by Tyler Mangrum
– The Capitol Hill Times –
Less than 24 hours before filming for “My Last Year with the Nuns” officially begins, Matt Smith is sitting on the porch of the Capitol Hill home that he grew up in. Swamped with phone calls from the director, costume designers, and production manager, Smith manages to remain cool and collected while he bakes cookies for the beleaguered production crew as they head towards zero hour.
The cause for Smith’s calm demeanor is simple: aside from being an accomplished local improve actor who stays unfazed in the face of pre-show jitters, he knows that the vision of Smith’s long-time friend and director, Bret Fetzer, is something special. Having worked with Smith on his monologue since it was first performed in 1997, he knows that Fetzer’s months-long process of turning Smith’s award winning monologue into a feature length film can only end well.
“It’s really funny, and it’s relentless,” Smith said. “You think you’re done, and you think it’s gotten crude, and then it gets worse and worse. But more than that, it provokes discussion. In the end, whether it’s funny or not doesn’t matter, whether it pushes the envelope a little bit does.”
Yet, it was a film that Smith never expected to make. The monologue from which his screenplay is adapted has garnered widespread praise since it was first performed in 1997, Smith couldn’t see how his collection of stories about Capitol Hill life in the middle of one of the most tumultuous decades in American history could possibly be translated into a visual performance.
But then, Fetzer explained his idea for the film: shoot in 10 different locations mentioned across the Hill as they are mentioned in the performance, intercut with one show in front of a live audience. With the exception of a few 8th grade boys shown in the background of one segment, Smith will be the only actor in the entire production, leaving certain scenes to be portrayed with the help of still photographs and animation. It’s a novel and ambitious way to tell a story, but as the various aspects of the screenplay began to coalesce, Smith began to realize it could work.
“Now that I’ve seen the screenplay, it’s kind of exciting,” he said. “We’ve gone through it, and every movement makes sense to me. The fear is that [the presentation] will be busy and clumsy, but he’s got a really good sense of what to use and how to keep the story moving.”
The often crass and ribald monologue covers the period between 1966 and 1967, back when Seattle was a one-company town and Capitol Hill was almost entirely Catholic. Smith’s experience as a white Catholic kid becoming aware of the changing attitudes towards race is one of the central themes of the performance, and is emblemized in a Seattle Times newspaper shack located just beyond the Roy Street “red line,” where the unofficial segregation between Capitol Hill and Central District occurred.
Over the course of the story, Smith recounts how this one place provided the children of these two starkly different worlds with a forum to speak with one another for a few minutes each day, for better or for worse, including a failed friendship with one black child that gave Smith a view into the unexpectedly violent life on the other side of the red line.
Smith and Fetzer’s portrayal of racism and other social issues is unrelenting, and the two pull no punches. In one scene, indicative of the changing social landscape of Capitol Hill, Smith is part of a group of kids intent on queer bashing a fellow student. Smith admits that the content of the monologue is often harsh, but the message is one of commonality between everyone affected by these issues, especially for those who grew up on the Hill. The blend of crude humor and frank realism allows for difficult issues to be addressed adroitly, and Smith hopes this will allow his message to resonate across generations.
“I’m just trying to throw out the story and be fairly unapologetic, but also compassionate to every person who’s in it,” Smith said. “Bad things happened to a number of people, and we all lived through it. It rings a note for people from Capitol Hill, whether it’s like their own story or not, or even if they even agree with it. It’s a story of a culture that’s gone.”