A speech delivered to the Council of the National Endowment for the Arts by Anna Deavere Smith
I am going to begin, not with an account of what I have seen, or where I have been. I am going to begin with a wish, that is so real, that it’s like a memory, and yet, it never was.
I remember a theatre with glass walls. I’m thinking about a building with clear entrances and exits. I’m thinking about a reception area with a human being, cheerful, answering a phone that rings off the hook before the automated answering service can pick up. Beyond the reception area, is a sea of rehearsal studios with glass walls offering a panoramic view of actors, playwrights, designers, directors, composers at work.
In the theatre that I’ve got in mind, I think I saw it once, it’s etched inside my memory, but it’s hard to recollect–people could lead and people could learn. Students would ask so many questions that the teachers would run from the rooms and hide behind the coke machines to catch their breaths. Ensemble players would scream shut up, I love you all at once. Directors would stay on our backs like shiatsu masseuses, stretching our deepest muscle tissue. We would work until our metaphors ached. At dusk we’d have to sit together outside in the fountain to soothe them. Then and only then would the rule of silence strictly be enforced.
We would run the risk of demystifying what we do, because when daylight struck again, inquiring guests would come into our building, having heard our yelps and clashes of fencing foils. They never knew if we were acting or if someone was in trouble. After all, our theatre would have built an empathetic community where curiosity and motivation prevailed. They would come and peer into our glass walls. Some would buy tickets, some would sign up for classes, those who couldn’t afford either would sneak in. Every time we chased them out, they’d come right back with friends.
Inquiring guests would see the doing and redoing and know the task of making the seamless seem. We never hid the task. We would display the tasks like artisans have done for centuries in the market place. Inquiring guests would watch a young hopeful, overweight, 12 year old, the most unlikely one in the class struggling to become–Juliet. Other guests might watch in awe, the elegant body and the agile elocution of the experienced actor, perhaps a movie star come back to the theatre to experience the human touch, and that gasp, that inhale of the audience, or that burst of applause when the curtain goes up, to reveal the first inspired moment, always gold-dusted somehow.
Inquiring guests would mumble about the angry looking figure in the corner of the rehearsal room. Such a guest, not knowing our ways, would hardly recognize the playwright come back from Hollywood, after ten years of escaping poverty, hungry now for the rule that casts the playwright as king rather than servant, hungry for the sanctuary where every word must be spoken as written, where every word must be fully imagined before it is uttered. Hungry for the fact that the theatre started with the love of words spoken aloud so that many could hear.
If after several days our inquiring guests ever walked further into the building, they would eventually see the managers, development officers, events planners, schedulers, Xerox machines, computers, video machines, and security guards. But first, they would see the task at hand. Even at a poor theatre, with none of these institutional protections of existence, attendance to the task would be evident. The task is the development of the charisma, behind which everything else falls into place, and the heart of the mission is attention to the individual artistic voice (since no institution is much greater than the chorus of individual gifts). After all, institutions don’t literally suffer–people do.
I once had the privilege (an honor), of performing as part of an exhibition in a museum. I’m told that I was the first performing artist ever in an exhibition at that particular museum. On the day of my performance, at about three in the afternoon, a guard approached me and said “I’ll be shadowing you until you leave,”–which was to be at about 10 p.m. And so he did. He stood outside of my dressing room, outside of the founder’s room where I did my voice warm up, indeed he stood beside me seconds before I went on-stage. At the end of the evening, he was at the side of my car door, as I pulled away. I felt then, for the first time, what it must be like to be a work of art. Of course, everyone, including the curator, would have been distracted had the guard followed me on stage. Here, in our unguardedness we have some resonance.
Even at this moment, when we are posed to guard what little we have, let’s remind ourselves of that which is not guard-able. That part, I think, is what must be saved.
I am thirsty for a theatre that reclaims performance. We have lent our costumes. We have in fact left our garments unprotected, and they are being worn in courtrooms, they are being worn in the political arena. They are being worn in the business world. Sometime in these last thirty years, the same thirty years that map the life of the NEA, the public became fascinated with the power of persona. Everyone wanted the techniques of “gestus” as Brecht called it. A general belief prevails that gestus is essential to be more “effective” in the world. And we find ourselves, in an hour such as this, with very little. Have we lent out our empathetic gifts? Oh, I hope not. “Public relations,” for example, is exactly the craft of creating the illusion of intimacy. The word that describes what we do gets misused. People think the word “acting” comes from the same root as the verb “to lie.”
Every society in history and in the world today has a tradition of mask making. But only those who are trained to wear the mask, should wear the mask. We are in the midst of a great misunderstanding.
The National Endowment For the Arts had an amazing thought in 1965, according to the graph I’ve been given. At a time when many people had dreams about a broader democracy, the National Endowment had a thought about making more theatre, making more dance, making more orchestras, making more operas accessible for more people. I am remembering 1965. I knew nothing about the art world. The NEA graph was going upward. For some of us, the graph was going outward. I was beginning to see that many people all over the world, were engaged in dismantling parts of their personas. The personas, the masks were restricting them in real life. From sand painting in Sausalito to the last gasps of colonialism in much of Africa, the human potential movement shook the sixties and early seventies. Women, people of color, men, children, were uncomfortable with restrictive roles. In that atmosphere of question, in that atmosphere of expanded identity, the arts were extremely useful. We gave the possibility. We created, in art, possibilities that people enacted in their real lives. We were, many times the inspiration, the fuel, the water for, and at the arm of, social change. Songs raised the consciousness of the nations all over the world. In America, art was a stimulus for a large and sprawling, sometimes difficult, sometimes impossible conversation.
The conversation has collapsed. Freeways and dirt roads point back to smaller, contained communities, back to neighbors well-fenced. Identity, once a negotiation, becomes now, an ultimatum. If in the last thirty years we provided a gestalt for a society that was looking for new identities, we now face a society which struts about, fully guarded, fully clothed, wearing the tricks of trade. The buck has stopped for us, but the show did not close. It just moved into another theatre–the theatre of the market place. Even the presidential campaign message will be, they say, in television commercials. Try to dig back and remember that image of hands pumping hands.
In a moment such as this, where the national pantry seems to be low on such staple foods as grace, benefit of the doubt, and kindness, it is especially important that artists stay their course and remind the public that in fact, there is more to life than the material evidence of humanness. Now, more than ever, we must continue to practice the human touch. As the great chronicler of American life, Studs Terkel, said to me–“We are more and more into communications and less and less into communication.”
In the very moment that the conversation has collapsed, we must practice talking. Luckily, plays have been written. They could become emergency food in the fallout shelter. A play comes alive between realities. After all, it is a metaphor. That gap between realities, is where we have learned to live. As artists, we live in the place where it’s not one thing, and it’s not the other. We shape a context for reality by bringing two or more things into relationship. Perhaps we should take lessons from our techniques.
Standing in the rubble of our collapsed conversation, we see too, that nationally we are frequently estranged from memory. We go from one event to the other, barely feeling the resonance and impact of what just happened. The general public however, upon coming to the theatre always remarks on the ability that the actor has to remember lines. I remember an aging, white-haired famous actress draped in magenta ribbons and medals of art, honor and freedom, mumbling sadly in response to the congratulations and awe that came her way–“I can’t even remember my lines.” This is a reality of age. American theatre, however, in the scheme of the world is quite young. Our memories should be firm. The theatre could be the emotional memory bank of the nation. Without memory, it becomes very difficult to feel the relation of one thing to another.
Who will be the guardian of art? The patrons? Perhaps. If they can afford it. If they are interested (“If”–notice how threatening “if” sounds without “as”). Without “as if,” without our bridge, without our understanding. . . So, who will be the guardian? The government? Looks doubtful. The non-traditional audiences that we have tried in some cases to develop? That we have failed in many cases, in this period of growth, to develop? They may very well have other social issues to contend with. The great Studs Terkel, I’ll quote him again–tells me that he sees a future with two options: “jobs or jails.” Well then, let’s try the patrons again, the tried and true, traditional audiences. Some of them have been willing, adventuristic, willing to allow us to try new things to show the way. And if we disappoint them? We very well may. And that will lead to cynicism.
We have the critical problem of–“where is the money going to come from?,” and “how will we organize what little we have?” We have another problem which is equally as serious. Let’s walk now to metaphor’s funeral.
I evoke for the third and last time Mr. Studs Terkel to give the eulogy. You know that he’s a great story teller. He told me the story of his friend Bill, a blues singer, a black man who sang the blues and who laughed when he was angry. And one time Studs was the MC when Bill was singing the blues. It was a story about a mule that had died, it was a song called “Plowhand Blues” and Studs said that it was “a long wail of a blues, like a Spanish Flamenco a canto handa, a deep song” and “Bill’s guitar cries out like a human voice” – “this incredible moment” and “just at that moment, these two kids one black and one white, in the audience, got up and scraped their chairs and walked out, disdainfully.” And Studs was furious–he was furious that they ruined Bill’s song. And Studs says that he said to Bill “They ruined your song those bas. . . they ruined your song.” And Bill of course laughed at Stud’s anger, and Bill said “what do they know about the blues? What do they know about a mule, it’s a horse and buggy song to them. What the hell do they know about a mule dying on ‘em? This mule died and it was a tragedy for me or my father, but they don’t know anything about mules.” Bill said, “it’s like me and the bomb,” Bill said. He said “what do I know about a bomb? They had it in Europe, Italy, Germany, and I saw the rubble, and I saw people crying when their houses fell down, but what do I know?” And then Studs said to me–he said–”Bill raises the big question, that may answer everything you’re searching for!” And he said–“And Bill said in order to sing the blues you have to experience it,” And so Studs says “If that’s the case, if you have to experience the bomb, if you have to experience it to understand it then we’re in for it!” “Do we have to have a bomb fall on us?” – he said – “Must-our-mule-die-on-us in order for us to experience the horror of it?”
So. If we get the place that we have no understanding of metaphor, if we loose all of our empathetic gifts (and this is how artist intoxicate audiences), if all this goes away
–if metaphor goes out of life–we will be in big trouble. For this reason, if not for others, we must feel our charge. We must invest in our market, our heart, our breath, our memory – bank.
Some may be the guardians of art as property, but artists must be their own guardians of metaphor–they must keep the flame, the “as if” alive. They must never allow themselves to become infantalized to the point that that happens. Metaphor can be taught, but it is, for some, instinct. Some are more inclined to experience it than others. Not everyone can live inside of metaphor. Not everyone can tolerate living in the gap, the invisible bridge. For this reason, the arts cannot give over their entire care to guardians. The artist must be an active, vocal part in his or her own care.
I have always enjoyed quoting Allen Ginsberg who reminds us that the word “inspire” comes from the Greek word for breath. Just as when we become frightened, or ill, it is crucial to remember the importance of breath, and the gift of breath, we too, must in this time, remember the importance, and the inevitability of inspiration. It is quite natural, that life brings with it, the nearly unconscious breath that goes in and the one that goes out. The last moments of life, are dramatically marked by the discontinuation of that perpetual reality.
So often people have described the moment of death as the final breath. It is very noticeable. We are not, at metaphor’s funeral. Indeed, we have had the wind knocked out of us, but we are still breathing, we are in the state of inspiration. Perpetual inspiration.
Art is created in the disruption of silence. To experience the disruption, we must hear the silence. Peter Sellars once simplified Beethoven’s Ninth for me. Just before the “Ode to Joy” – Orchestral music, music, music. Silence. And then–a human voice–a tenor singing “Freunde” which means “Friends.”
The late Lorraine Hansberry in “To Be Young Gifted and Black” creates an image of a bridge across a chasm. It is a bridge which is filled with all of her favorite artists, many of them, are indeed the greatest American artists of the twentieth century. The tragedy is of course, that Ms. Hansberry died before she was able to bridge many of the intellectual and social chasms that she saw. And I have for many years been living with her image of the bridge across the chasm. A dream of hers which so intoxicated me, inspired me as a young artist, that it became a memory. Even though it never was. Art is our connection to the universe, it is our connection to what came before, and to what will be, and to what will never be. That connection could be much simpler than we think. The bridge, may not have to carry or assemble as much greatness as Ms. Hansberry’s. In fact her artists, among them Count Basie and Duke Ellington, made it across the chasm. They were among the explorers of jazz. That miracle of American sound.
I have another memory – of a simple bridge. It was a bridge across the Potomac river, and I crossed it in my girlhood. It was called a swinging bridge. It looked like little more than rope and logs, and when a group of us walked across, singing the songs that made us gleeful, the entire bridge would bounce and swing–so much so that we bounced between fear and joy.
We don’t need a bridge that’s monumental. We don’t need an aesthetic miracle of a bridge. We need a bridge to take human beings from one side to the other. If we could remember the human touch and remind ourselves of the power of the word, the power of color, the power of song, the power of dance that defies gravity and reminds us of our souls. If we could remember this–re – member it–we would all be, I think hopeful. I remain therefore, as ever, a prisoner of hope. Thank you.
November 3, 1995