Anna Deavere Smith’s powerful one-woman performance Notes from the Field (also a show on HBO, released earlier this year) is at the Royal Court for a brief run this June. Smith is widely known for her role as Nurse Jackie in The West Wing, but she is also the acclaimed writer and performer of stage performances Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, both of which used verbatim techniques to explore the Crown Heights Riots and the LA Riots respectively. Notes from the Field upholds Smith’s style of documentary theatre, drawing together research from over 250 interviews with students, staff and parents, about America’s ‘school to prison pipeline’ structure.
The school to prison pipeline is a social theory with research showing that many youth of colour are more or less ‘fast-tracked’ from schools to detention facilities or jails. These young people have a much higher probability of incarceration than their white peers. It is this theory that Smith’s piece grapples with. Through recorded footage, live music and multi-roling, she asks us to think about the current schooling system, and to question how education could support rather than hinder young people today.
Watching the show on its opening night, I felt that every word she spoke and action she performed had a purpose. I was shocked when it came to an end (with a much-deserved standing ovation) because I could have gone on watching for much longer. I don’t often cry at theatre, but this show moved me to tears. Smith understands exactly when her performance needs some comic relief, making the poignant moments all the more hard-hitting. It’s a visual reminder of just how well art and activism can blend, and it was certainly a wake-up call for me, challenging my own actions first and most importantly as a human being, but secondly, as an artist too.
In our conversation before the performance, Anna Deavere Smith tells me that although she has a number of artistic inspirations, her unique method of creating theatre solely through verbatim materials is not a technique inspired by any other theatre practitioner. Smith is considered the pioneer of what she does – namely, stitching together a piece entirely from the fabric of interviews. She thinks of her work as “making a dress”. Much of her work involves her embodying the speech, intonations and physical gestures of real people she has interviewed – whether judges, former convicts, teachers or activists. She feels like a designer who is “designing clothes on a fitting model, first beginning with lots of material…that’s what I’m doing; I’m modelling on myself.”
Smith goes on to explain that she first found her imagination captured by people such as Studs Terkel, whose book Working, containing interviews with the citizens of Chicago, went on to become a Broadway musical. She was also inspired by training at acting school, where her teacher Wynn Handman would give the class scenes and ask the students to create monologues out of them. She is very interested in examining things in detail, and then stepping back to create an entire picture. However, when it comes to certain compositional aspects, such as the use of video footage in her performances, she doesn’t concern herself with it too much: “That’s the director’s work, not mine! It [the use of video] is like having a photograph in a newspaper.”
Notes from the Field is directed by Leonard Foglia, who Smith also worked with on Let Me Down Easy (2008-10). Her approach to theatre-making is always highly collaborative, despite her most well-known shows being solo performances. Her ideas often come from speaking with those who do social justice work: she tells me that her attention is drawn by “things that happen in smaller communities that the general public doesn’t know about”. Her shows function to share these stories with audiences around the world.
Once she has collated the interviews, Smith begins working with them as soon as possible. And she treats them with respect. When I asked her about the ethics of the verbatim technique, she says, “I create a relationship with the people who are presented in the play and… most of them have seen it (the show). Some of them several times.”
Arguably, it’s the interplay of these real voices that makes her shows such a powerful experience. Smith sees her work as propositions or ‘offerings’, rather than answers. Laughing, she tells me of a show she once wrote called On Grace – “It sounds like a joke but I spoke to a Presbyterian, a Jewish rabbi, a Buddhist priest and a Muslim imam. That play never came to full fruition but I loved the process of writing that play. We live in a very secular society; some are very suspicious of religion. Religious people are just carrying big questions, and I believe in questions rather than answers personally.”
Asking big questions about class, race, education and the jailing system led her to speak to many people of faith; she speculates that perhaps this was because “this particular project deals mostly with Black and Brown people, or people who weren’t religious but are spiritual by nature…” As a result, many of the people interviewed were Christian, and Smith asked them all one important question – What would Jesus think? Smith believes we live in a time to be examining ourselves and to ‘be among searchers’, being aware of ourselves and the role we play in society.
Her work is highly influenced by her experience of Christianity and of Bible School. Even in her short stay in London, she speaks of already having already attended and enjoyed some very powerful services, at St Paul’s for example. She’s here on first visit to London in over 25 years (Fires in the Mirror played at the Royal Court in 1993). And whilst she hasn’t had a chance to directly speak with audiences, she feels that everyone has been very supportive and appreciative of her work. It surprised her, she admits, but suggested to her that “this [inequality] is not just an American problem. We’re at a moment in history, and not the first, where globally, people are more aware of inequality and human hatred, which is at the seat of what inequality is about.”
She tells me that she feels very aware of who she is, as an American artist, performing her work for a British audience at this particular point in time and that she senses the audience are already mulling over such sombre topics of injustice, “particularly this week, with the commemoration of the [Grenfell] fires…it’s certainly affected my consciousness. There is a disappointment in government [because] humans do not come first and the richest people are the furthest away from danger.” She goes on to say that “schools have failed poor people, but schools are an institution which don’t have the resources…” to effect deeper social change. She believes that everyday people can achieve change on a local level and her creative aim is to call people to action, much like the artists before her have called her to action: she quotes the poetry of Friedrich Schiller and even Beethoven’s 9th as works of art that raised her own social consciousness.
Ultimately, however, she has no way of knowing what sort of effect her performances have on politics (although she was awarded the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama in 2013!)
More than just an exploration of people and events, Smith’s work is also concerned with generating a sense of atmosphere, and of a distinct place. When asked about how she goes about evoking a sense of place onstage, Smith is contemplative: “That’s a good question that no one has asked me before, actually! Two of my plays have had a very specific sense of place: Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles… It probably has to do with the fact of practically being on the land of the place to do the interviews; even when I went to Africa, I situated myself in Rawanda, Uganda and South Africa, not the whole of Africa… In my research, it built up to On the Road: A Search for American character (she stresses ‘American’) so I’m very aware of travelling and being with the people and being in the place, away from my home, chasing that which is not me.”
Smith does a very good job of chasing that which is not her; in Notes from the Field she plays 19 characters, inhabiting each person’s physical gesture and even speech patterns superbly. But how does she practically access her characters? And how does this differ from her work for screen, where the characters and stories being shown are fictional? Smith says she doesn’t feel like there is much relation between her acting for screen and her stage performances. Despite loving the process of adapting Notes from the Field for HBO, she is aware that she currently feels more comfortable in the language of the theatre: “I’ve always been hyper aware of language; in television they just want you to say the words, very quickly, and not to make any mistakes! It’s a visual medium and there’s so much else telling the story [so] the language is not the centre; it’s just a tool. Whereas what I do, the centre is the language! I very much appreciated the rigour of Shakespeare’s language at acting school and what I do is a direct outgrowth of that tradition and oral storytelling, and the Bible, you know? Words prevail. In the beginning was the word and the word was with God…”
As an actor, she relies on different tools to enable her to perform for either the stage or for screen: “I think, if I want to do more TV, I need to work on how I adapt my persona for the screen. In stage, because I can use so much language, I rely on the language to let me access the character. On screen it’s different…and so I need to look at different ways and get better at being conscious of how I adapt my persona…I don’t work much in television but I would like to do more in it!”
She would urge young performers to keep working at their craft and to believe in themselves, quoting her good friend (who was also the US’s first supermodel) who once told her, “Just be yourself.” Smith laughs: “At first I thought: What?!…But that’s all it is! Television is being yourself and consciously changing that a little on a dial.’ Her advice to young writers is also deceptively simple – ‘Just write!’ she says. ‘I would also encourage them to read my book, Letters to a Young Artist, which basically says… Keep at it!’
As a young theatre-maker myself, I’m very inspired by Smith’s deep-rooted understanding of her own work. Smith speaks in such a visual way – a skill which clearly transfers into her own performance. I’ve always loved language and storytelling, but can’t recall being encouraged to view my love of language as an entry point to understanding the characters I play. It’s fascinating to discover yet another link between what I do as a writer and what I do as an actor. (And her book Letters to a Young Artist is already added to my Amazon basket!) She ends our conversation with some final encouraging words: “All of us are trying to make something out of nothing, whether that’s writing or starting a business. If there’s anybody around you who doesn’t believe in you, put them on hold – they’ll be there; they will, but put them on hold for now. Don’t ask them to believe in you because they can’t – they don’t have the same vision as you.”
Notes from the Field is on at the Royal Court until Saturday 23rd June. More info here.