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Anna Deavere Smith on Art, Creativity and Transcendence

An interview with the award-winning host of this year's PBS Arts Summer Festival

As part of PBS’s enduring commitment to the arts, the network’s seven-week Arts Summer Festival kicks off Friday, June 29, celebrating music and dance, film and theater, painting and art that often defies categorization. This year’s lineup showcases performances by the Kansas City Symphony and the Boston Pops at Tanglewood, plus documentary films featuring John Leguizamo, Afro-Cuban musical stars, a champion mariachi ensemble, Islamic art and the Barnes Collection of Art.
This year’s host, Anna Deavere Smith, also defies categorization. She is an award-winning actor, writer and teacher whose work has been called “a blend of theatrical art, social commentary, journalism and intimate reverie.”
Smith seized national attention in the 1980s with her powerful one-woman performances, Fires in the Mirror, Twilight: Los Angeles, and On the Road: A Search for American Character. She’s gone on to write books, to lecture, to star in films and television (currently on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie) and to continually challenge our notions of creativity’s limits. This is her first time hosting the PBS Arts Summer Festival, and not surprisingly she has much to say about art and creativity.
(MORE: How Creativity Keeps You Sane)
Two of your plays (Fires in the Mirror, Twilight: Los Angeles) have aired on PBS. Is that important to you?
Theater is fabulous because it’s in real time and local, but you need electronic media to reach a large audience. Plus this way it’s “captured,” so it can be used in schools, which means a lot to me — not just as a formal “history lesson,” but to show we can put ourselves in other people’s shoes. And classrooms can be for any age: any environment we call continuing education.
Were you a performer as a child?
I once asked my mother why they always put me in parts in school and church, and she said, “They knew you’d remember your lines.” I was good at memorization and reciting. Our African-American community in Baltimore was segregated, and it wasn’t a sophisticated place, but I grew up in a verbal, oral culture. Lots of people told stories.
I was talking to my 92-year-old aunt just before she died, and I was amazed at the vigor in her voice. You never would have known she was old. I loved listening to her when I was a kid: how she sounded as well as what she said. Listening was how I entertained myself. Some kids would go off into the woods to study bugs, and others would stay in their rooms and draw: Listening was an important enterprise of mine. I’d go into listening rooms at the library with recordings of plays in French and English. … I wanted to learn every language in the world!
In your lectures, you’ve talked about “need” as something that sparks creativity. What do you mean?
I think of “need” as very positive. I tell my students, You don’t come to school for answers; you come to find your own questions. Confidence is overrated. I say, Try doubt. We never lose that sense of wonder. Boomers need to keep looking for their answers.
What purpose do the arts serve?
There are so many platitudes about that [laughs], and I always worry about saying one of them. I have been teaching creative people a long time — since 1973 — and I almost prefer teaching people who aren’t going to be movie stars. There’s a value to the creative process that isn’t vocational. I like people who want to be part of a creative enterprise, or use it for raising awareness or to become a civic leader or bring about social justice. The other important thing is the convening power of art. People want to go to the museum, see the symphony or movie or play or hip-hop performance.

(MORE: The Healing Power of Music)
Art provides opportunities to find meaning in things that are both comforting and discomfiting, and to linger in things that aren’t “real,” like heartbreak, or love. We write songs or give someone a poem because we know saying “I like you” isn’t enough. We’re looking for something bigger than that — even “I hate you” — to make it real.
I don’t know enough about the human psyche in antiquity, but people who do tell us about their signs and symbols and intent to understand things. Jesus spoke in parables and brought people around with stories.
Does our need for or appreciation of art change over time?
It’s the aging population who keeps arts alive in this country. I was doing a play, and onstage we were hearing this loud, high-pitched noise and couldn’t figure out what it was. It was all the hearing aids in the audience. Without these people, artists wouldn’t be able to survive.
If older people have the transportation and the money, they go to theater, ballet, museums, the symphony. Many in this population had great experiences in the arts and grew up with a great appreciation of it. They’re the patrons, our loyal core. What’s going to happen when they’re gone?

(MORE: Art Is the Ultimate Elder Pastime)
As artists, we’re only a part of the enterprise. We provide the occasion and create a memory, but then sometimes, something really happens to the viewer: You have a turn of heart, your heart cracks open — or you’re furious. A friend’s husband says of every play he sees: “This is the worst play! The worst play!” Yet he always goes back for more.
Even though art is manipulation, we can’t control the kind of communication or connection that happens. A friend took me to see Bruce Springsteen in Los Angeles — I don’t know his music — but these people were in an altered state. I saw Jessye Norman in Austria, and the audience was crying. And at an Alvin Ailey performance in Germany, I thought those Germans would dance all night. When an artist succeeds, it's a transcendent experience.
Is art essential? 

This is not an ad for the arts, but there is something essential about it. It’s part of our humanness. We don’t just breathe and eat; there’s all this other stuff that goes on inside us. The guy who worked on the human genome project told me there’s so much we don’t understand about the brain and how we experience reality. This is where art lives.
If art weren’t such a part of us, why would young women spend such outrageous amounts of money on weddings, when all they really need is a license? Because people want to create really good videos about their life. I think the most creative way to get married today would be in the backyard with a cake your grandmother made.
Art plays an even deeper role in our lives. I have a dog, a mutt. All they can tell me is that she’s part Australian cattle dog — a herder. She screams when I “leave the herd” or when even a stranger gets out of our car. She was never taught to do this and has never been around a herd. I asked a Stanford geneticist where this came from, and he said, “DNA.” I said: “That’s interesting. How do humans know what to do?” And he said, “Culture.”
Art is a replacement for the animal wisdom that we lost in evolution, therefore it is truly vital. We wouldn’t know what to do without it.
Suzanne Gerber is the Living & Learning editor for Next Avenue.

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