Karin Wilson: Ken Smedley
An orange and yellow crocheted afghan covers the long couch resting against one wall in Ken Smedley's home in Armstrong. He wants to sit there beneath a painting that at first glance looks like a simple landscape and then slowly reveals itself as a carefully constructed reclining nude. The painting is the work of Smedley's long-time partner Dorian Kohl a stately actress, dancer and former model with near waist-length silver hair. She's a few steps away in the kitchen preparing her mid-morning breakfast.
I beckon Smedley over to where I'm sitting and he obliges, tucking himself into the corner of the smaller couch. Kohl presents coffee and we settle in for what we expect will be a long chat. After all, Smedley's had a long life all 57-years of it, and he doesn't want to miss a moment.
Smedley's wearing his signature cowboy hat, a vest and jeans. The first time I met Smedley he was wearing a cowboy hat and brandishing a press release at the front counter at the offices of the Penticton Herald. That was the early 1990s and I had barely scratched the surface of the local arts community. Within seconds, out of Smedley's mouth came the name George Ryga. My ears perked up instantly. This was a name I recalled from my childhood. Someone revered where I grew up in West Vancouver, not far from the home of Squamish Chief Dan George, who played the father in Ryga's famous play The Ecstasy of Rita Joe.
As the years passed, I'd hear about Smedley working to preserve the old Ryga House in Summerland. Unlike a failed attempt in the 1970s to transform the local aging hospital into a cultural centre, this time he succeeded, despite some initial opposition, and the home has since become the artists' residence the region longed for. Soon after, he was pitching the annual Bill Henderson/Roy Forbes song writers workshops - now a mainstay for anyone wishing to break into the demanding field. Then in 2002 it was the creation of the George Ryga Awards for Social Awareness in Literature which has blossomed into an annual event attracting attention from writers and publishers throughout B.C.
Right now Smedley is steeped in reviewing entries for the 2008 awards. His eyes scan the books he's carefully lined up on the piano and spill out onto a nearby music stand. Among the entries Michael Byers' Intent for a Nation: What is Canada For? and The 100 Mile Diet, which captured the minds and hearts of foodies across the country. The winner receives a sculpture crafted by Armstrong artist Reg Kienast called The Censor's Golden Rope.
"The award is about censorship really," Smedley says.
And in a way, that's the recurring theme
Smedley grew up in the frontier town of Kamloops in the 1950s a time when men were supposed to be men, and theatre was for poofters.
The adopted son of an electrician, at the tender age of 12, Smedley took a summer job working at the Douglas Lake Ranch bailing hay and doing the rough work surrounded by men far bigger than he was. He liked the work, and returned for three summers, but soon learned that staying in the bunkhouse wasn't for him following an expected win at poker.
"I wanted to quit playing, but the curse of it was I kept continuing to win. They'd all been drinking. I was just a kid, 14, and I got my clock cleaned. They were men, and they were tough. Not that I was a sissy, but everyone's inebriated, so I learned the hard way. I got the stink beat out of me on various occasions, and interestingly enough I came to realize I wasn't one of them."
It was during this time on the ranch that Smedley learned the art of listening for stories. Some of the ranch hands were from the nearby Indian band and he soon picked up on a story that would haunt him the tale of the three McLean brothers who were hanged in 1881 for the murder of three locals, including a police officer. Legend had it the Metis boys were on a drunken rampage, but Smedley became curious about whether their true aim was to go on the war path against the encroaching white settlers.
Back in school, a broken arm forced Smedley to give up his dream of a baseball career. Already he had been nurturing a secret writing passion that started at age six when he scribbled down his thoughts after a boy drown falling through the ice of the Thompson River.
"I was profoundly affected by that," he says.
Smedley opted for drama taking on the role of Snowboy in Westside Story. Smedley had found his niche, and a group of friends who wanted more from life than alcohol consumption, stockcar races, demolition derbies, and rodeos. The group founded the Western Canada Youth Theatre, and they mounted Smedley's McLean Brother play The Renegades.
He was 19, and soon was travelling
the region with the company. It was at that time that he landed in Penticton where he
met George Ryga at a festival. Ryga was already a legend for his work with the
Vancouver Playhouse and other writing. "I
thought: 'This is somebody who is actually doing
it, and he is actually making a living maybe that's something I could do.'"
Nearly 40 years later and the memory alone of those days forces Smedley off the couch in his living room, and he raises his voice.
"This play was holding a mirror up to certain aspects of our nature that are disturbing, and as a result, one of the things that occurs is that people become stimulated, and they communicate, and a discourse occurs and information is exchanged, and guess what? People start to realize it's okay to have this kind of discussion. So what if people get excited, passionate? But instead all the time it's: shhhh, quiet down. The thing is, we have this fear allowing this portion of ourselves to express itself in a creative manner."
Frustrated, Smedley took Ryga up on his offer to stay in his cottage in Mexico. There Smedley kept up his theatrical pursuits, launching various productions including Portrait of a Lady about Margaret Laurence, featuring his partner Dorian Kohl. It wasn't until 1989 that he returned home, and settled down in Armstrong. There he continued to write, produce, and supplement his income with fruitpicking.
"I have a very supportive partner," he says.
Today, Smedley's working on establishing song writing as part of the creative
writing curriculum at Okanagan College. He's also received mounting recognition for
his own work in keeping the arts alive in the Okanagan including an honorary
fellow of Okanagan College, which he received
Despite all this, it's clear Smedley is nowhere near seeing his true passion come to life watching Canadian theatre bring the good, the bad, and maybe especially the ugly, to life.
Smedley cringes at the last political attempt to muzzle artists in the form of Bill C-10. "Where's the evolution? Again, we've come to this place. That's why I feel it's so important to continue with the Ryga awards," he says.
"Theatre is entertaining, yes, escapism, frivoloity and what have you, but there are these other dimensions to it. It's not just one kind of diet. If we're going to be healthy as a society, as a culture, we need a balanced diet, and right now I feel like we've wound up in this place where we're somewhat malnourished.
"We have a long way to go. It comes back to trying to break ground that was covered up long ago. One of the great commentaries with regards to where we stand is Sunshine Theatre in Kelowna. This should have been its 20th anniversary. It was established as a play-it-safe company all those years ago. And where is it now? We should have been celebrating, and its dead. It's gone. And it begs the question with regards to the durability of what that formula of theatre stands for and represents. Does it have a shelf life? It doesn't."
Before Smedley walks me to the door, we take a detour into a small room where a series of photos reminiscent of Twiggy and the Sixties are laid out big and large on a table. These are photos of Dorian's modelling heyday, and her own tribute to the time.
It was a time of cowboys and renegades, peace and protest. But it was also a time of fearlessness to be oneself, even in a bunkhouse. And that commitment to oneself is timeless.