Three years ago Anna Deavere Smith discovered a new winning formula for creating a successful one-woman show.
The secrets to Smith’s ability to consistently transform herself into vivid characters by breathing life into them as she disappears inside their personas, while simultaneously relaying an intriguing, humorous and sometimes controversial but always entertaining yarn that resonates with her audience, are”¦drum roll”¦discipline and kale.
Yes, kale, touted as one of the most potent health-promoting vegetables. Kale – defined as a hardy cabbage of a variety that produces erect stems with large leaves and no compact head.Â Yes, that kale.
“That’s the secret,” said Smith during a recent phone interview. “Discipline is important and so is kale. Kale is important because you need a lot of energy to perform. I found this out as long ago as 2008.Â I caught on to the incredible amount of energy you get from kale and turnip greens. It’s also about getting enough rest.Â You have to live a certain way and take care of yourself – your mind, body and spirit. You need all of that because this is real demanding work.”
The work Smith speaks of is the latest solo project she conceived and wrote, Let Me Down Easy, directed by Leonard Foglia (Master Class) and set to play July 20-31, on the Broad Stage at the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center.
In Let Me Down Easy, Smith dons various real and imagined characters as she takes the audience on a journey through the convoluted U.S. health care system. The show focuses on the human side of the health care story as it relates to the human body, the resilience of the spirit and the price of medical care. Smith says the show is also about love.
“With this particular show I’m trying to suggest that the human spirit outweighs anything that could seem to be an insurmountable struggle,” says Smith.
Smith wanted to do a show about the health care system because she says she could both sympathize and empathize with what people were going through as they tried to navigate through its problematic and intricate labyrinth.
“I like to do shows about what’s touching me at the moment,” says Smith.Â Perhaps her best-known project was the Center Theatre Group-commissioned Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, which depicted the LA riots of that year. It opened at the Mark Taper Forum in June 1993 and eventually was performed nationwide, receiving a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle award for creation/performance, a Tony nomination, a Drama Desk Award, a special citation from the New York Drama Critics Circle, and numerous other honors.
Smith’s other shows include the Obie-winning Fires in the Mirror, which examined a 1991 race riot in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; House Arrest, which deals with the American presidency; and Hymn, a collaboration with world-famous choreographer and dancer Judith Jamison, for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Smith hasn’t always performed in her work, and it hasn’t always been about contemporary issues — her play Piano, set in Cuba in 1898, received its premiere, without a role for Smith herself, at Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1990.
Let Me Down Easy is the latest in Smith’s “On the Road” series, which she began in the early 1980s. In the series she explores the nation’s character by interviewing people from various backgrounds and then performing word-for-word passages, creating individual portraits of people from across the country.
Yale It Out
She began gathering material for Let Me Down Easy in 2005, when she was invited to the Yale School of Medicine to interview doctors and patients. By the time she completed her research the chameleonic thespian had conducted more than 300 interviews and had 400 hours of material.
“Then Obama became president and was talking about health care,” says the Baltimore native. “I thought it would be a good show regarding the ongoing political debate.”
While putting the show together Smith, who is single with no children, says she found there was no shortage of stories or of personalities.
“All of my shows have people in them that are well known in their communities,” says Smith. “I wrote a show about the LA riots. The cops who beat up Rodney King were well known. In this [Let Me Down Easy] play the community is large. It’s the community of us who are in wellness and are strong as well as those who aren’t. While putting this together, I became interested in athletes. I use a heavyweight boxing champion in the show. I also use Lance Armstrong.”
Smith, who takes on 20 different identities in the show, also conjures a distinguished doctor, a rodeo bull rider, a holy man, actress/model Lauren Hutton and the late Governor Ann Richards.
Navigating herself singly around a stage is certainly not an effortless enterprise for anyone to pull off, but Smith, 60, seems to have mastered the task. Â With the greatest of ease (or so it seems) she glides in and out of characters, changing her voice, her tone and her framing to introduce a myriad of personalities.
She loves working with a cast, but she admits there’s something extra special about single-handedly commanding a stage.Â Going solo is an idea that took hold four decades ago.
“It’s an idea I developed a long time ago, in the 70s,” says Smith, who says she was a mimic as a child. “Originally I was going to have an acting company do the shows.Â I was going to form a theatrical company to do what I do. There were going to be 20 characters and 20 actors. Well, I never got around to forming the company. It was going to take a lot of work to teach them what I needed to teach them. So, I thought in the time being, I’ll do it myself.”
Although the thought of a theatrical company is still in the back of her mind, Smith says it’s “very unlikely’ she’d form one any time soon.
“Not now,” she says. “It’s very unlikely. Actors are trained in the tradition. What I do is very unorthodox.Â I’d have to train them for a long time. Besides, audiences have gotten used to seeing me do it now.”
Nice and Easy
While Smith, who teaches at New York University, makes what she does look easy,Â it’s anything but. Many an actor has tried to helm a one-person show to disastrous results. However, Smith says she’s seen a lot of good work, including successful shows from a number of her students. The key, she says, is to unlock one’s imagination.
“I don’t think the kind of work I do is an endangered species,” says Smith. “I think you have to be imaginative. If you do anything in show business you have to be imaginative. My advice to young people is not to expect the theater to be the only place you find support for your work. Find it where you can find it. My advice is to go to business school. Arts funding is so tight right now. Don’t give up. If someone says no, find a way. Don’t take no for an answer. Make it happen.”
That’s exactly what Smith says she did back in the day when she was starting out. Now, because of her track record, getting a show up and running has gotten somewhat easier.
“I’ve been around a long time so people have faith in my work,” says Smith, who has received many accolades, including a MacArthur Foundation fellowship (the so-called “genius” grant) for her “blend of theatrical art, social commentary, journalism, and intimate reverie”.
“The business we’re in is different from other professions where there are certain standards,” Smith says. “With us it’s so unpredictable. It’s about stamina and believing in yourself and finding people who believe in you. There are many more who will not. You never know what critics will write or producers will decide. Nourish yourself. Keep your brain and spirit alive. It’s about being self-generating.”
Arts and Crafts
Smith is currently a regular on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, another project that examines health care. She also was featured on The West Wing and appeared on The Practice. Film credits include Rachel Getting Married, The American President, The Human Stain, Philadelphia and Dave. As a writer she has penned the books Talk To Me and Letters to A Young Artist.
While her entertainment credits are impressive, equally notable are her higher learning achievements.
Smith, who received her M.F.A. in acting from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, teaches in the Department of Performance Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. In 1997, Smith established the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at Harvard University. From 1990 to 2000 she was a professor in the drama department at Stanford University. She also teaches at NYU School of Law, and she has a number of honorary degrees (Juilliard School, Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Bates College, Northwestern University, Wesleyan University, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Cooper Union, Holy Cross, John Jay College of Criminal Justice; and Spelman College in 2012).
She is also the founder and director of Anna Deavere Smith Works, Inc., based at New York University. The organization is a place for artistic excellence and social change, convening artists from around the world whose work focuses on current and pressing social issues.
A Doubt About It
After reading all that Smith has accomplished, one would think she is self-assured.Â Au contraire!
When she’s on stage, Smith is a powerful force. Anyone who has seen her perform has witnessed nothing short of a master class, which is why something she revealed was so surprising.
Smith would much rather have doubts than walk in confidence.Â She would advise any actor, even her students at NYU, to do the same.
“I’ve learned over the years that confidence is overrated,” says Smith. “I was trying very hard in the last 30 years to become more confident. It’s not an interesting human enterprise. I think doubt is much more important. Increase your stamina for doubt. Don’t parade around with confidence. Confidence breaks you off from other people. You are not enough. To be in the world you are interconnected. We are not sufficient in and of ourselves. I know that sounds funny coming from someone who does one-woman shows. I’m full of doubt. In my lifetime the same centers of culture will not be what they are right now. There is so much we don’t know.”
In both performing and teaching, Smith says there have been lessons learned. And through that educational evolution she has come to understand an actor’s process.
“As an artist you are always going to be disappointed in yourself and your work,” she explains. “There is always going to be room for correction. For some of us that’s the given part of what it is. You give to a process, not a result. I’ll do what I can tonight, but that’s not going to be enough. If I judge it six weeks from now, I might say, “˜I thought it was enough, but look at what I just found.’”
**Production photography by Joan Marcus/Headshot by Mary Ellen Mark
Let Me Down Easy previews through July 21; opens July 22, closes July 31; Tue.-Fri. 7:30 pm, Sat. 2 pm and 7:30 pm, Sun. 2 pm, Tickets: previews $30-$40, regular performances $32-$75; The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica; For information: www.thebroadstage.com