Sunday, September 18, 2011

Inhabiting Our Characters: the Interview, the Dramatic Monologue, the Poem, the Poetry Reading

Today is the birthday of Anna Deveare Smith.  I'm thinking of her and of Studs Turkel and other people who have mastered the art of the interview.  It's made me think of all the things one can do with an interview.

I have a B.A. in Sociology, to go along with my B.A. in English.  I decided to go to graduate school to study English because I didn't like the direction Sociology was headed as a discipline in America.

Actually, it was one of my favorite professors who was quite blunt with me, and for which I will always be grateful.  He reminded me that I had almost failed Statistics, and that the future of the discipline was becoming much more Statistics focused.

In the spirit of full confession/disclosure, let me reveal that I FAILED Statistics.  We all did, every member of that class.  However, if you look at my transcripts, you'll see the grade of C.  How did I pull this off?  My Stats professor graded on a true curve, and half the class did better than I did, and half worse.  Thus, my C.

I would have wanted to be my generation's Studs Turkel, but instead I studied English.  It wasn't until the work of Anna Deveare Smith that I thought about all the ways one can use the interview.

I've always loved books that are simple transcripts of interviews or recrafted interviews.  I'm happy to buy books like that or to read/create those kind of blog posts.  But there's so much more that we could do with an interview.

Anna Deveare Smith shows us several of those possibilities.  Before she starts writing, she interviews a wide variety of people; she is perhaps most famous for doing this in Twilight:  Los Angeles, 1992, an amazing play which looked at the 1992 riots from a variety of directions and voices:  a police officer, Cornel West, an Asian owner of a liquor store, a Black Panther activist, Rodney King's aunt . . . I could go on and on, but you get the idea.  What she accomplishes still amazes me.

The plays that she writes would be important in their own right, but then, she also acts in them.  To say that she acts is not exactly the right verb.  She inhabits those characters.  I haven't had the good fortune of seeing her live, but I'm told that she transforms herself.

Long, long ago (1986? 87?), Whoopi Goldberg did something similar with her one woman show, which was billed as comedy, but was so much more.  Similarly, her work combined sociological insight and solid acting and amazing writing.

I love the art of the dramatic monologue, which can do so much and offers so many possibilities.  The work of Anna Deveare Smith works as monologue, but if you look at it on the page, it also resembles poetry.  Thinking along these lines makes my attention turn to poetry readings.  Could we learn something from writer/actors like Anna Deveare Smith?  Could we so fully inhabit our poems that we transform ourselves?

If we did that, would it be a poetry reading or something else that we haven't created a name for yet?  Could we inhabit our characters and then move back to our poems that aren't persona poems in any way?  Hmm.

Anna Deveare Smith shows us all what can be done with our creative work, a valuable lesson in today's multi-platform climate.  We can take that blog post and turn it into a poem.  If our poems have strong narrative voices, we could create a show along the lines of Anna Deveare Smith and early Whoopi Goldberg.  If we find ourselves channeling the same character when we're writing, perhaps we should devote a whole reading to that character--it's time to rediscover the joys of the art of oral interpretation, for those of us who were high school drama geeks.

And for those of us who weren't high school drama geeks, we can learn a lot about the skills of oral interpretation from these playwrights, like Anna Deveare Smith and Eve Ensler, who bring a documentary skill to their art, but who also bring a wide variety of characters to life.

1 comment:

Kathleen said...

My sister introduced me to Anna Deveare Smith! Thank you and her.