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Anna Deavere Smith On Creativity, Communicating And Connecting

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Courtesy: YCBA

In a world where 140 characters Tweet by us and Facebook updates seem to deaden the mind rather than expand it--in most cases--I felt the urge to revisit Webster's Dictionary and look up the word "educate." One definition stood out: "to develop mentally, morally, or aesthetically especially by instruction."

Imagine that. Now imagine really putting it to use.

Anna Deavere Smith does, which is what makes the MacArthur Award-winning actress, playwright, HuffPo blogger and educator's upcoming San Francisco appearance something to savor. In "An Evening With Anna Deavere Smith" (June 8), part of a conversation series presented by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Smith is joined by Steven Anthony Jones, artistic director of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, for a night of thought-provoking conversation. Much of it is designed in a way for Smith to share what she's learned about communicating and connecting.

Having generated buzz for several years now on Showtime's Nurse Jackie, Smith's TV and film acting (The American President, Rachel Getting Married, The West Wing) typically wins raves, but it's her writing, teaching and her stage work that truly stands out--in fact her stage work is often heralded for its depth and inventiveness, as it blends theater, social commentary and journalism. One of her more vibrant productions was "Let Me Down Easy," which boldly tackled the issue of health care. The show, in which she played all of the characters (based on real people), ran at New York's Second Stage Theater as well as Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2011. Prior to that, she mesmerized audiences with "Twilight: Los Angeles," in which she also took on numerous characters in a gripping piece set in the turbulent aftermath of the 1992 Rodney King trial and verdict.

For the San Francisco outing, she hopes to take opportunities that creative people explore and put them to use for the "bigger public"--people who are working in companies, politics or individuals who want to make a change. She is also conducting a special acting workshop at YCBA from June 12 to June 19, 2013 in which other creative minds--from Juilliard to Alvin Ailey--will be on hand.

I recently caught up with the woman to learn more.

Greg Archer: You are a very creative person with a diverse skill set. Why did you say yes to this?

Anna Deavere Smith: For one thing, San Francisco is home to me because that's where I got the lights "switched on." It wasn't where my life was headed and I ended up by accident at American Conservatory Theatre, and I ended up by accident getting accepted into the program. I didn't even know people went to school for acting. And then ... I ended up by accident getting put into the company. And then I ended up by accident being asked to stick around. So, I have a lot of love in my heart for the city and what it did to me. And I want people to get turned on to their creativity. And that's really what I am all about when you really think about it.

Greg Archer: And you've been teaching ...

Anna Deavere Smith: I've never stopped teaching. I've taught since 1973. My first teaching job was at A.C.T. when I was still in school. I taught at Stanford for 10 years and now I am at NYU. I am not going to leave the academy--I love what that is. But what I really want is to take the type of opportunities that we who identify as creative people in society, as artists, and the kind of things that we explore, and put that at use for a bigger public--people who are working in companies, or people who are working in politics, or people who want to make a change, or even somebody who wants to relate differently with their own family. I want to take what I know about communicating and share it with more people. That being said, I am certainly encouraging artists in San Francisco who want to come and work with me and the faculty we've put together. We are all going to share what we know about communicating and connecting. So that's what we're up to.

Greg Archer: Now, more than ever before, creative souls need to be uniting more, but I wonder what you think of the times we're living in?

Anna Deavere Smith: Well, I think we live in a world where the word "disruptive" is now a good word. I am old enough to know that it wasn't a very positive word--to disrupt. But now, you have disruptive technology, a disruptive message. To disrupt means to succeed; it means to change. I think folks are looking to sponsor game changers. Well, what that means in terms of what art often does, which is to help us understand and make sense of the world around us, is that it gives a time when artists can be of great use around that--to help create more meaning. The kind of meaning that maybe people sought in churches but they have a very secular society now, so I see some arts enterprises as a kind of secular religion or a kind of constant education, which is like "hey, this is what's happening, this is the world around you." And of course, what my work has always been dedicated to is trying to use art to impact the world around me; to cause people to think about things a little bit differently. I feel that there is a whole generation of people, even among artists, who have a different idea of what they want to do with their skill set and the impact they want to have. And likewise, "creative" is also a good word right now. People are searching for new ways to be creative and innovative. And the key to innovation really keeps coming back to: How do you communicate, and how do you connect?

Greg Archer: I'm curious, when you were starting out, who inspired you? Who gave you the creative fuel to help you move forward?

Anna Deavere Smith: Certainly William Ball [American stage director and founder of the American Conservatory Theatre], who was running A.C.T. at the time. Certainly one of the people who is going to be teaching with me, Anita Bradley--I am so excited she is going to join me. She had a huge effect on me when I was back in San Francisco. And City Lights Books. And at that time, the playwrights--the usual suspects: Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Shakespeare. But in terms of other playwrights, people of color, and people from other countries, that wasn't happening in my training, so I took the one day that I had off and sat in the basement of City Lights Books, just trying to educate myself. So I see that basement as a major influencer in my life at that time.

Greg Archer: Well, that bookstore is downright amazing.

Anna Deavere Smith: Well, look ... they have survived everything. From Barnes & Noble taking over the world and now, Amazon, taking over the world. They are still there.

Greg Archer: Amazingly resilient. So, in some of your work, for instance in "Let Me Down Easy," it feels as if you are "channeling" these beings, these characters. What is that like for you up there on stage?

Anna Deavere Smith: Before "Let Me Down Easy," I did a play that was much more ambitious in that way, which was a play called "Twilight: Los Angeles," where I played something like 46 characters. So "Let Me Down Easy" was certainly demanding, but I had, at that time, trained myself--I built my stamina, really. I started developing that way of working all the way back when I was at A.C.T. It didn't really hit the scene in a big way until I did a play about the riots in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, between blacks and Jews. What it all comes down to--my sharing of all the things of all these years of work--is, again, connecting. It all starts with listening and watching. So, I sort of came to this conclusion when I was this young artist--everybody talked about how you had to have a voice and a vision--that I had a voice but that maybe I should develop an ear. And maybe you should listen to the world around you. So that was the first thing that I set out to do in this kind of work, which you say I am "channeling," but what I have really done is spend hours upon hours upon hours listening and watching, and, in particular, listening to people when their lives are upside down. I think that when somebody's life is upside down and you sit and you talk to them, what they really want to have happen when they are in complete disarray, is to have their dignity restored. And that's not something I give them; just listen to them make sense out of the chaos.

Greg Archer: Yes. I get that.

Anna Deavere Smith: Because every one of us has that ability to do that. So I just go to places where the world is upside down and where I know that people would go to a mountaintop and scream what's going on. I just happen to be there. And that, really, I learned in those early days at A.C.T. and studying Shakespeare. Because one of the many many facets of this genius was the ability to make "character" just with language. So I began to think: "Ha. I get the person's psyche and their intelligence, and even their brilliance or their pain, if I can live in their language." That's one of the things we'll bring to the workshop; the ways of how to watch. Hopefully that will help artists working on a new piece to think differently about the work. Or, it can help people who are actors and dancers or writers get more skills, or it could help somebody who has never performed before get some skills they can use to be more effective in the world around them.

Greg Archer: What's some of the best advice you have been given about life?

Anna Deavere Smith: The best advice I got about life ... well, there were two specific pieces of advice. One ... I guess I am getting to this point in my life where I am returning a lot in my imagination to those early years in San Francisco. Back there at A.C.T., I had a mime teacher who didn't speak very much English at all. She was Japanese. And she said to me: "Have the rich life and Haiku will come." And what that did to me was, 'Don't worry about being a good artist. Don't worry about where the next job is going to come from--have a rich life and Haiku will come." And the other, was something somebody said to me recently and unfortunately, I cannot tell you the origin of the quote, but it felt so right and I tried to use it with my students at NYU. It's that "leadership is about identifying the questions. You can Google the answers."

Greg Archer: Love that. One last thing: What's the most interesting thing you have been learning about yourself lately?

Anna Deavere Smith: About myself? Well, you know, I tend to focus on what I am learning in the world and then I have a lot of faith that that will impact me, and I think the most interesting thing I am learning about the world right now is that we're in a crisis in education. In all levels of it--K-12 and higher education. There's too much money and not enough money. And there appears to be two major camps in that discussion. There's the camp of people of who believe that in the course of five years, education as we know it, will be completely gone and that everyone will be learning everything through new technologies online. And then there's this other camp, which is huge, which is all about the different way that we try to make education effective for a lot of different kinds of people. And in that camp, you have the kind of people who argue about charter schools or public schools, and people who argue about testing or not; the people who argue that art needs to be in the school; people who say it has no place. So that's what's interesting me right now--these different shifts that are going on in an arena where I spend a lot of my life, which is educating people. It shows up in the work that I have done and loved in schools and conservatories, or what I do on stage by trying to encourage the audience to look at something through a bigger prism than the tribe that they live in, if that makes sense.

Greg Archer: Yes, it does.

Anna Deavere Smith: So it's sort of like the way I live my life--what I live my life doing, which is educating, and it's really changing in a real dramatic way. How that is going to change me? I don't know. Maybe one thing it's done is make me feel this urgency to not do all of it in a university ... to at least start by coming into civic space in a wonderful place that's willing to have me there--Yerba Buena--and see what happens.


Learn more about "An Evening With Anna Deavere Smith" (June 8, YCBA) and the upcoming workshops that follow here. Revisit "Let Me Down Easy" below: