Artists I admire: Anna Deavere Smith

Last night I started teaching a new course at NYU, "Creating Ethnodrama: Theory & Practice." I've taught variations of this course under other titles in the past, but this new course represents an arrival of sorts. I've been working with interview data and field notes to create play scripts for over fifteen years now, and as I prepped the opening lecture for the course, I realized that it might be helpful for my students if I explained how I got there. Like literally what were the steps that lead me to this moment of standing in front of a room teaching a graduate course on this very specific style of work.

As I sorted through those steps and placed them onto slides, I was reminded of the moment, the spark of intrigue, that set me on this particular path. I was in drama school and had a graduate assistantship teaching three recitation sections of an introductory theatre course for non-majors. The professor for the course, Harley Erdman, included Fires in the Mirror on the course outline, and when we screened the teleplay version for the students, my mind proceeded to be blown. Who was this woman and what was she doing? How was she doing it? Why am I having such a strong reaction to what she's doing? How can I do what she's doing? That woman was, and still is, Anna Deavere Smith, and she continues to make things that move me, astound me, and reawaken my awareness about the world around me and how I'm moving through it.

Anna's work gave me the courage to make a play and share it with people. The first time I made a piece of interview theatre, it was with my performance partner, Kate Nugent, and we worked kind of in an homage to Anna. Neither of us had studied with her, but we had studied about her. Her work guided us through our own process. It was a humbling experience that illustrated just how hard it is to do what Anna Deavere Smith does, up on stage alone, bringing countless of portraits to life so that audiences gain an understanding of why people think, feel, and act the way they do about a particulate incident, experience, or current event.

I've gone on to create many pieces of interview theatre since that first piece with Kate, and I always begin with the company I'm working with by watching Fires in the Mirror. For my practice, it's the creation story, and I want people who work with me to know where our origins come from. Whose shoulders we're standing on as we attempt to answer a new question, shed light into a dim place, amplify the voices of the silenced. All of this because of Anna.

Two years ago I had the privilege of working with Anna at her workshop in San Francisco. Again, I was humbled to witness her at work with others, shaken awake to consider who I am as an artist, and transformed by knowing that Anna continues to push herself harder than anyone I've ever worked with. Her newest work, The Pipeline Project, "examines the lack of opportunity and resources for many young people living in poverty, and how these circumstances often lead them into the criminal justice system." Anna is shining light where it needs to be shined, and she fearlessly looks at what she discovers and helps audiences to do the same.

Because of what she has meant to my own growth and development as an artist and educator, because she works relentlessly to achieve social change around topics that many people fear and avoid, and because she finds a way to maintain her sense of humor while she's doing it, Anna Deavere Smith is the artist I admire for this week.