Montclair, NJ – For months, actor Joseph Smith has been delving deeply into the world of Frederick Law Olmsted – touching trees he planted over 150 years ago, walking the parks he designed, visiting his farmhouse, reading his personal correspondence.
On May 14, Smith will take the stage in Anderson Park and become Olmsted for 40 minutes, inhabiting his wide-ranging life as part of a celebration of his 200th birthday. Olmsted’s life went way beyond landscape architecture: He was also a social reformer who reported on the injustices of slavery, a seaman, an innovative farmer, and a champion of parks as a democratic ideal and a place for both physical and mental respite.
That’s a lot of life for one actor to inhabit.
Smith, who lives in Montclair, grew up in Staten Island, where Olmsted farmed for many years. Smith knew nothing of that until he attended a talk by an Olmsted biographer. “I’d lived on Staten Island for most of my life, and I didn’t ever realize he had a house there or lived on the island,” Smith said. “It was an eye-opening experience for me to find that out.”
Smith’s acting roles focus on portraying historical figures — Augustin Fresnel, who developed a special lighthouse lens, for example, and Philip Freneau, poet of the American Revolution. Olmsted is his latest challenge.
In a conversation with Lisanne Renner, historian for Friends of Anderson Park, Smith describes how he prepared for his upcoming performance, “A Ramble With Frederick Law Olmsted.” He will perform at 3:30 p.m. on May 14 as one part of the conservancy’s Olmsted bicentennial celebration, followed by a Q. & A. with the audience. (May 15 is the raindate.) More information on the event is at FriendsOfAndersonPark.com.
How do you distill the essence of a historical figure’s complex life into just a half-hour or so?
It’s not so much about the dates and details. I don’t get bogged down in facts and figures. It’s about, here’s what they did, and maybe how they can inspire you to do something in the present moment, and for future generations. How can we make this place, whether it is the local community or the world at large, a better place to live? I don’t want it to be just educational – it should be entertaining – and find the humor, too.
What kind of material do you use to learn about a character? Where do you start?
It all depends on the material that’s available, and with Olmsted it’s endless. Sometimes that can be a blessing and a curse. You have so much material! If you gave a person just 30 or 40 minutes to talk about themselves, what would they want others to remember?
I go to the primary sources – the papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, a lot of the books that are written about him, and the Library of Congress has his correspondence. And I like to cross-reference and make sure things are historically accurate. A person’s history – and their words – speak volumes.
Once you’ve done your research, how do you turn it into a fun show?
I’m taking it off the written page and giving a voice to it in the three-dimensional world.
What I want to show the audience is that each part of Olmsted’s career prepared him for what he was eventually going to do. His work as a clerk, the voyage to China, and his apprenticeship in farming and being a farmer himself gave him much experience with the working class, as well as giving him the organizational and administrative skills that would help him in his landscaping career.
I write the script, and my wife, Donna Dimino, edits and directs, and we bounce things off each other so there is a better rhythm and flow to the story. My work wouldn’t be at the level it is without her.
How long have you been preparing for the Olmsted role?
In 2021, I first prepared a show for Friends of Olmsted-Beil House, his farmhouse in Staten Island during the mid-1800s. I visited the site and just was in awe of the idea that he lived in this house for seven years. What really struck me was the land and the trees: touching that cedar of Lebanon tree, I really got emotional knowing that this tree, and the gingko and the black walnut, which he planted, they all are still standing.
What is it about history that speaks to you?
No. 1, we can learn from another person’s life. We all have our own personal journey, what we need to learn in this lifetime, but we can always draw inspiration from someone else. Olmsted is probably the most well-known person I have portrayed so far. I want people to know that they can make an impact on their own life and have a positive impact on their community by seeing what people in the past have achieved.
I came to this work from a theater background, but I always loved the history, too. I’d go to old graveyards, and see these epitaphs and wonder about that person’s life: What did they do? Who were they? What did they leave behind? That’s the exciting part, to peel back all those layers and tell those stories. And sometimes you have to go to a place that’s uncomfortable – don’t sugarcoat it.
Are there any Montclair notables you’d like to portray in the future?
I did a performance of Dr. Samuel Wilde for my church, First Congregational Church in Montclair, which has grounds designed by the Olmsted firm, by the way. Wilde was a wealthy grocer, an abolitionist, and active in the Montclair community. I also did a short virtual portrayal of the church’s early pastor, Amory Howe Bradford, who was a prolific author. And there’s the possibility to portray George Inness – he has a bicentennial coming up in 2025!