Tracey Erin Smith made her showbiz debut in the nude - she was six months old, and had been cast in a TV commercial for diapers. Some decades later, she is still, in a sense, interested in nakedness, both physical and psychological.
Her one-woman show, The Burning Bush - running at Toronto's Young Centre for the Performing Arts until Saturday - deals with a central character, rabbi Barbara Baumawitz, torn between two seemingly antithetical temples, the strip joint and the pulpit. (The tag line for the piece is "saving souls one lap dance at a time.")
"I see stripping as a metaphor for the spiritual journey," Smith said in a recent interview. "The more layers we peel off, the closer we get to who really are, and the more we see that we're all really the same."
In preparation for the role, Smith, who will only admit to being thirtysomething, took classes in lap and pole dancing, while simultaneously studying Kabbalah.
A longer, blended version of two previous shows that were smash hits at Fringe festivals in Toronto and New York, The Burning Bush sees Smith play some 15 separate characters, including various strippers and comic Jackie Mason. He apparently is so enthusiastic about the show that he's agreed to appear, Smith says, playing himself in a movie version that she hopes to have produced.
Pole gymnastics aside, Smith's own story bears a certain kinship with The Burning Bush plotline. A graduate of Vancouver's Studio 58 theatre school, she was working steadily as a professional when she began to entertain a couple of deeply subversive thoughts, such as: "If I'm going to stand on stage night after night in front of 500 people, maybe I'd like to have some say over the lines I speak." Even more troubling was the Peggy Lee question (written by tunesmiths Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller) that followed: "Is that all there is?"
With that, Smith moved back to her native Toronto in her mid-20s and began to explore the possibility of becoming a rabbi.
"It was something I'd always been interested in," Smith said. "Even from my days in Hebrew school. All the class discussions were between the teacher and me." She ruled out New York's Hebrew Union College as too expensive and enrolled at York University to finish her undergraduate degree (started at McGill) in Judaic studies. One course in, it became clear that earning rabbinical ordination was going to be a long slog. Instead, she thought, maybe she could turn her desire for spiritual fulfilment into theatre.
So she started writing, creating a show originally called I Wanna Marry Jackie Mason. When Mason brought his own one-man show into Toronto several years ago, Smith bought a greeting card (of two monkeys hugging, with the line, "We've been together so long were starting to look alike") and left it for Mason at his theatre, along with her cell number. He called the next day.
"Tell me something," Mason said, in his inimitable accent, "is that just the name of the show or is that how you feel? Because if that's how you feel, it can be arranged."
When they finally met a few days later - over French crullers at Tim Hortons - Mason asked her, "Why me?" Her answer was, "Where do you find a mentor for the kind of thing I want to do?" Mason, she noted, had been a rabbi himself before leaving the pulpit for show business. And in box-office terms, he's one of the most successful one-man performers in the history of Broadway.
"So for me, he's someone who found his own path, just as I'm trying to do, and found the largest congregation in the world."
Mason's advice to Smith: Do the show and if it's too short, throw in a few songs. She did, adding music composed by Drew Jurecka, who performs on stage on accordion with his wife, violinist Rebekah Wolkstein. The play is directed by Anita La Selva.
Like Mason and The Burning Bush 's Baumawitz, Smith has tried to find her own way. "The word rabbi means teacher, so I've been teaching adults at Ryerson and elsewhere for 10 years. I take stories from the lives of adults over 50 and turn them into theatre." With her mother, singer, actor and talent agent Jodi Pape, she performs regularly for residents of two Toronto seniors' homes.
Smith's hopes for The Burning Bush ? To see it staged off-Broadway and in Israel.
She stills own a copy of the diaper commercial she did at six months. "It's part of my demo reel," she jokes. "It's the most naked as a performer I will ever get. At least physically."
The Burning Bush runs until Saturday at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.