By Rita Charleston
While sadness and grief are normal human emotions, major depression is something else. In fact, it is estimated that approximately 17.3 million Americans suffer from the illness. And while it’s not a laughing matter, “Tribe of Fools” tackles the subject in a funny, physical way in their current Philadelphia Theatre Week solo show. The company is presenting “You Shouldn’t Be Doing What You’re Doing On That Ladder,” currently playing and continuing through Feb. 22 at 200 Spring Garden St., Unit C.
Mt. Airy resident Peter Smith, who dreamed up the idea and stars in the show, co-created it with talented two-time Barrymore Award winner and director Charlotte Northeast. Smith insists, “Depression is hilarious. I don’t mean to say that it is something that should be taken lightly. No, it is a very serious illness in the way it can manipulate your view of the world and control your thoughts. It’s as if you have a tyrannical tiny robot inside your brain that sometimes gets hold of the controls and screws everything up.”
And Smith should know. He said he chose to write about the subject because he’s been dealing with that “tiny little robot” for years. And he explains the one-man piece is a theater show on a par with a typical clown or circus show.
“When you boil it down,” Smith volunteers, “this is a clown show first. It’s a clown with depression, but a clown nonetheless. We have all seen the stereotypical sad clown, but this is not that. Depression is a complicated, confusing, unpredictable, unstable disease with high highs and low lows. It’s a topic just begging to be told on ladders.
“So it’s a play that is highly physical, and I play with the audience as well as showing funny characteristics in a different light. It’s me and three ladders of different sizes. I get on top of the ladders to find the humor, the struggle and the complicated humanity of living with depression.”
Smith trained as a circus performer for several years and now teaches at Secret Circus Philadelphia (a school founded by his fiancée, Niff Nicholls). “So part of the fun of this show is that it might seem dangerous to the untrained eye, but I know how to take the proper precautions. And so we use the ladders not only as everyday objects but as metaphors, obstacles, struggles and many other different things.”
Smith, 32, was born in Oxnard, California, and was always a “very active person. I don’t think I ever had a job with a desk. I was always building something, coaching, teaching. So when I got introduced to the circus, I got very excited to try things out. And through the years, I learned technicians usually make more money than performers, so today that’s what I am most of the time, a theater technician. I consider myself a jack-of-all-trades.”
With a dad in the Navy, the Smith family moved around quite a lot, finally ending up in Broomall, Delaware County, when young Smith was about 11. After attending Marple-Newtown High School, he went on to study theater at Muhlenberg College, majoring in design.
A little more than four years ago, Smith decided to live in Mt. Airy with Nicholls “One of the pros of living in Mt. Airy,” Smith said, “ is being able to park right outside your house. I also love the little strip of restaurants we enjoy. And I feel it’s the perfect mix between the city life that we’ve lived in as well as the perfect place to be to get out to the country to explore the beauty of the of the pastures, the wineries and so on. It’s absolutely the perfect location where 20 minutes gets you into town and 20 minutes gets you out into the country. I think Mt. Airy is just far enough from the bustling city center to allow us to enjoy the best of both worlds.”
Looking forward to being married next year, Smith believes the couple is in Mt. Airy to stay. “We’re renting right now but will be looking to purchase our own place soon, hopefully in Mt.Airy. It’s where we both really want to be.”
Tickets for this show are $15-$20, and are available online at www.tribeoffools.org.