and different contacts including a music director and accompanist.”
A temporary standby
Smet’s burgeoning company cast its first show, ran rehearsals all the way up until opening night and even had two — almost three — completely sold-out performances ready to go. The day before opening night, everything shut down in response to the pandemic.
The crew was disappointed with having to draw the curtains on their performances, but Smet saw the obstacle as a chance to go back to the drawing board.
“Originally we had kind of envisioned doing a show as this one-time thing, and then if we made some money we’d do another show,” she said. “But as quarantine went on, we started planning a whole season.”
Fast forward to November 2020, and Smet incorporated the theater company, Smet Theatrics LLC. The four-person team includes Smet, Beckman, technical director Cody Jones and managing director Alyce Wilson.
A meaningful mission
“The tagline of our company is ‘plays that matter with people that matter,’” Smet said. “I don’t ever want to produce something that I don’t feel like has a message, theme or a lesson to teach. I want to do plays with meanings that have something to say, and I want people to come see it, to talk about it later and to be sitting around thinking about it afterward.”
Smet added, “As we grow our circle and it goes from the four of us on the creative team to, you know, tens of people or maybe one day we’ll have hundreds of people involved, my hope is that as it grows everyone still has that mission to tell stories that matter.”
Mark Mannette, the director of theater at Newman, said he admires the fact that Smet has started her own theater company.
“She was an exceptional student when she was here at Newman,” Mannette said. “Sometimes a professor will say something, and it doesn’t seem to resonate with the student. Chelsea actually listened to my advice. She started reading a play a week at my suggestion, and became pretty well-read in contemporary dramatic literature.”
He added, “It doesn’t surprise me that now she’s started her own company in a bigger city and is making a name for herself.”
‘The Summer Seven‘
Smet contacted Mannette last fall and asked him to read for a role in one of her company’s first plays, Zoe Kazan’s “Absalom.” Mannette eagerly traveled three hours from Wichita to be part of the production.
“When Chelsea originally read the play, she realized that in a sense, Zoe Kazan was responding to Arthur Miller’s ‘All My Sons,’ which was the first work that put him on the map,” Mannette said. “She then had this idea to run the two shows in rep and call it a tribute to Kazan. There were seven people who were common in both ‘Absalom’ and ‘All My Sons,’ so Smet dubbed them ‘the Summer Seven.’”
One night after a rehearsal, the gang gathered to listen to original music created by Ryan McKinley Foster, the actor who played George in “All My Sons.” Smet shared a bottle of champagne with the group, and Mannette stood up to make a toast.
“To the Summer Seven,” he said as everyone lifted their glasses. “Cheers to the seven of you who are doing two shows at once, who are creating art and supporting one another as you do.”
Smet said that moment is one of her favorite memories within the theater company thus far.
“I just feel so lucky that I found these seven people, and that they know exactly what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Smet said. “And I’m very lucky that Mark Mannette, the greatest theater mentor of my life, was getting to share that with me.”
Newman represents Smet’s “backbone” of who she is as a theater artist, she said.
“I had great experiences at MidAmerica Nazarene in Olathe, but when I think of Newman, that’s the root of everything,” Smet said. “Newman is 90% of what made me capable of starting a theater company. It is a direct pipeline. And that’s Mark Mannette, that’s Deanne Zogelman, that’s the school as a whole.”
Upcoming Smet Theatrics productions
Smet Theatrics will present “Rabbit Hole” by David Lindsay-Abaire at 7 p.m. Aug. 12-14 at the Stage & Studio at the Culture House in Oak Park Mall in Overland Park. Tickets can be purchased on the Culture House website for $15.
The opening show for the company’s 2022 season is “Picnic” by William Inge.”