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A Rich, Creative Life is One Connected to Others, According to Anna Deavere Smith

connected to others

“It’s tough to take your art into the world, really into the world… [I]n a way that makes your art relevant to the world.”

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There exists, among artists, a covenant of support, an imagined community. A community we join by the acts of creating, thinking, reflecting, and disturbing that which is in the name of that which should be. It exists to support fragile art and the even more fragile artistic ego. It is into this community that American theater innovator and playwright Anna Deavere Smith (1950-) welcomes the next generation of artists with her generous and honest Letters to a Young Artist.

“I’ve written this book for the next generation of artists. Art should take what is complex and render it simply. It takes a lot of skill, human understanding, stamina, courage, energy, and heart to do that.”

This community is particularly important as a counter to artistic solitude, something many artists require. Steinbeck felt he was being creatively frayed by interruptions while he wrote Grapes of Wrath, and novelist Annie Dillard imagined the best possible space was being alone in nature. There is, however, a need for balance: creation is not just production, it is inspiration, rejuvenation, soothing of the oft-fragile artistic ego—all things that require engagement with others.

For Deavere Smith, creative life is enriched when connected to others. In Letters, she creates a fictional BZ, an “imagined creative,” and into this persona’s open mind pours inspiration and connections, which a young creative cannot do without.

In this day and age, perhaps one immediately considers those “whom artists cannot do without” to be agents, publicists, social media consultants and webmasters, as, often, the need to be seen overshadows the need to produce thoughtful, quality art. Although “success” might pivot on those contractual relationships, they are not indispensable to the artist.

Rather, Deavere Smith recommends collecting mentors, soul twins, honest critics (of an unprofessional yet intense kind), teachers, scholars, activists—that rich environment of colleagues, strongly or loosely maintained, against whom we reflect our souls and from whom we glean influence, inspiration, and nurturing support. She counts her dentist as a mentor, and certainly Martin Sheen and John Spencer, her co-actors in Aaron Sorkin’s drama The West Wing, who welcomed Deavere Smith to her role as the National Security Adviser, with the gracious comment: “Welcome to the West Wing. the words are hard for all of us.”

A more personal and sustained connection was found in what Deavere Smith calls her “spiritual twin,” a performance artist in Sao Paolo with whom she build a kinship out of mutual admiration and affectation.

“We were born the same year. It is amazing how much we have in common. I feel I have met a twin. A spiritual twin. Years ago, I said I would travel the world to find one, and I have.”

Equally important are the kindred spirits who become friends for life, about which she holds a “a special, special feeling, a special special kind”:

“You need dreams and something to fret about and someone to dream and fret with. American as a nation, wrote and talked itself into existence. Everything starts with an all-night conversation. Find a spiritual twin to walk the city streets with, to waken the dawn with, to construct a world with.”

Most of all, relationships are to be formed with those we do not yet know, but to whom we are connected by what Deavere Smith calls “wide-awakeness.” Those who have dared to assume their rightful position as an artist, it is this that they seek.

“It takes, most of all, what a great scholar of artists and educators, Maxine Greene, calls ‘wide-awakeness’ to do that. I am interested in the artist who is awake, or who wants desperately to wake up.”

As Deavere Smith weaves a beautiful web of connections, learnings gleaned from others, stories, and experiences to take in, she subtly tells us over and over that the most important position in this artistic community is the one we hold ourselves. Artists must travel on this path between observation and creation, and that path is impossible without empathy:

“We need to develop the eye, the ear, the heart. We do that by learning how to step outside of a given situation, to watch, to listen, and to feel, and to feel as others as much as to feel things about others. Feeling as others is empathy. Feeling for others is sympathy. Empathy is more useful and more important. It requires more rigor. That rigor will make you stronger of heart and spirit.”

Any aspiring or tenured artist who has felt some level of loneliness and even alienation—being the person holding a mirror that sees all, but which no one else sees—will be soothed but challenged by Deavere Smith’s awfully extroverted premise. But carry it around for a while, translate it to your own creative language, recognize the humanity she puts into each word—you will be truly invigorated by this wonderfully generous and salutary book. Supplement it with Peter Mayle’s richly appetizing advice for a life lived, an equally uplifting account of people and culture.

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Anna Deavere Smith has, over many years and through much compassionate work, generated a new theatrical style. Using her gift for impersonations and impressions, she interviews Americans, some famous, some not, and reprises their words and characteristics herself on stage. In doing so, she challenges the audience to see and emphasize with society as individuals, humans. Her most recent one-woman show about education and race, Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, opens this month in New York.

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