The Scholar and Feminist Online
Published by The Barnard Center for Research on Women

Issue 2.1 - Public Sentiments - Summer 2003

A Conversation
with Anna Deavere Smith and Ann Pellegrini

The following are excerpts from the afternoon plenary session at The Scholar & the Feminist Conference XXVII on February 16, 2002.

On the "liveness" of a spectacle as a point of entry:

Anna Deavere Smith: . . . Well, in this case I don't even care about the play, as much as the play as an excuse to convene us. So if we're all concerned about September 11 or we're all concerned about poverty or incarceration or any myriad of things . . . I see the possibility of a play or a painting to bring us together on that and grab our attention about that issue, that interest, and to illuminate it in another way. And to have a conversation which, I suspect, may be more fruitful than what you'll have by watching "Washington Week" or a show on television.

You may call in to a radio . . . but also I'm anticipating that, as you develop this community, you have to speak to each other when you run into each other in Cambridge, or sitting under a tree or stuff like that.

Ann Pellegrini: So what you're talking about is making the liveness of the spectacle a point of entry.

ADS: That's right. And the liveness of the audience is a very important part of that. That is not just my liveness up here, our liveness up here. It's the liveness of the audience, the occasion that they are in.

AP: Can we talk a little bit more about liveness? I was thinking that many people experienced September 11 in some form of liveness. But for many of us, or maybe most of us, we immediately went to the TV. I was telling Anna earlier about being on the 21st floor of my apartment overlooking Riverside Drive on the Hudson. And I was watching, on television, watching the buildings collapse. It never occurred to me until later to look out my window. And I could well have done that and eventually I would have seen lots of smoke outside my window. It didn't occur to me at the moment.

It's my distanciation by the TV. And what is it about the theater and what is it about bodies in space? That we want living contact with the person next to us. And the three-dimensionality. This is the specificity of theater. Is it live at that particular time and physical location?

ADS: Well, some people don't like the liveness of it, in fact, and would rather experience another kind of form that doesn't require them to be as much of a witness as we were speaking of before. It doesn't require the same witnessing that something that is not live does, even though you're in the dark and we're in the light.

On readying an audience for a play:

ADS: [The audience is] part of the play, and it's their play. But you can't just have them show up. You can't just have an audience show up.

I think that as theater makers and theater educators we have a responsibility to deal with them as something other than audiences, before we're bringing them into this civic arena.

AP: So the paradox is, how do you make the audience ready for your play, before the play?

ADS: I think we can be very imaginative about that. At the Institute, during the second summer, I experimented with the idea of someone called "Producer of the Public" who would really cast the audience. That is to say, if we were doing something about police brutality, then that Producer of the Public would bring policemen, who have one idea, and people who had been victims of police brutality, or their families have.

So that we really want to have this engagement - you could say that's cheating but it's not. It's not like papering the audience the night that the critics come. Because, again, we're not doing it for the standing ovation or for the presence of Ben Brantley.

We're really doing it because we would like to have this conversation that we know, and we've tried very hard to show you something that we know. We anticipate that you have a greater expertise; you have another expertise of accessing.

On the relationship between the university and the theater:

AP: It seems that the university has a real role to play here then. Here we are in a college context and your plays are being taught as part of university curricula. And we deal with a live audience too; this is one of the places where that training is happening - to make the audiences.

ADS: I think we have a peculiar relationship to the universities. Do you have tenure?

AP: I do.

ADS: Good.


Getting tenure in the arts is very hard. And I would not be here except for two African-American women, who will remain nameless, who did not know me personally but heard about me as a junior professor, and sought me out; and vigorously counseled me to stay in academia, although I wanted to leave.

And they said to me, "Look, it's going to be really hard for you to get tenure; there is no model for what you do. But you have to really stick with it and work very hard because maybe you can create a model." Now, I don't know if I have. But it was very hard.

And I think sometimes . . . I don't really know a whole lot about the history of theater and academia . . . but I think it is kind of young, compared to how old academia is. And so, I often wonder how many concessions we've made in the theater and in the arts to try to fit into this kind of structure.

One of the Catch-22s about getting tenure as a performer is that the only way to get a national reputation is to be able to be available to the whims of these people who make the decisions. Right?


But it's very subjective and all of this stuff. Also, you never know. It's like they'll call you up on a Friday night and they'll say, "Can you be here on Monday for a month?" And the only way to be a good teacher is to - at least in the arts - I mean, you have to be there for the students and pay attention because it's the body. The body is a book.

You can't say, "Oh, go read this and write to me." I mean, you have to be there and learn these bodies and these psyches and pay attention to them and deal with all the problems that come about when you start trying to adjust things. There is happiness and unhappiness, and you have to deal with all of that.

So you can't be having your mind somewhere. You'll be killed. You're a lion tamer, I think. So it's very hard to do those two things that don't fit together. But moreover, I feel that it is NOT our role as artists in universities to sort of stay behind the black curtains and the paint cans, and do our little private thing that nobody understands, and we think we're so special and we don't have to be bothered with anybody else because God sent us here.

We have this great thing to do - for everyone to look at us. And so, sometimes somebody from the medical school comes over because you're doing "Wit" and maybe you'll do "Fires in the Mirror," so people from African American Studies will come. But is there another role for us to have? And I think that is really about thinking differently and asking yourself as a young artist: "Am I doing this, am I getting ready to do this thing which is going to cause me poverty possibly and maybe really . . . . Am I doing this thing because I want people to look at me? I have something so special that you all have to come and see me? Or am I doing this thing because I want to look at you? And use my ability to attract attention, because I have a 36-inch inseam, or because I have a beautiful voice which is a gift.

Or in my case, I could mimic since I was a little girl. Am I using my ability to attract attention so that I can tell you what I saw about you? Or am I doing all this because I want you to see me? And I think that's sort of a rotten deal about the whole thing. Because if you come to school because you want them to look at you, the fact is that the market can only compensate, can only tolerate, only has room for very few of you.

On the call to witness, and the standing ovation:

AP: I'm thinking about the call to witness. Theater is often talked about as a kind of witnessing. But to witness is not an easy or comfortable event. To witness is in some sense, to ultimately be accountable to what and whom you do not know. We're struck by the kind of theater you're doing, the kind of documentary portraits of people.

So you're witnessing on stage, but you're also calling the audience to witness something outside their own experience, to witness events through other people's eyes. This morning, and I know you weren't here, but we heard very powerful testimony from Nieves about the horrific things that were done to her by the Pinochet regime.

And I was struck by the response, the powerful response to that testimony. One of the responses to her testimony was, there was listening, but there was also a standing ovation. And I was wondering - what is that standing ovation for? What do you do with responses to your work? Are they responses to your work? Are you being seen but not heard, if that makes sense? What forms of witness are happening on the other side of the stage? . . . When the audience stands for you - which happens all the time - how do you feel seen in terms of the work you're doing?

ADS: Well, that's a really powerful question because I think it does mean that a lot of artists actually have a lot of ambivalence about that seeing in the first place. Because after all, I am in the light and you are in the dark. And I don't think it's a natural situation that I'm talking for two hours and you're watching.

And you're seeing all kinds of things, and I can't control what you're seeing. It's different than film. And, as we have discussed, you can say something about what you're seeing at any minute.

I think this may be related:

After Clinton came to see Twilight, I was trying to get an interview with him and worked very hard to do that, over a few years. . . . So we have this conversation. And it's just me and him and his Deputy-Something-Or-Other. And it was off the record; I wasn't allowed to have a tape recorder taking notes. And so we talked and he had just seen the play the weekend before, or whatever, or a couple of days before.

We spoke for about an hour and he walked me to the door. And as he was saying goodbye to me he said, "You're very light when you bow." And he hadn't said anything about the play. We talked about other things. He hadn't said anything about the play. I mean, he had said some things right after the show, but that was more about - my mother happened to be there with a busload of people from Baltimore - so it was all about getting a picture taken with the President.

And so he said, "You're very light when you bow. Do you practice that?"


That was the weirdest question. And I laughed. I was getting into the elevator and I was thinking - now, wait a minute, I could tell Clinton something about the bow. I was going to go back; of course, I didn't, but I had this urge to go back.

Because as I was telling Ann earlier, when I did "Fires in the Mirror," I would come out and bow like this at the end. Everyone is on their feet and . . . .

[Demonstrates bow.]

There is a wonderful composer, Tania León from Cuba who had worked with Arthur Mitchell at the Dance Theater of Harlem for years. And she came to see my show and she said, "I have to talk to you." She said, "Baby, your bow! You've got to do something about that bow. You need to talk to Arthur Mitchell."


So I was interviewing Arthur Mitchell for something else. And again, I was making the same (inaudible) with Arthur Mitchell and I was just about to shut the door and I realized - I should ask him about my bow. So I said, "Tania León tells me I should ask you about the bow."

And so he said, "Oh, the bow is very important. When you're finished, the whole point of a bow is you're ending everything. You're bringing everything together for the audience." He's a dancer and he's in extraordinary shape at 65. Amazing. And then he looked at me and he said, "Would you like a standing ovation?"

And I said, "Well, yes."

And so he said, "If you want a standing ovation, you instruct them . . . "

[Demonstrating bow; upon rising, ADS gestures with her hands for the audience to stand]


On the whole, even if they were a little timid about that ovation, once I do this, they stand up. So I thought, I should go back and tell Clinton about my bow. And then I thought - gee, Presidents don't bow. They wave. That's not their job. In acting, we bow because we've done this thing, and it has to do with the curtsey, a male bow or a feminine bow. This curtsey - that we hope we've been of service to you, and we hope it was all right. There's a lot of humility.

But that's not the case in politics. Lo and behold, at Clinton's last speech at the Democratic Convention, he bowed. I nearly jumped through the television. And I guess because it was over at that point.

But I do think that there is something basically in the relationship between the artist and the audience, no matter how you work on self-confidence and what kind of narcissistic tendencies might bring into the arts - nonetheless, embedded in it is a certain profound humility.

On taking the theater seriously, on the Right and on the Left:

AP: Artists and art are not taken very seriously in this country. And I think they are by the Right. John Ashcroft recently put a drape over the Statue of Justice; at a press conference there was a dress over her breasts for him.


[. . .] and the NEA has been really eviscerated. And the Right takes art and its capacity to perform seriously - much more so than the Left. For them, art seems like elite, it's a luxury. But clearly you don't think art is a luxury, or just for so-called elites. How do we get the Left, such as it is, to take art more seriously? To me, it seems to be so vital in transforming our national life, or even a small microcosm.

ADS: Well, I agree with everything you are saying. I think that probably it does have to do with the smaller spaces in the beginning, to almost develop a sort of movement of people who develop an aesthetic of saying hard things, and who they're saying them for.

One of the things we learned at the Institute, it's like boot camp. We have this idea that if it's art about social things, it's not as good. The fact is, you're doing double duty. Because why should the public trust you with the things that they're serious about?

So you have to take it seriously. The fact is, there is someone in the audience here today, who I don't know every well yet, but I invited her to come (inaudible), was saying to me (inaudible) when we met I thought that something she said was so interesting, which is that - theater is the place in society where it is acceptable to be somebody other than yourself, right?

Otherwise you're in a hospital, right? And so there is something about even that, that is actually pretty dangerous. But we don't think it's dangerous about movie stars. If Gwyneth Paltrow plays a wife of Michael Douglas who is trying to murder her, we get scared by the thriller. But we don't get worried about the fact that she's pretending to be this thing, when she's not. I think there is an act of danger there that we could work with.

AP: And maybe exploit that danger.

ADS: Well, in a way I do, by coming up to be somebody and that person could be in the audience. So I'm Al Sharpton and Sharpton was there. And A) he could be mad or angry with me. Or B) everybody could be more interested in watching Al.


They could come back and say, "I saw Al. I was looking at you [being Al]." I don't know, but they were watching both things.

AP: You mentioned Clinton earlier. He's working an audience. He was really brilliant and had the ability of working the audience, and figure out how to make contact. It's something to behold. Clinton was great at working the audience. There is some guy now who is in office, who isn't great at working the audience.


On "bringing together people who know about organizing and activism with those who know how to bring you to your feet":

Audience Member (Judith Shapiro): [W]hat happened this morning [when the audience stood for Nieves, after she spoke of her experience in Chile in 1973] was very complicated, actually . . . . And I'd like to talk about that a little, and to think through the comparison which you brought before us, about how we respond to something like what we heard this morning, as opposed to what Anna Deavere Smith does for us in performance.

When Nieves was speaking very graphically about the things that happened to her, it was really unbearable. It was unbearable. Because you could read it in an article, but to be in the presence of someone who was physically there, and you imagine those things physically happening to a person who is in your presence - it is really unbearable.

Then we had a political analysis of it. In other words, she moved to say, and who I blamed for this are the following.

Now, I think when people stood up, many different things could have been going on. Some could have been standing up for political solidarity because many of those political analyses of why that happened in 1973 in Chile, and what was the role of the American government in this? And we're standing up because that was a political moment.

Others were standing up . . . and not only one of these things, but there was also the sheer respect of standing up, to be in the presence of someone who had gone through something that the rest of us can't even hear about, much less think of how we would survive.

And the political moment can be a moment of transcendence or repression or denial that either you deal with; and then the human thing of it. But at some point you do have to have the political analysis and see - what are we going to do about this? What are we going to do, to see that those things don't happen in the world anymore?

I don't know what the question is exactly, but [how do] we know what the relationship is between how we are mobilized by that experience? How we are mobilized by the experience of helping these people brought before us. What the necessary distance (inaudible). I really don't know . . .

ADS: I think you've said it all when you said, "I don't know what the question is." It is about the work. How are we prepared to do the work? And I think that we have an opportunity that I'm very excited about, to bring together people who know about organizing and activism, with those of us who know how to bring you to your feet.

Which is either, on the one hand, having the story so large and so authentic and so much from the body and from the soul, that it has to come to your body and to your soul - unless you're just frozen and dead, and God help you.

Or - because you've studied how to do that, as a science. Right? And so, and Nieves, it's odd to speak about you without you speaking, so much as we are, and I haven't even met you. But if someone were to dare to play her, let's say, because next week she can't come to class and you'd like to have the story told to your class.

And what it would take, the skill that it would take to have the story spoken in such a way that it had that authenticity. All right. So we bring the people to their feet, either from the authentic story or a representation of the story. But then what? Then what?

Are we only going to go home and say - my God, this very attractive woman in these beautifully-colorful clothes with all this life got up and told me this thing that just . . . is that all we're going to do, is continue to tell the story? Or are we going to do something?

On art and activism:

Audience Member: I was just wondering, you were talking about bringing together people who bring us to our feet, and people who know how to organize people once they're interested in participating in very concrete (inaudible) dealt with the issues you're talking about today. And I was wondering if you've begun to experiment with that at all? And also, what kind of follow-up you've had with the audience - at Harvard or whatever - some sort of organizing of discussion that led to some sort of further action?

ADS: Well, where the project stands now is actually to investigate more about collaboration with activists. And if I proceed to do this again, that would be a very important part. I just went to the, around the Mississippi Delta, and read a very interesting report done by the Rockefeller Foundation called (inaudible), and in part, about activism around workers.

And I went down to the subject of that report, an organization called "Southern Echo" which had its roots in the civil rights movement. One of its main members was actually in SNCC. And I was blown away at how, in one day - I had just arrived to the office - they were literally able to hook me up all over the Delta.

And I was driving around and meeting people in different towns who could introduce me to other people who had told me about catfish factories and sharecropping in the past. One woman who still lives on the plantation, and hasn't lived anywhere else.

And so, I think that one can go into the field and start to create relationships. I'm looking for a partner who will basically work as hard as I have, learning how to do these spectacles. Learning how to get people to do things, and how to help people - which has to do with talking with them and learning about them.

So I think it's about putting together people who have skills and it isn't necessarily that an activist has to learn those skills, but making partnerships. We got more headway at the Institute, with scholars, for example.

On finding an audience:

Audience Member: [W]hat I wanted to know from you, particularly, is how you find the audiences? I listened to the tape of Fires in the Mirror on the New Jersey Turnpike every day for a year. It was very inspiring. And I was sort of bursting to share this stuff. And I really didn't have a kind of venue. I didn't have an audience, except for the friends that got tired of hearing me.

And so, there is a need. And I think that one of the things that September 11th might have done, is point to the need, the empty space in the core community and core people like all of us, to find new ways to create those communities. Do you have a comment?

ADS: Yeah, I think there is a lot in your question. One place where you went with it . . . well, two immediate places. One - I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for the Los Angeles riots. By that, I mean that when I went into rehearsal for Fires in the Mirror, my play about the riots of Crown Heights, the people in the theater working on it - the designers and so forth - all said, "Nobody is going to care about this."

And you've got to grab an American audience about race in very particular times. The thing people love to say is - "We're better now, isn't it better? You wouldn't be an actress with a successful career if it wasn't better."


And there I was just studying my lines and things like that. And we were impacted and aware of what was going on the in the world. And I went home and there were friends of mine on my answering machine, crying from Los Angeles: "Oh, my God, you have to turn on the television. I know you're in tech; you've got to see what's happening."

And the next day was the day of the first performance of Fires in the Mirror. And there we were sitting in the theater, and the general manager of the public theater came in and said, "This theater is closed" - which I was delighted about. I went to the demonstration in Times Square.

And so, I didn't have my first performance. But every night I felt as though I was being literally pulled, like a tornado, down to the theater because people were so upset about race that summer. Remember Sister Souljah and all those things? So unnerved - not so much about the Crown Heights riots, but about this other riot. So that second, there were people who wanted to hear about it.

But the other thing that your statement makes me think about is an interview I did with Barbara Ehrenreich, where she was talking about how we live, on the one hand in a society, that if my brother were to lose his job, it's not necessarily likely that I would say - oh, come to New York and live with me. Or that you would do that for your brother.

But on the other hand, we don't have any mechanisms of community to absorb people who needs things. And we tend to spend our time searching for intimacy with those who are closest to us. And it seems to me that the big question is - how can we be more imaginative so that we can expand the circles of intimacy that we have to include many more people?

And we need that because the family is not the place to absorb misfortune, distance and alienation anymore.

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