“I come at this more like a lawyer, who would say that everybody has a right to a fair trial. Or a journalist, or a priest, who would hear the confession.”
– Anna Deavere Smith
On November 7, I had the opportunity to interview Anna Deavere Smith as part of the third annual “Stage The Change: Theatre As A Social Voice” conference, a day-long event of panels and workshops for high school and college students, a collaboration between the Happauge Public Schools and The Tilles Center at LIU Post. Smith is the creator and performer of such acclaimed “documentary theatre” works as Fires in the Mirror, Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, and Let Me Down Easy. What follows is an edited and somewhat condensed portion of that conversation, aimed at the students in attendance.
HOWARD SHERMAN: No one typically has their own theater: you have to find a place to perform, to convince people to let you do this work. How did you create opportunities for yourself originally?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I was really trying to learn some things, which is what started me interviewing people in New York in 1980. Just people I saw on the street, or people I saw like the lifeguard where I swam. Then I paired actors with people. So the first one of these that I made had an actor for each person. I just rented a loft in downtown in Tribeca before Tribeca was hip. It was just broken down, sort of old factories, and abandoned places. There were these lofts that were put together with empty spaces with wooden floors. That was the first one that I made. I made it by charging actors to take a workshop and they would perform as a result of the workshop, but really it was just enough to cover the cost. I don’t know if actors are still like that, but people are always looking for someway to perform.
HES: Was the initial work about exploring characters or subjects?
ADS: It was just characters.
HES: How long do you take to interview people when you’re working on a piece?
ADS: It depends on the piece. The piece that I’m working on now is about young people, younger than you all, that don’t make it through school. And they end up in the criminal justice system. I started working on that in 2013, but I’ve spent maybe a total of three months, spread out, and I’ve done about 150 interviews to start working on that play. It’s called Notes From The Field: Doing Time in Education. For Let Me Down Easy, I interviewed over 300 people, on three continents, so it took some time, but in the middle of that time, I was occasionally doing more performances and gathering more information as I refined the play.
HES: When you moved from characters to subjects, what galvanized you to shifting the work towards something topical?
ADS: What happened was, I really didn’t have a place to do this in the theater. No theater hired me well into the process. Who did hire me was universities, who in the 1980’s were revising many things about their curriculum, mostly to make more space for literature, ideas, works of art by people of different colors than white – of women, as well as people of different expressions of sexuality than heterosexuality. So I would say that in the 1980’s, across the board in this country what we call the canon, what is the traditional thing we learn, changed dramatically. The conservatory, the playwrights were looking at scripts by either dead or living white males and even someone like a white male like Sam Shepard, and even his work was considered extremely avant-garde. The only woman you would find is Lillian Hellman. You know, maybe Lorraine Hansberry.
The ‘80’s were the time where that really shook up, but what that meant was, that at these universities and at these colleges people were very refined, Smith College, a place like that, or Princeton, there were very, very difficult things about people getting along on campus. I was hired by Princeton to write a piece about the fact that they had only had women for 20 years. Think of the history of Princeton. Princeton exists long enough that men from the South brought their slaves to school with them for a very, very long time. These traditions are very hard to change. So 20 years of women, they asked me to come and make a piece. There were some very difficult things happening on campus, some women had had some sexual assaults and yet the alumni, didn’t want to make the lamps any brighter because they felt it would kill the romance of the campus. Two of the eating clubs – they didn’t have fraternities – still would not accept women. After that, they were forced to do so. Places hired me and it was really to mirror them in transition, to mirror back to them the difficulty they were having in transition. There were a group of women professors in the theater across the country having to deal with new things going on among women or even the fight women were having getting into university. That’s what really made my work become socially oriented.
HES: Why the choice to move from bringing in actors to portray each of these people? Why the choice to have these people, instead of having different people play these different roles, to take them all into yourself?
ADS: Again, it was a very practical reason. I couldn’t imagine how to pay everyone. The first time I got away with it because people were so eager to have a reason to perform. They were like me, they were hardly ever getting cast, they were happy to have a reason to have agents and other people come and see them, and to be working. So they paid me to do a workshop and put that together. So I figured that’s not going to work very long. The notion of getting a grant was way out of my – I couldn’t do that.
But then I remembered that as a kid, I was a mimic. So I thought, well I’ll just do all the parts myself, until I can figure out how to raise money. Then when I could figure out how to raise money, and invited actors to do it, they didn’t really like my process. I think it would be different now. This whole idea of documentary theater, it’s taken off in a big way. When I first started presenting the work to actors, they didn’t like it because they felt so much of the idea of acting training, and maybe these young people today have this idea and maybe not, was the idea of inner truth.
I don’t believe my inner truth is necessarily relevant to the cowboy you saw there [in a video screened at the event]. I’m trying to figure out his inner truth! Things that I’ve learned about language have lead me to understand and believe, and try to exemplify, is that his inner truth, whether he’s telling the truth or not, does live in how he sees. So I’m not into this inner truth stuff. I don’t like the word truth. That’s a moral judgment and it’s a very heavy idea. In those days, I’ve always taught acting since 1973, you know we have these students who would go to conservatory to hear notes from all these teachers. My colleagues would do stuff like yell at people for acting. “You’re lying!” Of course they’re lying, they’re acting.
HES: When actors play roles that aren’t necessarily likable or honest, you often hear the talk about finding some part of them to like. Do you need to like the people and do you even like the people you end up interviewing?
ADS: Well, I love everybody I interview. In my Ted talk, I performed a woman who sat on her bedside while her boyfriend killed her daughter. Murder, that’s murder, she’s an accomplice to murder. And I met her in a penitentiary in Maryland. I come at this more like a lawyer who would say that everybody has a right to a fair trial. Or a journalist, or a priest, who would hear the confession, most likely of the person who did the most despicable thing. And I think of people in terms of their fate in life.
I think a person who does a very despicable thing like the women who let her child be killed is trapped not only in prison but in her own crisis of what she did when she recognizes what she did, when she sees that reality. And so I think I have a bit of humility about these things. I do believe that in the grace of God, I do believe in old fashion acting techniques, Stanislavski, the father of modern acting, way back in the 19th century. People behave according to their circumstances and how they adjust to those circumstances.
So I don’t know what it would be like for me to live in an environment where I was acquiring drugs, selling drugs, addicted to drugs, was in a relationship with a man who beat me, beat my children, and for whatever reason I learned to understand that as normal. And that would lead me to be so high that I would allow that to happen to my child. My job is to imagine those circumstances and then to find a way to illuminate that for whatever reason.
Maybe the thing I would be trying to illuminate is drug addiction. Maybe I would be trying to illuminate what it does mean for women to live in abusive relationships, right? So I see that person as living a life that is at first unimaginable to me, and then my job is to imagine it. I think as actors, we have chance to do big projects like that. If I were a doctor, I could choose, am I going to be an internist? Am I going to want to do big operations? Am I going to be a surgeon of cancer? You know, I could choose how big I want my project to be. I do think the project of portraying someone who seems to be unlikable, or you know if you meet somebody in your school whose perfectly likable, a cheerleader, but you don’t like her, then the project is how do I get myself to be able to imagine her circumstances and to imagine living in her shoes? Then my project is really living in their words. For me, again, the bigger the project, the better, the bigger leap I have to make, the more I get to exercise my muscles as an artist.
HES: When you set out to do a project, do you always know exactly what you want to explore? Or do you start having conversations and find the subject or the focus that you’re going to take on it?
ADS: I don’t have a take, and my take evolves. For example, my new project is about what some people call the school to prison pipeline. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this at all or you’re starting to hear about it, I started to hear about in 2011, and I’d never heard about it. So the idea is poor kids of color are unfairly disciplined, some of you might have seen this video that has kind of gone viral of a girl in South Carolina who won’t turn her cell phone off and then they bring the cop in and he throws her around in the chair. We see these things.
Say, for example, I started out, with the idea of images in my mind like hearing about a five year old in Florida who was handcuffed, this kind of thing. But the more I looked at it, the more I see that the thing that causes young people to end up in juvenile hall or in these kinds of circumstances are even more complicated than school discipline. So now I would never call it the school to prison pipeline. I don’t know quite what I would call it, but I’d call it something else that allows the project to be seen as about a series of things that make it hard for young people to be in our education system.
HES: You are now, of course, widely known in the theater community and many communities for the work that you do. Has it become easier to gain access to people to interview them or are people now more aware of how you might portray them? And does that, in some ways, make people more guarded?
ADS: Well I think most of the people I interview have never heard of me. At all. And if they have, it’s because they saw me on a television show called Nurse Jackie. Maybe.
I am very aware that my theater is in a very small portion of America. That is the kind that these young people are here to think about, work on, theater about social change. It’s not a big Broadway show. Only one of my works went to Broadway. A lot of people don’t know about my theater work. But what has happened, as you know, these young people would certainly, I mean there doing selfies all the time and filming each other all the time, people are much less inhibited, they don’t care anymore. I used to travel with a tape recorder about that size, now you know I can use my phone, now I bring a camera in, nobody cares!
I think as a society – I’ve been doing this for a long time – as a society we’ve changed in terms of our sense of being public. And we sign a release, some of them don’t even look at it. I encourage them to, take your time, cross out anything you don’t like. But I think it’s also because of all of this stuff, reality television. When I started there wasn’t even Oprah, you know what I mean? All these things that make people feel like, ‘Well I’m a star! I’m telling my tale!’
HES: Can theater create social change or does it begin to go back to your word, mirror social change?
ADS: Well I certainly believe it can be a part of sparing the time and I think it rides that wave, it pushes us farther.
I would say that there are many things on television that had to do with change, even the show I was on Nurse Jackie has to do with something in the human condition which is not a movement. But many people on the street came up to me and told me how much the character Jackie meant to them in their recovery from addiction. Tony Kushner did a lot to help us in a time where we were thinking about the AIDS crisis to well before gay marriage and all that. So I think we that are interested in change are not making the change alone at all. But if we are on the moment of trying to expose something that’s going on, and people come to the theater, it gives them an opportunity to look through in a different way than they see in a newspaper. It causes some people’s hearts to be changed and it can be a conversion. It can cause a conversion in terms of behavior for some folks.
HES: You speak to people in all walks of life. And you sometimes speak to really, really important leaders. What is it like to be an artist who has the ability to speak beyond just the work that you create?
ADS: The irony is that all of you are learning how to perform but the kind of performance that you’re doing, if you’re performing on behalf of social change, at some point is indicating to the viewer this is not a show. I’ve called you here because this is real. I’ve called you. I need to catch you attention. You might not have noticed it on the paper. You might not have noticed it on the news. You may not know. You’ve heard people talk about bullying but you may not really, if you don’t have a child, who’s being bullied, you may not really know. So I would like you to, you heard about it for a little bit of time on CNN 360 or something but I would like you to come in here with your whole heart and mind and visit it with me. Right? So there is this way that when you take on social change, it gets real. Right?
So I think that’s the way one ends up in the company of academics, the President of the United States, governors, chief justices, or justices of the supreme court, are many of the kinds of people that I’ve had the chance to speak with. It’s because of that reality and because we are all in those realms trying to address those realities. And luckily there are many government leaders who do see the value of art as one way of causing people to tend to these issues.
HES: You talk about truth, you talk about reality. You talked about journalism. Is what you do a form of documentary?
ADS: Well, people say that. I suppose it has aspects of that. However the part that is not documentary is that it is my persona, not the persona of the persons. So there’s already that other thing going on. So it’s not really a photograph, right? It has been adjusted and altered, so the fact of the aesthetic part of it is relative. I mean I’m not the cowboy, so maybe there’s something interesting about an African American woman older than this cowboy with assumed different political views, maybe there’s another suggestion about the fact that I’m not him. I think that suggestion is about asking the audience to reach outside their own known world to consider the point of view of someone else or the life of someone else.
HES: Is there a way you would suggest to people how they might approach getting to this work for the first time?
ADS: Interview your little sister. You know, interview the lady next door. The main thing is to talk to somebody you’re really curious about and to see what you have to do to get them to talk. Do they become interesting and more interesting than you thought while you were talking to them? I would say that’s a way to start.
HES: And when you interview people, are you just doing audio or are you doing video?
ADS: I’m doing video now. I would like to [put it online] largely because, by the time we’re finished with what I call the “Pipeline Project,” I’ll have at least 200 interviews. I’m only going to perform for an hour and a half on stage. Think of all that material that is never seen. Right? Characters. I think the work could be of use to folks who would like to either now or years from now like to look back on this moment in American history and look at this crisis. So that’s why to put the work out there to be of use.
HES: In an age of what you say selfies and social media, where people are so much more exposed and there are people who desire to be exposed, do you want people when they see your work to think that they are seeing you or do you want to be completely behind your character, the people that you play?
ADS: I’d be more concerned that I don’t want them to think that I’m Mrs. Akalitus from Nurse Jackie. I had a student of mine – I teach at NYU – and one of the graduate students told me that his mother had said, “I just saw your professor on television and I thought you said she was intelligent.”
I see my identity as for rent, and I want them to hear what the people have to say. I want them to hear what I heard. But I hope I don’t get in the way of that. I hope that my presence doesn’t get in the way of that but I know that my presence is there.
HES: The Pipeline Project has played out in Berkeley, California. You said to me that it’s going to have a few performances in Baltimore. Do you want it to have more or do you reach a point where you feel like I’ve done this piece?
ADS: I would like this piece to have more because I feel that the people are ever so compelling and that I want to keep refining them. I know more now about how to do these portrayals than I ever had, and that’s what happens to all of us, we gather information. I have that thing like a baby who knows it’s time to crawl. Your mother’s wondering when is he or she going to crawl? When is he going to walk? And they’re walking and that inner urge that we all have as humans, trying to ride a bike, trying to do something. I do have this great feeling to keep doing this project. To keep refining these portrayals. To keep trying to make the lens that I’m using to look at this large enough that it could be of use to the public.
HES: Obviously you go to a lot of different places to conduct your interviews, but you also perform in a number of different places. What is the experience if you know that one or more of the people that you’re portraying is in the house when you’re doing the show?
ADS: I’m nervous about it, I do invite them all. I want them to see it. And you know, I hope that they are not too self conscious or upset. I don’t think people tell me the truth about what they see. But it is important to me that they are invited and that their families are there.
HES: Very often, writers who are writing a conventional script, a writer who is sitting at the computer, creating the story, are sort of going towards wanting you to think something, wanting you to come out with a thing, or a group of things. Do you want people to come away with a particular thing?
ADS: This generation here is probably the first generation in a very long time, certainly in my lifetime, who actually comes to school to look at artistic practice for social change. This is the first time I’ve ever heard of this happening in high school. It’s usually Guys and Dolls or West Side Story or whatever the latest thing is, right? A Chorus Line. You get to be in the show! Right?
There’s always this concern that if you apply yourself like this, that you’re being didactic, or being political, right? So the people running for President want you to think something. ‘I’m the baddest of the bad and I’m the one that you should elect,’ right?
I want people to be driven to action. I want them to write a check to make something better for a kid somewhere. I want them to become involved in early childhood if they can. I want them to think about these kids, [about] who they want to elect as President of the United States. I want them to think about these kids when they decide who the mayor is in their town.
I want them to think differently about a kid who is walking by in the “iconic” hoodie with his pants down quite low in the back, because that’s what I want to consider. These kids who we lock up might not all be as dangerous as we think, in fact they’re very, very vulnerable to some profound inequities in society that make living pretty dangerous where they live. I want people who can do stuff to do stuff even if it’s, ‘I’ll walk a kid to school who has to cross a gang line’ or drive them or whatever. I want people to move up and do things the way that people did things when I grew up in the Civil Rights Movement. It’s that kind of moment in American history where people went outside of their normal doing to do a little bit more. I feel that we are really in a moment in our history where we need that to happen.
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Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School for Performing Arts School of Drama. Thanks to Briana Rice for editorial assistance with this post.