How does Shakespeare inspire your work?

Anna Deavere Smith is an actor, a teacher, a playwright, and the creator of an acclaimed series of one-woman plays based on her interviews with diverse voices from communities in crisis. She has won two Obie Awards, two Tony nominations for her play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, and a MacArthur Fellowship. 

She was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her play Fires in the Mirror. She has had roles in the films Philadelphia, An American President, The Human Stain, and Rent, and she has worked in television on The Practice, Presidio Med, and The West Wing. The founder and director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, she teaches at New York University and lives in New York City.


  • Transcript


Topic: Shakespeare

Anna Deavere Smith: I mean he first and foremost brings a very, very complex study of the human condition. And he can make you laugh and he can make you cry. And he can make you consider political realities in new ways. And he never dies. It’s always relevant.

But for me, what was important about Shakespeare was the fact that it all was in the words. All the action was in the words. All of the humanity he was trying to share was in words. And in fact, in words that were designed in a certain way. So I was interested in the design of Shakespeare’s words, and how that design led to anybody saying those words – a profound and deep understanding about the human being they were portraying.

And in fact that led me directly to thinking that if I were to study the words of a so-called common walking man, and treat it and study it the way that I treated and studied Shakespeare, that I would find something inside of what we call a commonplace person which could be on the stage. And not really in that way that you say, “Truth is stranger than fiction,” but that someone in the course of an hour would come upon something that was so meaningful to them that it could be heroic; and that it could capture the attention of an audience.

And so pretty much, Shakespeare led me right to my experiment.

What I had was a question that occupied me for a very long time. So I can tell you what the question was, and I can tell you that even as I still practice around that question, it’s led me to another question that I don’t even know how to work on.

But the question I’ve been trying to answer since the first time I ever picked up a Shakespearean text to speak it under the gaze of an authority on Shakespeare. I had spoken some Shakespearean words in other informal ways; but the first time anybody was sort of ever listening to me attempt to speak in Shakespeare was in 1972 or something like that. And so the question that came from that was, “What is the relationship of language to identity?”

And that’s what you and I have been talking about. And that question has occupied me for a long time.

And now I have a new question, which is, “What is the gap between understanding and action? And what does it take to bridge that gap?” And I don’t know the answer to it. That’s the question that I suspect will occupy me now for some years.

Recorded on: 08/22/2007