Sunday, October 04, 2009

*Let Me Down Easy*

Anna Deavere Smith's new one-woman, much-revised show about the health care debate has taken a lot of hard work, and reading about her preparation techniques would be profitable for any actor. (You know her for Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and from The West Wing and Nurse Jackie.)
Running lines. The empathetic way Smith interviews subjects like Rep. Henry Waxman (all for naught, as hours of work, in his case, didn't actually end up in the playscript). The innovative way in which she developed "verbatim theater" (a term that others use to describe her work); the way it influenced The Exonerated by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. Her background in linguistics; her talent for mimicry. Her search for off-the-talking-points "natural theater," as in the following snip:

“The thing I’m looking for is when a person is talking and talking and then they start to perform in the middle of it,” Smith told me on an Amtrak train on her way to interview Waxman. “Brecht talks about it in that wonderful essay ‘The Street Scene’ — how if you went into the street right after an accident, you would see all this natural theater.” People describing the drama that they had just witnessed would actually act it out, she explained and then demonstrated for me: “My God! And the car went, ‘Bam!’ And she got out and said, ‘Aaaaaaaah!’ ” Smith, a picture of elegance in cream-colored pants and a jacket, screamed loud enough that the people across the aisle turned and stared. “I want to stand in that natural theater,” she said.
[ from the 9/30/09 New York Times article by Susan Dominus, "The Health Care Monologues" ]

[ images from ADS in "Let Me Down Easy" ]

Studying "natural theater" could help actors make theater more naturalistic.
Consider also Smith's rigid insistence on learning her lines (which are others' lines) exactly, syllable for syllable. How her monologues may uncover how we're stymied on health care because, well, we just don't really like to talk about death.

(Don't get Bobo started on the stupidity of our euphemisms for death. "I lost my dad last year." What, did he wander off at the mall? "When my mother passed ..." Did your mother have a flatulence problem? Bobo's own father died in November 2004. I still miss him. He died. (AND he did have, in fact, a flatulence problem, God bless him.) I believe that he exists in heaven. He did not "pass" and I did not "lose" him. Saying so is demeaning to his memory. He died.
Meanwhile, we spend millions on plastic surgery, as if growing old weren't something to be thankful for.
Ahem. End of rant. Back to Deavere Smith.)

She doesn't engage in a pursuit of anything so pretentious as capturing people's souls; instead, she's interested in the relationship of language to character: Our verbal tics reveal what's on our minds.
Note how, on page 4 of the five-page article, we learn about how difficult Smith is, how she really requires, as part of her "verbatim theater" process, an unstable text and about six directors (instead of just a single in-charge director).
Note how Dominus' conclusion suggests how Smith has found a way to be both actor AND social worker: theater that matters, that could change people's lives.

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