Melissa Smith, longtime director of ACT’s MFA program, dies at 64

Melissa Smith attends the American Conservatory Theater Seasonal Gala with Masters of Fine Arts students. Photo: Drew Altizer Photography

Melissa Smith was a drama teacher until the end. In the final months of her battle with colon cancer, the longtime conservatory director of the American Conservatory Theater always made sure her colleagues had the tools they needed.

“She knew I was about to do Ibsen’s’ Ghosts’ at the Seattle Rep, and she said, ‘OK, I have to take my morphine, and I want you to watch. No one ever succeeds on stage. Everyone’s doing too much, ”recalls Carey Perloff, former art director of ACT, who worked with Smith for over 20 years.

Smith died on September 7 at her San Francisco home along with family and friends, her husband, actor Warren David Keith, confirmed. She was 64 years old.

“She is etched in people’s memories every day, because she was a true teacher,” said Pam MacKinnon, current artistic director of ACT. “Teaching people to play obviously, but how to be in the world. “

It is this feeling of preparing her students for the biggest stage in life that has been most precious to former ACT MFA student Avanthika Srinivasan, who has become a close friend.

“Ultimately what I got from her was embracing my true essence as a human being. Not only as an actor, but also who I am as a person of color, an Indian who has really spent a lot of time rejecting my culture and trying to come to terms with what it means to be American ” , Srinivasan said. “Because of her, I started singing again. I started going to temples again. And I stopped trying to please people, because I felt really good about myself.

Indeed, Keith said his wife takes pride in her work with her students.

“What was most important to her was connecting with these students and seeing them open up, change and realize what they were capable of,” he said. “She really lived for it.”

Smith was ACT Conservatory Director for 25 years. Photo: American Conservatory Theater / American Conservatory Theater

Danyon Davis worked with Smith as head of the conservatory movement and took over the Master of Fine Arts program when she resigned late last year due to her illness.

“She saw great potential in me and helped me see that potential in myself and helped me achieve it,” Davis said.

Born June 8, 1957 in Louisville, Kentucky, Melissa Yandell Smith received her BA from Yale and her MA in Drama from the Yale School of Drama. Prior to joining ACT, Smith was Director of the Theater and Dance Program at Princeton University. As an actress, she has performed in several shows in New York City and locally at ACT, Berkeley Repertory Theater, and California Shakespeare Theater.

“She had one of the biggest laughs of all time,” Perloff said. “She was a woman from the South and she was very calm. But when something electrified him, you suddenly heard that hoarse and fantastic laughter.

Smith transformed ACT’s Master of Fine Arts offering into one of the nation’s premier graduate acting programs. Photo: American Conservatory Theater

Smith served as ACT Conservatory Director for 25 years, starting in 1995. She transformed her Masters of Fine Arts program, extending it to a three-year offering ranked among the most important graduate actor programs. from the country.

“She said, ‘I’m not going to take this job unless we can make the program one of the top five in America. Otherwise, we shouldn’t have an MFA program, ”Perloff recalled.

Her dedication to the program was so consuming that it almost eclipsed her most important acting role to date, playing the sister of Frances McDormand in the 2020 Oscar-winning film “Nomadland”.

ACT Executive Director Jennifer Bielstein recalled that Smith visited her and MacKinnon when she was offered the “Nomadland” concert.

“She was like, ‘I don’t know if I should take two weeks off and do this. It’s a burden on everyone if I go away. And we both say to each other, “Go on! Go! It’s such a great opportunity, ”said Bielstein.

Smith appeared in “Continental Divide: Daughters of the Revolution” at the Berkeley Rep Theater in November 2003. Photo: Paul Chinn / The Chronicle 2003

McDormand recalled meeting Smith in their first week at Yale School of Drama and called her “my best friend.”

“We had a 42-year friendship that incorporated our ambitions, dreams, successes and failures,” said the actress, who won the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in “Nomadland,” said The Chronicle said in a statement. “I am as proud of this deep friendship as I am of my 38-year marriage and to be the mother of my beloved son.”

Smith is survived by her husband, Warren David Keith, and son, Owen, of San Francisco; Mother, Betty F. Smith, Brother, Ilam E. Smith, Sister, Guinever L. Smith, Niece, Isabel L. Mosley, Brother-in-law, David E. Mosley, all of Louisville, Ky .; aunt, Nancy Smith, and cousins, Edward and Ian Marshall, of Charleston, SC; and uncle, Wayne Miller, and cousins, Bryan and Pamela Miller, all of Kansas City, Kan.

ACT is organizing an event to celebrate his life. Donations can be made to the Melissa Yandell Smith Library Legacy Fund, American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Ave., San Francisco, CA 94102.

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