The Power of Words: A Conversation with Anna Deavere Smith

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Anna Deavere Smith is an actress, writer, and activist. In 2012, President Obama awarded her the National Endowment for the Humanities Medal. Her work has been nominated for Tony awards and as runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. Anna is often seen on ABC, co-starring on For the People from Shonda Rhimes and Black-ish. She has previously starred on shows such as Nurse Jackie, The West Wing, and in films such as The American President, Rachel Getting Married, Philadelphia, Dave, Rent, and The Human Stain.

Her most recent play, Notes From the Field, looks at issues of education, racial inequality, and incarceration. Drawn from interviews with more than 250 people living and working within a challenged system, and featuring Smith’s fearless portrayals of 18 real-life characters, the film shines a light on a lost generation of American youth, hoping to inspire awareness and change. The New York Times named it among The Best Theater of 2016 and Time magazine named it one of the Top 10 Plays of the year. Now, the play was has been made into a film for HBO.

Anna recently sat down with LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher to talk about her work, taking plays from the stage to the screen, and the power of words.

John Bucher: The play originated with these 250 interviews that you did around the country. Did you have any idea when you were conducting those interviews what the end product you wanted to create was?

Anna Deavere Smith: Well, you know, the form of me using real words of people is a form that I’ve been using since the ’80s, so I knew that it would be that format, because that’s really how I write plays, and that’s what I perform, so I knew that. But I didn’t know what the people would say or I didn’t know how I would put it all together — how I would organize it. But I knew that I would make a form that was a one-person performance using verbatim excerpts of interviews.

 

John Bucher: Let’s talk about the structure. After all these interviews, how do you begin to tease things out and structure a piece like this? How do you begin to create a narrative flow?

Anna Deavere Smith: That’s what rehearsal’s all about. I immediately get on my feet on the first day of rehearsal, even without knowing the language yet, and I just experiment and I go home in the evening and write a new play basically every night, until I have something where everything fits together. It’s me saying words, but I’m also moving physically, so it all has to fit together, and the only way to get that to happen is to just get on my feet and start trying to portray the people. It’s kind of like making a sculpture or making a dress, you know? It’s piece by piece.

John Bucher: I’m sure it was very emotional to talk to many of these folks. How do you take that material and get it on the page, and then later embody that material? Do you imitate what the emotions were when that person was giving the interview, or do you create something new from those words? How does that work?

Anna Deavere Smith: Well, the words are verbatim. The words are exactly what the people said. When I was a girl, my grandfather said, “If you say a word often enough, it becomes you,” and that’s really my technique. I really believe that if I learn exactly what somebody said, that I will find myself, as an actor, in a similar state of mind as them. I’ll never know what they’re really thinking, but I’ll have some of their feelings.

It’s a really great question, because I don’t actually study how they feel and then try to replicate that feeling. I just study their words. Words are like… Some people would say it’s like prayer, you know what I mean? Or like what the witch doctors did, you know? “Double, double, toil and trouble.” To do the work I do, you have to really believe in the power of words, so it comes down to that.

I believe in the power of words and I believe that when a person’s speaking, especially when they feel very strongly about something, or if they know something very, very well, that when I take that on, I’m going to give the illusion to the audience that I feel it very strongly as an actor, or I know it very well as an actor.

John Bucher: You deal with some themes that are exactly where we’re at right now as a country. Did you know that you wanted to talk about things like the school-to-prison pipeline before you began the interviews?

Anna Deavere Smith: This particular project is the most mission-driven project I’ve ever done. I didn’t know anything about the school-to-prison pipeline, and the people who are actually in the trenches working on it are the people who introduced me to it, and the whole reason I did the interviews and made a work of art is that I think that art can reach hearts and minds, and I think that there’s some great things that newspapers can do, and that journal articles can do, and policy papers can do — but that we as artists have something else we can do.

And so I took on this particular issue to try to raise awareness and to go where I can go, which is first theater audiences, and then the people from HBO, and then very significantly, Johnathan Demme. The late Johnathan Demme came to see it and felt he wanted to make a movie of it and was able to. He has a deal at HBO so it all came together very well, that HBO would be the home for a film of it, and of course, a film is just gonna reach more people. Nothing the matter with the theater. The theater’s my first love, but we know the film is gonna reach more people, and my mission is to get the word out to more people, and so the film became a very, very good way of doing that.

John Bucher: Was there anything that you had to adapt from the original stage play when they began to film? Was there anything you needed to change or could you keep it exactly as it was?

Anna Deavere Smith: Well, for one thing, it’s a film, and so it had a film director. Johnathan, as he became more ill, as his health began to fail, he asked Kristi Zea to take over as director. Kristi Zea, as you probably know, is quite a distinguished production designer and had done the production design for many of Johnathan’s movie. Also, when he died, the people who had asked in the first place to work with him, people who have worked with him on many projects, really felt that it was part of Johnathan’s legacy to complete this film.

So the first thing is that a film is just made in a different way, just organizationally, in every way than a play. I had to make it shorter. It runs 89 minutes. The stage play had an intermission and was longer. We shot everything the way it was in the stage play, and then a lot of cutting down happened in the editing room, and I was very involved with the editing, so that’s where the cuts happened, and I loved being in the editing room, because the editing room is a lot like what I was describing to you in the rehearsal hall, when I’m writing a play. It’s the same thing, really.

John Bucher: I’m really taken with what you said about the power of words, because so many of the things that came from the interviews verbatim are so powerful. What do you hope that audiences take away? Specifically, what do you hope that people learn, maybe, that they did not know before?

Anna Deavere Smith: I think a lot of people did not know how to look up close at what happened in Baltimore. I don’t think people know about the war, I will call it a war, in the streets where there’s poverty, between police officers and young people. I think a lot of people don’t realize that young kids get kicked out of school, and there’s a Native American character who, the guy in the big orange waders, does the best job of talking about getting kicked out of his school and then right from there to juvenile hall, and right from there to some of the toughest prisons in the state of California. I don’t think people realize that.

Thanks to many people in our industry, John Legend and Ava DuVernay for example, people know that mass incarceration in this country is out of whack, but I don’t think they know that children are so susceptible to it. I don’t think they know that. There’s a character, a psychiatrist, in it who talks about historical trauma and he talks about how you carry in your DNA the trauma of the people in your family who came before you. I mean, people are always surprised about that, and I think that people, even though they may know in general about American hero John Lewis, who ends the movie, I don’t think they really know how big his heart is, and his capacity for forgiveness and love. I don’t think they really know that, from seeing him on CNN or something like that.

I think they learn that, and I think they learn how these problems that we have now have plagued us in America for a very long time, and I hope how they feel from all of this is that they need to make something better. They need to insist that the public schools wherever they live are better, that they need to think differently about somebody they see on the street that they may judge a certain way, and they need to understand that although they may feel the police are there to protect them, that not every American has that feeling about a police officer.

John Bucher: I think there will be a lot of people that see this piece and are deeply inspired to want to use their art to go and say something about these ideas and these matters. What advice would you have to creators who are looking to say something about marginalized people or the plight of people that are being oppressed around the world right now?

Anna Deavere Smith: I would say, now is the perfect time. I’m a hope-a-holic. I’m stealing that expression. One time I heard Gloria Steinem say that, and I said, “Ooh, I wanna say that sometime,” so I’m saying it to you. This is an opportunity to say it to you. I’m a hope-a-holic, and I think that there’s very, very disturbing things going on in the world right now, and I think if you are an artist and you have a skill set, this is the time to come forward and use your form, about anything that is not quite right now. War. The plight of women. Unfairness. The death penalty. The environment. All of these… I always see problems exactly like a mathematician sees a problem, as an opportunity to solve something. I wrote a book about this called Letters to a Young Artist. Toni Morrison once told me that she knows she’s ready to write when she has something to fret about. I feel the same way. Let what you fret about move you to create.

Notes from the Field is currently playing on all HBO outlets. Anna’s book Letters to a Young Artist is available on Amazon

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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