A closer look at Artist-in-Residence Anna Deavere Smith
The Santa Clara
March 2, 2017
As the 2016-17 Frank Sinatra Scholar-Artist-in-Residence, actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith has made several visits already to campus to meet with faculty and students. (Above) Smith performs during her talk, “The Art of Communication: Storytelling, Listening, and Authenticity.”
“When I was a kid, my grandpa said that if you say a word often enough, it becomes you,” actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith told a near-capacity audience in Santa Clara’s Music Recital Hall. “I have spent the greater part of my life now, interviewing people around the United States with a tape-recorder and now with a video camera, trying to become America word for word.”
That night, Smith—who is perhaps best known for her television roles as Nancy McNally on “The West Wing” and Gloria Akalitus on “Nurse Jackie”—demonstrated just how well she can “become America.”
Throughout her talk, titled “The Art of Communication: Storytelling, Listening, and Authenticity,” Smith seamlessly transformed into various characters, all actual people. Over the course of the night, she slipped into the persona of former Texas Governor Ann Richards and later, jazz singer Abbey Lincoln. She even acted out a conversation between anthropologist Margaret Mead and writer James Baldwin—portraying the two simultaneously.
Simply put, to watch Smith is to witness a transformation before your eyes. Without the aid of props, costume or makeup, she somehow becomes another person in his or her entirety.
This style of acting, dubbed “documentary theatre,” has typified Smith’s career. As she explained in an interview with The Santa Clara, it was originally the old Bard who inspired her to further develop this unique acting style and process.
“I was very interested in Shakespeare’s language, and the ways in which in Shakespeare everything is in the words. You don’t have stage directions,” Smith said.
With her own focus on words, Smith consequently interviews many people—often hundreds—for each play she writes. She then portrays these people, using their own words. Smith has written a total of 19 plays in this style, covering a variety of topics, from the 1992 Los Angeles riots to health care issues in the U.S. Her shows, where she is often the only performer, have earned her critical acclaim and a multitude of awards.
“I see it as making portraits of real people,” Smith explained. “It’s really based on trying to find people who I feel are very talented in the ways that they express themselves—which has nothing to do with education, social class or anything like that. My technique is looking—listening to the natural music of a person’s speech and through that, learning other things about them.”
Even though Smith engages with oral history through these interviews, she doesn’t consider herself a student of history. Rather, she calls herself an Americanist, “trying to provide . . . a sort of tapestry of American culture,” she said.
In particular, she looks for how people in the United States engage one another.
“I would say that I am interested in the events of my time, and I am interested in how human beings respond to the events of their time,” Smith said. “But more than that, I’m interested in the ways in which humans are able to approach one another in a way that’s loving and life-propelling. Because we have a choice, right? There’s a great (line) in the famous Rolling Stones song ‘Gimme Shelter,’ where, in talking about life, something is just a shot away or just a kiss away—and I’m really interested in that with humans.”
Bringing her vast knowledge and experience, Smith currently holds the position of Frank Sinatra Scholar-Artist-in-Residence at Santa Clara for the school year. She visited campus earlier in Winter Quarter in order to meet with faculty and classes, and then visited again later to give her talk, “The Art of Communication: Storytelling, Listening, and Authenticity.”
During her residency, Smith has been working with one particular group of students—the cast of “Welcome to Claradise.” Written and developed by Santa Clara students and faculty from the theatre department, the play is done in the style of Smith’s documentary theatre and focuses inwardly on issues on campus.
With her visits on campus, Smith has been working with the student-actors in individual sessions, teaching them her technique and process.
With the play opening in just a little over a week on March 10, Smith had nothing but praise for the cast of “Welcome to Claradise.”
“They are really terrific, they are really curious, they are kind, and they are energetic,” she said. “I have just fallen in love with the students and the show.”
However, working with students isn’t anything new for Smith. In addition to acting on stage, as well as behind the camera in film and television, Smith is also a professor at New York University where she teaches classes primarily about personal narrative. Despite her hectic schedule, she finds a lot of enjoyment in teaching.
“What is compelling to me about the classroom is that I see it as a laboratory. It’s a place where my students and I can discover new things about humans and about the human condition,” Smith said. “I am very interested in them and I am very interested in their imaginations—you never know when we are going to trip over a moment of genius.”
Thus, whether it’s through teaching or performing, Smith believes theatre—and all the arts in general—have a special role to play not just in our lives, but also in our increasingly polarized world.“This is a very important time for art around the world and for one reason,” said the actor and writer. “Arts institutions are these great big buildings—and sometimes very small buildings—where people convene and where they very often are with strangers. It’s different than a church, where you are with your denomination. It’s people from all over the place, with different ideas. And inside those institutions we can have conversations that we can’t have elsewhere.”
Smith added, “I do feel that this is a moment when all of us in the arts have an opportunity to step up and become better artists and communicate more broadly and more widely about what is going on in the world.”
Contact Maura Turcotte at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4852.