What do you do?
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.
Question: Beyond a simple title, how would you describe what you do for a living?
Anna Deavere Smith: Well I’ve studied acting, and I’ve been teaching it for a long time, since 1973, and I’ve taught in all kinds of places. And sometimes I’ve been required; not now in my career, but certainly earlier in my career; a faculty has to kind of achieve something as a group. And so a lot of times I’ve had to teach very traditional things, and so I know a lot about the varieties of methods that there are for approaching acting.
And I think the three best things I heard about acting was one, one of my teachers said that you can’t really talk about acting directly. Everything that we know to say is couched in metaphors. That’s number one. It’s not like teaching medicine, or teaching architecture, or even music because it has to do with identity. And we don’t really understand so much about it. It’s not something we can touch or feel. And the changes of identities have never been, for example, translated into; like music is translated into notes. We haven’t really translated what we do into something that can be constantly replicated with a result we can anticipate. So there’s something about it that’s a little mysterious.
Question: What is acting?
Anna Deavere Smith: Ethel Merman’s son, he was one of the most powerful teachers that I had. He said simply, the actor’s gift is the imagination.
And then one very practical and gifted teacher said, acting is the ability to believe that you are someone else. So people have all different ways of talking about it.
But the first comment I think is the most honest. It’s all couched in metaphors. And so I studied a variety of methods. People always made fun of me in acting school because I was always taking notes. But I was very interested in “what is this?” How is it again that people can change before my eyes?
And along the way of my studying in acting, and also my teaching in acting, I began to see that my students sounded a lot alike. And so I wanted to show them that no human being talks like another human being. There are people who are identical. Like you can have an identical twin of your voice. Like there are people who sound exactly like a sibling in the tone of voice; but nobody talks alike. And so I thought that one place to study identity would be in the actual speech of a given person.
Question: What is your approach to acting?
Anna Deavere Smith: Originally I was going around interviewing people because I wanted to teach something about that – about individuality as it is captured in the actual physiological mechanism of making sounds. We are linguistic animals. And then along the lines of doing that, I’ve developed this method through which I make plays, which is I interview people, I take something that I said, and then I attempt to say exactly what they said more than word for word, but utterance per utterance. Because I have come to see that it’s the way in which the utterance themselves are manipulated that an idea then comes forward. So that’s what I’ve been studying and practicing for a very, very long time.
And I have to say the thing that’s unquenchable about me is something I told you about earlier. What I really, really love to do is to listen to people and listen to stories. And so over the past, wow, I guess I have to admit it’s a little more than 30 years now, if I’ve been learning anything, it’s that I’ve been leaning more and more about listening. And I never get tired of it, never get tired.
Question: How do you understand language?
Anna Deavere Smith: Well the first thing is that it is the actual making of language; the actual “in the present” moment sound that a person is making and how they’re making that sound. That’s where identity lives, I think.
Like if you took what I’m saying here, and you transcribed it, I don’t think that’s Anna Deveare Smith. But I think that a series of sounds and movements are Anna Deveare Smith. In other words, the outward product of that.
And you know your language is close to your breeding. It’s close to your heart. And usually, what I like to listen for is the time when somebody says something in an unusual way. And usually I talk to people for about an hour, and for example if they’re constantly using upward inflections – you know, always speaking up, everything that say goes up, which younger people tend to do. As I heard a very accomplished judge say, when asked what advice she could give to young women lawyers who are trying to make it, it’s don’t do that. Because what does it say to the judge if you come forward and say, “Your honor, my client is not guilty.” It sounds like a question, right? So if someone is talking all like that, what I’m going to listen for is the time that they don’t do that. And that’s what I would start to study as a way of characterizing them.
Whereas I think a professional mimic or an impressionist would pick the thing they do the most, because that’s what an audience could then identify as that person. So an impressionist doing George Bush is going to try to find the gestures and the, you know, the intimations that he keeps using over and over again. But if I were to study him – and I haven’t really – I’d look for when he did something that wasn’t what we’ve seen.
Question: Can you identify notable communicators that you have talked to and any surprising insights?
Anna Deavere Smith: Oh, that’s a really wonderful question. Well I would say President [Bill] Clinton, for example. I went to Washington and I interviewed 520 people or more. And I was surprised that I would say of those people, Clinton was probably among the five who had the most musicality in their language.
In other words, in Washington, I would say you begin to find less and less expression than you find in other places because people are very careful about what they say. They’re going to be judged for what they say. They could say the wrong thing or say it the wrong way and never live it down. So they have, as someone said very eloquently what Thomas Jefferson had, which is that Thomas Jefferson could never been found in verbal undress. That kind of verbal dressing makes it harder to find music in the language.
I’m trying to find the time that people start to sing. I call it “singing”. Not actually, you know, “la-la-la-la-la,” but they really start to open up rhythmically. More than, again, what’s the text, it’s more about this singing as I call it.
And I was surprised to the extent to which [Bill] Clinton sang. And the other thing about Clinton that I enjoyed was that he brought truth to something that a linguist had actually told me many years ago when I told her what I was trying to do – that is to say, a form of getting people to sing – she had said to me, “Well I’m gonna give you three questions that can ensure that that will happen in the course of an hour if you only have an hour to talk to people. And the three questions were:
“Have you ever come close to death? Do you know the circumstances of your birth? And have you ever been accused of something that you didn’t do?”
Now when I first started my whole process, which I call “On the Road: A Search for American Character” – all of my plays are a part of that series – I originally just sat with people who I met on the streets of New York and talked to them about whatever. If they sold milk, I talked about selling milk. Or stick ball in the street in one case, or being a life guard at the Y [i.e. YMCA]. I sort of talked to them about what they did, and then somewhere in the interview I’d ask those three questions. And lo and behold, every time I did, people would start this singing that I’m talking about.
So when I finally got an interview with President Clinton, which wasn’t easy, and was told that I would have 10 minutes alone with him in the Oval Office, I knew that I had to have a question that would cause him to use the entire 10 minutes without me having to say anything. And the question I picked was a version of one of those three questions. And it was, “Mr. President, do you think you’re being treated like a common criminal?” which is a version of, “Have you ever been accused of something that you didn’t do?”
He spoke for 35 minutes. And as people, come into the office, “Mr. President, you need to rest your voice now . . .Okay, bye!”
So I was really happy to see that something that I learned, 27 or 30 years before I met him actually was in good stead. I had researchers. I had everything in the world to try to find the question I should ask President Clinton.
Question: Is there absolute truth?
Anna Deavere Smith: No. No.
I can never remember whether it’s in Mark or John in the Bible where Pontius Pilate is supposedly seeking truth about Christ. And he says, “What is truth?” You know, “Is it the truth?” You know, “Is the truth about this man, or is the truth about what will happen if I make the wrong decision." I’m quoting it very badly here.
So I think that there probably is not absolute truth. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek to find facts. It doesn’t mean that we should lie. I think the reason lying becomes so serious is because to make a society to do things, make buildings stand, to do a heart transplant, to do anything that is important, we have to know that the people around us are telling us things that are real, if not true. We have to be able to rely on the things that we are told as fact because we want to believe that someone went and tried something first and therefore learned of that.
And then they come and say, “Well I’ve been outside, and it’s raining today.” So we’re willing to trust that and make decisions upon that fact.
So I don’t know if I’m really a seeker of truth in terms of is someone telling me truth. I think I’m a student of human beings. That’s a better way of putting it than I’m a seeker of truth. I’m a student of human beings and their motivations, and what causes them to do what they say they’re going do, or what gets in the way of that.
Question: How do you account for different perspectives that people have when they share the same experience?
Anna Deavere Smith: Reality through the lens of your own experience. And I also think it’s difficult to put past experiences behind us – past experiences that become that lens. It’s very hard to change that lens. We don’t have a version of surgery to help us do that.
We used to think that things like psychotherapy could help with it. But now most people go to a psycho-pharmacologist. And they’re less interested in the process of telling their myths to someone who should understand them, and tearing those myths apart when they don’t help.
Oone of my favorite artists is and was Jacob Lawrence. And I interviewed him when he was quite old, and he was talking to me about growing up uptown in Harlem. And I was very interested in how somebody who grew up uptown in Harlem would have been able to mingle as well as he did. He was embraced by the downtown art crowd. That is to say the white, mainstream art crowd embraced his work.
He talked about how when he was a boy, if a white man would have walked on the street in Harlem, or if he were to go downtown and see white men walking on the street, he would automatically think to himself, “That’s a lyncher.” So to him every white man was a potential lyncher. Just like there would have been white people who had believed that every black man was a potential rapist or thief. Well he thought every white man was a potential lyncher.
So I said to him, “Well how did you get over that?” He said the simplest thing, but it had such resonance, I thought. He said, “You know, it’s just like when you were a child and you believed that there are ghosts and goblins under the bed, and then one day you don’t.”
And so many of us have different kinds of ghosts and goblins. We might think that we aren’t so attractive because somebody told us that. Or we might think that we’re very attractive; that we should be on display because somebody told us that. Or we might think that we have to lie if we’ve done something wrong. So we have these past experiences that begin to almost predict for us how we’re going to behave in any given situation. And I think it’s very hard to re-craft that, and I’m very interested in how people either succeed in re-crafting those things or not.
Question: How do you approach people without preconceptions?
Anna Deavere Smith: Well actually in terms of listening to stories, the listening part, I think I have less of a problem with that because I’ve been doing it for a very long time. And as I say, I sit down with somebody and they could tell me the ceiling is falling. And I’m mostly listening to how they said the ceiling was falling, and I’m missing the point that the ceiling is falling. So I’ve really conditioned myself to go in and listen for what I’m listening for.
People always ask me sort of how do I not judge people. That becomes irrelevant for me, because I’m listening for such a specific thing when I go in. I think what’s harder is how do I train myself out of my habits in order to inhabit them and take on their habits? And that’s hard. And that comes from repetition.
My grandfather told me when I was a kid if you say a word often enough, it becomes you. And that’s really my acting technique in the sentence; it's this belief that if I take someone’s words and repeat them over, and over, and over, and over, and over again, eventually those words are going to hit my psyche in a place that I understand who they are, really understand it, which I wouldn’t understand upon reading it or hearing it for the first time. So I would say the work that really calls for that has to do with reenacting more than listening for the first time.
Recorded on: Aug 22, 2007
Anna Deavere Smith talks about acting and how she uses language as a guide to identity.
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