Virginia-based actress Dorea Schmidt is a familiar stage presence to Washington, D.C. audiences, seen around town at Shakespeare Theatre Company, Round House, Woolly Mammoth and others. This month, she returns to Arena Stage playing two characters, Sally and Flora, in the upcoming world premiere of Sovereignty. Dorea has appeared previously at Arena Stage in Oliver! and Fiddler on the Roof, all three directed by Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith.
Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Sovereignty, shares the story of Sarah Ridge Polson (played by Kyla García), a young Cherokee lawyer fighting to restore her Nation’s jurisdiction who must confront the ever-present ghosts of her grandfathers. With shadows stretching from 1830s Cherokee Nation (now present-day Georgia) and Andrew Jackson’s White House to the Cherokee Nation in present-day Oklahoma, Sovereignty asks: how far would you go to protect your people and your nation?
Sovereignty is the fourth commission of Arena’s Power Plays initiative and is part of the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival. The majority of theaters in the U.S. have never produced a play by a Native playwright, creating great excitement for Nagle’s play. Dorea is thrilled to be part of the cast for this groundbreaking event. She took time from rehearsals to answer our My Career Choice questionnaire.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
Attending the National Theatre Institute. While I had wanted to be an actor before I went, going there turned my tiny flame into a bonfire. The experience changed me and confirmed this was what I wanted to do.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
I love so many aspects- meeting interesting people, cultivating my imagination, being a part of the impact that stories can have— but probably what I love most is how much I get to learn. I love the conversations we have in the rehearsal room or after seeing a show. I love that I’m always being challenged to think about other people’s perspectives, history, cultures, politics and my own life. I’m a very curious person and being in theater, there’s always something that blows my mind and makes me eager to know more.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
I studied theater at a liberal arts college, but the program was pretty small and I left hungry to fill in the gaps. There are so many areas I want to work on, and new ones cropping up all the time, so I’m always on the hunt for training programs. Other than the National Theatre Institute, I also did an intensive at the National Theatre Conservatory. Most recently, I studied with William Esper at his studio in NYC which was AMAZING. I learned so much; I wish I could go back every week and work with him.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
I’ve been very lucky to have an incredibly supportive husband and base of encouraging friends and family, as well as many mentors along the way. My first mentor was a teacher in college who opened my eyes to Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theatre and eventually advised me in an independent class where I studied them to my heart’s content. I also had a bunch of amazing teachers at NTI and I’ve met many wonderful people here in DC who have opened many doors for me. Arena Stage’s Artistic Director Molly Smith is my mentor now- she always makes time to talk with me about where I’m at, what I’m wrestling with or want to learn. She challenges me in my work and life and I am so grateful for her.
Kyla García (Sarah Polson) and Dorea Schmidt (Sarah Bird Northrup/Flora) in Sovereignty (Photo by Tony Powell)
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
I love being home and I’ve definitely had moments of wishing I had a 9-5 job so my schedule would be more predictable and fit with my family’s. But ultimately, I keep coming back to how much I love being in theater and wouldn’t want a life without it. I love acting so much- the craft itself, the conversations that come out of the stories I get to tell, the changes it makes in me, the people I get to meet and work with. There’s nothing else that I’d rather do.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
I’m not quite sure how to answer that- I’m not sure if it has- haha! I do feel very grateful, though, for the opportunities I’ve been given in this city. I’ve gotten to work with lots of great theaters and on many different types of productions – from musicals to plays to premiering new works. I’ve gotten to return to theaters and have built relationships with so many artists; it makes it really fun to be cast in a show and already know/have worked with some of the people involved. It’s always been a dream of mine to be a member of an ensemble, and I feel in a way like I have that now working in DC; it’s just that the ensemble is a lot bigger than I imagined.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
I think an ongoing challenge is to keep punching out the box that others (and even me) put myself in. Although I think it’s a more open city than some others, it’s still easy in DC to get pegged as one thing and then that’s what your career ends up being. For instance, it’s easy to get locked into musicals or plays, and once you’ve done a bunch of one it’s hard to be seen for the other. For me, I want to stretch and surprise others, but mostly myself. We are all so complex and I find that even a character that I feel most different from, I can usually find a connection with, so I never want to limit myself. I never want to be comfortable. I like having to go after something that feels scary and like it will take effort. So, it requires a constant vigilance and fight on my part to say no to certain projects. I have a vision journal of projects I want to do and artists that inspire me in this way, so I look back to that when I’m feeling discouraged or I need an extra kick of passion.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
Tenacity. In life, and on stage. Staying fiercely committed to my standards for myself and my goals. And to the journey of it all – not getting swept away by comparing myself to others or expectations of where I “should” be in the rehearsal process or in my career. But rather staying grounded and clear in what I want and feel called to. It also is invaluable in rehearsal and allows me to try new things and play around.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
It’s hard to answer that because I don’t really think of accomplishments so much as experiences. And which experiences I’m most grateful for/have had a significant effect on my life. For me, each of those experiences is like a new chapter of my story. So, in that light, I’d say working on Sovereignty is my latest chapter title. I’ve been deeply moved as we’ve been studying the Cherokee people and inspired by the lives, beliefs, and perspectives of so many other Native men and women I’ve been introduced to – both past and present. I’m seeing our history, our world, my place in our world in such a new way because of them. I knew at our first Sovereignty workshop last January that I had to be a part of this project, and I’m so grateful that I am. It’s been life changing for sure and I’m cherishing every moment.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
Constantly check in with yourself to hear what you want and need. There will be stretches of no “work,” so how do you make opportunities for yourself, how do you feed your soul and fan your passion? Everyone has their own path – and no other actor can really tell you how to get where you want to be. Above all, I’m working on embracing life as a journey. I’ve known people who were on Broadway for years and then had no work for years after that, and the other way around, too! You never “arrive” because we’re always moving and growing, so enjoy the ride; and if you’re not enjoying it, ask yourself what can you do to change it.