Issue 2.1 Homepage

Article Contents
·On the "liveness" of a spectacle as a point of entry
·On readying an audience for a play
·On the relationship between the university and the theater
·On the call to witness, and the standing ovation
·On taking the theater seriously, both on the Right and on the Left
·On "bringing together people who know about organizing and activism with those who know how to bring you to your feet"
·On art and activism
·On finding an audience

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Anna Deavere Smith and Ann Pellegrini, "Performing Affect" (page 3 of 8)

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.

S&F Online - Issue 2.1, Public Sentiments - Ann Cvetkovich and Ann Pellegrini, Guest Editors - ©2003.