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Doc Directors Face A Situation No Filmmaker Ever Wants to Handle In “Left On Purpose”

 
Thanks to Left On Purpose, a new documentary now screening in theaters and on VOD, a pertinent question has been raised in light of the recent resurgence of radical activism. Does it take being a little crazy to fight for progressive issues in reactionary America? Or, in surviving a sustained period of activism, regardless of the futility of fighting for issues in this reactionary country, does such radicalism drive you crazy?
 
After all, legendary Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, a writer and member of the Chicago Seven, committed suicide at age 52. So did 33 year old Tom Forcade, founder of High Times Magazine. And certainly there have been other suicides by progressive artists such as avant garde jazz musician Albert Ayler and poet Sylvia Plath. There have been bio pics and forensic analyses of such individuals as Hoffman. 
 
But until directors Justin Schein and David Mehlman filmed their encounters with New York based Mayer Vishner, nothing in recent memory has offered such an insight into a lefty radical activist’s psychology, suicidal condition and decline. The film is really Schein’s tale of his exchange with Vishner as he copes with his subject’s threat to commit suicide while filming; Schein tries to both  reconcile with Vishner’s declaration and make his effort to convince the aging writer not to do it. 

Says Schein, “He was a yippie and yippies are all about spectacle. I think he saw an opportunity and he saw me as a willing participant. But I think he maybe overestimated my participation; he wanted me to really glorify [his life] in a way that I wasn't ready to do.  

schein right mehlman leftHe had been talking about ending his life for decades. So when he first told me, one of my questions was whether it was serious, whether he was being serious. So I spoke to his friends and his doctors, and even up to the end I wasn't sure if it was just his way of getting attention.”

What a dilemma Schein faced. 

After he had made No Impact Man, his previous film which detailed a man and his family living off the grid, Schein decided to develop a film on Vishner after they had met in the course of making this notable feature. Vishner managed the local garden that provide food for the film’s subject. Schein decided to document Vishner’s radical legacy and cultural engagement. He had a huge archive of the last half century of culture change and his own psychological disarray. 

As this documentary reveals, the portly greying Village resident had tried to live up to his radical notions. He doesn’t have a bank account or contemporary tech tools. But as a hoarder, he’s saved his history in radicalism — storing many boxes and living among the piles of clutter. Some of his deterioration is partly his own doing, having been an alcoholic who didn’t take care of his health even while he sustained his radical ideals. 

The 48-year-old filmmaker obviously admired his efforts and those of his peers who continued as believers while the movement deteriorated. He had had a presence in the Village as the night manager of St Mark’s Books, engaging in next-generation movement members. But he became tired as his physical and mental pain increased. 

When Schein took Mayer to Occupy Wall Street, we see his engaged political persona; when we see him talk with an older woman friend we see his emotional defeatism. But he also turned down opportunities to teach, use the money he gets for selling his archive for his own emotional well-being. “I took him to Occupy and took him to other events and though he was interested, it also depressed him…”

So when Vishner announced that he wanted to end his own life as part of making the film, the production veered wildly into another direction. Before that declaration, it might have been a very different film — in fact, at the point when Vishner made his announcement, it might have only been a 30 minute film. Said the director, “I started off thinking, ‘Oh, this is a little bit, like [the film] Grey Gardens, you know, this is a brilliant man but kind of [deteriorated] and I wanted to know how he got to this point, what his perspective on the world was… Bush was still president maybe, [it was 2007 or 08]. 

I wanted to better understand him and I saw it as a short film about this village character, [like those guys] you see walking through Greenwich Village and you know they have a history but you never got to meet them, and this was this opportunity.”

But once Vishner made his declaration, the production took on a different focus and mission. While Vishner thought it was his final political act, Schein — and his co-director/editor David Mehlman — realized that they had to grapple with such moral issues while doing this documentation. They had to even ask whether to stay involved or not.

Said Mehlman, “Justin didn’t know what to do, what to film, and he would go and have these dates with Meyer trying to find out what and, why he was feeling this way, why he would do it, what he could do, what he couldn't, what he should be thinking about. He was going to Vishner’s doctor, and do all these different things thinking that [there] might be another whole strand of this story. 

“I think what it became was that there was a sense from Justin that he needed to gather as much as he could, certainly in the first six months to year after hearing that Meyer wanted to kill himself. When it drags on beyond that, the shooting was a little more sporadic, there was a lot of, knowing that something is important, but not knowing what the story is, so you sort of have to collect it all.”

And that they did, hundreds of hours over four years, of Vishner ruminating, his various friends and associates and most important, the therapists and doctors involved.

As Schein and Vishner became friends during the filming, Vishner did not reveal his wishes until later in the filming. The plethora of conflicting emotions confronted Schein which he incorporated into the film; audiences then have to confront these issues as well. A he explained, “Mayer talked about dying of loneliness but he really pushed everyone away. He was really seeking attention. There’s a certain narcissism involved in the whole process. On some level, this question of someone’s right to live or die is fundamental.  

I certainly was not interested in being a co-conspirator, but I respected what I thought were his rights. Especially since he had spent a lifetime of being in treatment for his depression, and he was taking medication and he had been hospitalized. 

Part of it is Abbie Hoffman, who was his very good friend, [as was] Tom Forcade. There is this concept of a suicide contagion — when people close to you do it, it then became an acceptable option for him and no matter how the people who loved him tried to suggest otherwise, he had it as his plan. Also you know, that suicide for men Mayer's age has doubled in the past decade.”

Audiences also grapple with what sometimes seems to be a futile effort to save a man who — through the film’s biographical nature — felt this has been happening to him for years not what he had accomplished. “Why has it doubled is a good question. Part of it could be because of drug and alcohol abuse. Part of it could be the lethality of guns — more people are using guns. And part of it has to do with this generation who took [control of their] life and, tried to lead it on their own terms; now they're facing death and they feel like they want to be empowered.”

Schein asked himself, “How am I going to edit it and more importantly, how am I going to end this? I felt that in some ways the process was keeping Mayer alive and if I said, ‘Listen, I’m done…’ He would then end it.

“Conversely I felt a certain pressure to find an ending. I was in a bind. I told him very clearly that I didn't need his death to be the end of this movie, that it could have a happy ending — that it didn't have to be a dramatic result. I wished that it was enough for him, but it wasn't so.”

Even though he has been a cinematographer on over 60 films, nothing quite prepared him for this. Thankfully, the director had Mehlman’s distance as both an editor and outside observer to help him cope with completing the film.

Added Mehlman, “I never met Mayer. I had the opportunity to meet him [when] he was still alive. I knew Justin all through the time when he was filming with him, and we started editing 2-3 months before. 

“We didn't know when or if, because he kept so many false alarms over the years and this didn't seem any different. From my perspective, I felt I needed to be detached enough that, if I had a relationship with Mayer, might have changed. I pushed the material and pushed him and that because I didn't have a relationship with him, because I didn't love him, I also didn't necessarily think it needed more spectacle.

"I approached it in some ways like, ‘OK, here’s a story to tell, how do I tell the best story about this person’s life and what they’re going through and [Justin was] the essence of another character. How do you build the narrative with the nonfiction material?’ 

LOPFor the same reason I was looking at the footage — like, say, the scene with Justin when he's cleaning up Mayer's apartment, he puts the camera down and rubs [Mayer’s] back. If you're watching that in a fiction film, it means one thing. But as soon as you’re thinking if Justin was making the choice to include that, it's a very different thing for me as a storyteller, as opposed to perhaps [me] making commentary of my own involvement in this person’s life.”

Vishner did finally commit suicide; 12 hours after dropping off his cat with writer Michael Ventura in Texas, he fulfilled the act on on August 22, 2013. The night before his death, Vishner told Ventura while smiling, “Part of me really wants to see the movie."

On reflection of that, Justin added,  “I don't know if the film could have happened if I didn't have the access to his doctors. Doctor [Shuller] really let me into the process and was also there to consult with me when I had questions about what was going on and whether my role and the film's role was helping him or hurting. And that was really important. 

“I also spent a lot of time with his psychiatrist and Meyer, filming them. In the end, he chose not to be in the film and I respected that. But it was not such a good process to watch, and there are few moments when I actually participated in the therapy. But, to go on with what Dave what saying, there's so much sadness that we filmed that you have to take this step back when you editing and try to decide how much can a viewer take. Also, how do you set somebody up who's in that state without crossing somebody out?”

Thankfully, he and Mehlman have substantial experience as the co-founders of Shadowbox Films. An Schein is known for his work on cinéma vérité films which also includes directing America Rebuilds: A Year at Ground Zero and as the cinematographer for the documentary My So-Called Enemy.

Born in New York, he attended the Bronx-based Horace Mann School, Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University where he graduated in 1990. After working for a  film company in NYC, he returned to school earning a documentary film master's degree from Stanford University where he met Mehlman who became an established film editor. For more than 20 years, he’s worked on films that have appeared on The BBC, The Discovery Channel, HBO, and PBS.

Now after this long process of creation, stressing out his wife (who gave birth over the course of the film’s creation), Schein is finally at work on something else. “I’m working on several projects right now. I made a film in ’93 about homeless kids in San Francisco. It's called Down on Polk Street and was my thesis film at grad school. It became this HBO film on Black Tar heroin that I worked on with Steven Okazaki. Anyway, I have all this amazing footage and now I’m in touch with some of the kids who are grown-ups now. i'm going back to find them, it's pretty intense…”

Yet there’s still some cleaning up to do after all that Vishner left behind. “Over the years like every decade, his friends would take his stuff and put it in boxes in this warehouse. That was the collection that he sold to the University of Michigan. When he was done, there was still a whole new round of stuff that I [saved]. Some of it was garbage, but it was like a treasure hunt. I went to the University and over the course of four days looked it up.  I looked through a hundred and seventy-five boxes, because he had 40 years of stuff, photos with John Lennon, posters, and this amazing [archive].

“After he died I [cleaned] up [his apartment.] I kept a few posters… And also I have all his t-shirts. They’re in my basement, the ones that I could clean [laughs]. I would love to give them somewhere. I wish the University of Michigan would take the t-shirts but... I guess, storing textiles is a whole other thing so they said no. I'd thought about it, but I really need to move on. I’ve done enough but hopefully that’s the last thing I have to do to close the book on this — find a place for those t-shirts.”

Vocal Coach Arthur Levy Transforms Meryl Streep Into “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Arthur Levy

From director Stephen Frears (The Queen, My Beautiful Launderette) comes one of the truly unconventional stories told through a film this year. Florence Foster Jenkins is the story of the titular millionaire socialite (played by Meryl Streep) whose love of music led her to be both a benefactor to many and a performer as well. She owed thanks to her remarkable — and decidedly outré — relationship with husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who afforded her opportunities to perform and record the music she loved despite her incredibly wretched vocalizations.

But in order to play the role without shredding her gifted voice, the legendary star turned to an equally masterful vocal coach for help.

Opera coach Arthur Levy made it possible for her to sound like Jenkins. In fact, a large part of Levy’s mission was to make sure Streep could mimic Jenkins’ sound without any permanent damage, but she also had to maintain her standards as well.

That’s because Jenkins not only tried singing privately but she also held a famous bought-and-paid-for live Carnegie Hall concert of her performing classic songs and operatic pieces with her screeching soprano.

Previous to the concert, Jenkins made several 78 rpm recordings that became camp classics and are in print as various CDs to this day. Since her associates couldn’t entirely control who attended her concert, she received scathing notices, had a heart attack right after, and died five days later at 76 years old.

When I was invited to interview Levy — an acclaimed faculty member at the Mannes College of Music — in anticipation of the DVD/Blu Ray debut of the Golden Globe-nominated Florence Foster Jenkins (released mid-December), I was offered a chance to get a vocal lesson in lieu of an interview. Realizing Levy needn’t be tortured further by a journalist’s agonizingly off-keyed soundings, I chose to apply my better skills and conduct this conversation.

A member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing, the exuberant Levy is a vocal consultant and master class teacher at the Glimmerglass Opera and the Roundabout Theatre. Having coached dignitaries from theater stages to Hollywood such as actors Oliver Platt, Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls), Lea Michelle (Glee), to MET tenor Yonghoon Lee, he has been deemed the expert on great singing. So, he most certainly could take on the challenge of training someone to do it horrifically.

Says Levy, “All that singing — whether by a great singer or a mediocre one — is playing with the same mental instrument. Even if the instrument goes astray, but the person actually does know how to sing, then you basically come from a base of knowing how to sing and then, in this case, of finding the flaws that were unconscious in Florence Foster Jenkins.”

Applying that to Streep, Levy explained, “Meryl got her voice up and running at its best so that she knew how to support even a note that was bad that anybody else might do without training.”

To that he added, “I just think that when people are committed to singing and have an idea of how they want to sound[,] somehow something comes out and in this specific case, because Meryl is a good musician and had training up until her early 20s/late teens, she wasn't singing in that upper octave that Florence approximated in her way. So a lot of these off-key singing was built off of how to sing well.”

So how did he handle the torture of listening to it? There’s an irony to it all, he acknowledged,  “When not being right is right then you train somebody to do it incorrectly so subconsciously knowing that they know how to do it correctly. Does that make sense?”

florence posterIn fact, he does owns Jenkins’ music on CD, “I had ended up buying the record [before this project came up] because her commitment is so important in that kind of belief in an art form. It’s so important that people that are less [than engaged should support others who are].”

This is how he understood the Jenkins phenomenon. “It's like the idiosyncrasy of Florence Foster Jenkins was built on her musical imagination — of how she truly desired how to sing.”

To that he adds an example: “Like in the part of the movie, The Lily Pons scene where you should have Pons’ beautiful voice in your head — that's what Florence aspired to, she's probably imagining or hoping that she would sound like young prime Lily Pons.” Nonetheless, she didn’t — much to everyone’s embarrassing dismay.

Did Levy have to get into Jenkins’ psychology as well to understand how she would make her sounds? Yes, and in doing so he could then train others to make her sounds. “In this particular case. There are people who are what [you could call] beyond OCD. They have a narcissism or were brought up to think that everything they did was perfect so I assume that if they sing badly it's much better than they think it is.

“But in the case of Florence, it's really partially physical ailments that distorted her perception of herself. But I don't think it was a selfish or narcissism because really she put herself out there as a singer much later in her life so she didn't although she had fine musical training it's not like she was a laughing stock from her late 20s as a singer up until her death.

“I think in her head she knew what good singing sounded like. There are people that have terrific voices but they either don't love music as much as they think a musician should or they don't think they're less of an opinion how they think it should go.”

Would she have been the same phenomenon today? Levy considered this. “In this day and age, I think social media is a good thing but also it dispenses opinion very fast so a lot of musicians are subject to half-baked opinions and if they're very vulnerable or read too much they can start doubting a brilliant intuition.”

So there’s a lesson to be learned through the peculiar popularity of Jenkins. “That can actually [be bad] in a case of someone who is very talented that can actually bring a talented person down in their career because they're trying to please so many people and yet they forgot what their voice truly was.”

 

"A Candle Lights the Heart" Director Talks Lanterns & Inner Peace

 

The film A Candle Lights The Heart  documents The Floating Candle Ceremony — a yearly event that takes place in Honolulu, Hawaii, every Memorial Day where thousands of people come together on a beach to float candle-lit lanterns as an homage to loved ones who have passed away. While the ritual originates in Buddhist tradition, the event is for people of all beliefs. 

Against the backdrop of this highly emotional event, A Candle Lights the Heart follows five families whose stories tell of their experience with loss, grief and, finally, redemption, which leads them to peace, partially by participating in this memorable and compassionate event.

Directed and produced by first-timer Shinji Kondo, this full-length documentary feature based on the Lantern Floating Ceremony held from 2012-2014 not only tells of the event but also shows how families who are coping with tragedy attend and find a community with whom they help share their loss.

Once the film was completed, it entered the festival circuit and then landed VOD distribution through Gravitas Ventures to begin early next year.

After a theatrical debut in Los Angeles, the inspirational documentary, A Candle Lights The Heart, is having its East Coast theatrical premiere in Manhattan in the Helen Mills Theater (137-139 West 26th Street, NY NY) on December 13th, 2016. Admission is free and open to the public. A Q&A with director Kondo will follow.

It will also screen at the Magno Screening Room (729 7th Avenue 2nd Fl.) on December 15th at 8 pm as well. Admission to the event is also free and open to the public.

Born In 1969, in the Tokyo, Japan, suburb of Kodaira, Kondo is the second son of Akira and Tsuruko Kondo. His father has been a civil service worker for Tokyo’s Metropolitan Government and his mother was part-time worker. From primary to middle he attended the local public school and graduated from Kokubunji High School. He then attended the acclaimed Sophia University graduating in 1992 with his area of focus, studying and practicing Buddhism

After graduating he began working at Koa Fire & Marine Insurance Company and continued his Buddhist training/studies. In 2001, he married a Japanese woman, Tomomi, who was raised in Hawai'i so they moved there 15 years ago with their daughter and son.

He had become involved with Shinnyo-en through his mother who become a member in the early '80s; she had turned to the practice because his father had suffered from a drinking habit and that influenced his whole family.

a candle Screen Shot 2016-12-11 at 2.41.55 PMIn the process of filmmaking, he first had to learn how to edit, so it took him two years. As a longtime follower of Shinnyo-en who became a Reverend, he took his passion for the movement to such lengths as to create this film.

Q: Why did this appeal to you?

SK: When I went to Shinnyo-en for the first time, I was 12 years old. Somehow I felt my heart become warmer and felt more comfortable by visiting the temple.

Q: How did it affect your personal, professional and creative development?

SK: In Buddhism, they teach that even after people have passed away there is still a connection between us. That is one of the most basic concept of Buddhism. When I see lots of people gathering at the shore of Ala Moana who are not Buddhists, I’ve found out that everyone can share in this concept. 

Q: What was the first time you attended the ceremony? 

SK: In 2001. That was the year I got married and then moved to Hawai'i.

Q: How has it affected you personally emotionally?

SK: Every year I feel the spirit of my grandmother who I was very close to, and even after the ceremony, I feel her presence daily.

Q: How many times have you attended the event?

SK: Every year since that first time in 2001. This year will be my 15th time.

Q: Do discuss the ceremony with people?

SK: Because I work at the temple in Hawai'i, we get many phone calls and emails asking questions about the ceremony throughout the year. I talked about it often — especially with those who is suffering by losing someone.

Q: What did you think of it spiritually/philosophically?

SK: I believe that spirituality is at core of the event. If people float lanterns without the chanting, prayers and ritual, people will not feel spiritual comfort that is possible.

Q: How did you first get the idea to document this ceremony; when did you first think it could be a feature film?

SK: We interviewed Greg Weger in 2007 for our TV commercial series which promoted this ceremony to the local community. His story was very moving and touching. That made me realize that this event affected many non-Buddhists, so if we could find more stories, it could become a documentary feature film.   

Because we broadcast the event live since 2006 on KGMB (a local Honolulu TV station), the cameras are mainly for TV broadcast. In 2011, KGMB became equipped with full HD, so we had to use all HD cameras. Next year 2012 I recorded all single cameras which gave me lots of event footage. Then I added the five stories to form the film.

Q: How did you find the people in the film?

SK: Greg Weger was working for the event as a security monitor provider. He emailed that wanted to share his experience at the beach after the event.

One of our producers found out that Anita Weger had lost her son to cancer and was struggling. The producer felt this event had helped Anita spiritually.

Hideko is a one of my old friends. She is also a member of Shinnyo-en in Japan and I knew her for 25 years. When I moved to Hawai'i, I didn’t know Hideko had moved to Hawai'i in 1999. Because she’s a Buddhist, she often comes to the temple and we started talking. One day she shared that she runs in marathons for her friend who had died in the Tsunami. Then I became interested in interviewing her.

Kathy Steinhoff is a friend of our producer. When she lost her son by a skateboarding accident, it became big local news. The producer encouraged Kathy to go to lantern-floating ceremony for her comfort.

shinji-kondoAlica was not our main focus. Actually Bob is a friend of one of our camera crew and he was worrying about his kids who were internalizing their sadness. He was looking for some kind of ceremony or program to help them let go of their pain. 

We interviewed Bob and it was okay. But we found out that his daughter Alisha had changed so much after she participated the ceremony. So we then switched the focus to her and followed her graduation and college orientation.

Q: What was your criteria for inclusion that decided it for you?

SK: How strong was the connection between their loved ones.

Q: How did you settle on this number of stories?

SK: I almost lost Hideko’s story because her husband does not like Shinnyo-en. After Hideko explained the concept to him, he agreed to have her share her story.

Q: How hard/easy was it to persuade people to be in this film — it touches on very sensitive aspects of people’s lives…

SK: I wanted to show the event as soon as it was possible to have them in the film. So I added production manager Alan Hochfelsen to show what happens the morning of the beach event and the process of setting up to make them everyone feel they were participating as well. 

Q: Were there other options you considered to documenting the ceremony other than the way that you did it?

SK: I considered hiring a professional director to make this film but I found out about the high cost. So I considered I should do this myself because the main focus of this film is spirituality and that’s an element I am sure can be addressed by me.

Q: Why did you decide on this  length?

SK: It was much longer, like 120mins. After first screen test I cut 30 mins out of it so as not to make audience bored.  

Q: What was the production process since you were doing so much of it yourself — directing/producing/editing?

SK: First I hired an editor. But I wanted to try every option I had at hand to make it a good film. Because I have tons of footage from various shoots of the ceremony and the interviews, I wanted to edit it with love and care — not just do it as a job so I did both editing and directing. I hired out the writing to Robert Pennybacker from PBS Hawai'i.

I learned that documentary filmmaking is very difficult. Many times when you got good story, the shots aren’t good. If your shots are good, then the stories aren’t. I had five more stories that I couldn’t use for the film. There are some areas you can control but it really depends on your luck to make a good film.

Q: What about the ceremony helps people develop hope/closure; how do you feel people cope with death?

SK: We can’t avoid death, but we don’t realize it until it happen to us. But people have to cope with the sadness of it, because life goes on. 

Q: How did the Lantern Floating ceremony affects them/you as you made the film?

SK: I found many positive energy like “hope” they got from the ceremony.

Q: What did you add/subtract in the process of production? 

SK: We added music, b-roll shots, and some ceremony shots from ceremonies from other years.

Q: How many hours did you shoot?

SK: I hired multiple camera crews. They shot at least 100 hours I think. 

Q: How long did it take to edit and how long were the editing sessions? 

SK: It took two years to edit and two months for color collections and graphics. Because I learned new skill (editing and directing), it was very exciting. I was able to know many film industry people who I did not have chance to meet, because I am clergy. I enjoyed whole process very much.

Q: What did you feel about the music/sound design?

SK: I wanted to have Hawai'ian music for this film. I contacted many professionals who had participated the event before; they were really open to help me. 

Q: What is the future for this film?

SK: After getting it distributed in USA, I have talked to Shinnyo-en Japan to see if they are interested in distributing it in Japan as a good promotion for the movement. And I will sell the DVD to our members. We have sold 30,000 DVDs of the 2011 ceremony. It was really just a film of the live event, very simple content, but our members love this “lantern floating.”   

Q: Do you hope to make other films?

SK: If the idea is spiritual enough, I would love to make another one.

Q: Do you plan to develop further materials related to this film like a photo book and more?

SK: No. We made a beautiful picturebook last year for our members in Japan. 

Q: Are you planning to develop an educational guide for the film and the ceremony?

SK: We can do that — I will have to think about it further.

Q: What is your personal philosophy?

Every day is a blessing.

Creator Anna Deavere Smith's Notes From The Field Tackles Issues Through Many Voices

 

With a raft of accolades in her resume, American actress/playwright/professor Anna Deavere Smith produces work that highlights the plight of the underclass, the unvoiced and those overlooked by entitled society. In her most recent one-woman production — “Notes From The Field” which opened November 2nd at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theatre (305 West 43rd Street, NY, NY) — the 66 year-old creator continues her fascination with what’s been called “documentary theater.”

Through a set of passionately expressed portraits — based on actual news events and her own interviews — “Notes From The Field” crosses generations and poignantly renders complex issues of race, disenfranchisement, mass incarceration and discrimination as something in our faces; it’s  not just to be viewed through the gauze of electronic media. 

Though these people aren’t necessarily making statements through their words, this veteran actress brilliantly brings to audiences these voices asking questions and, in some ways, demanding responses. 

Interspersed with video footage, comic-book illustration back drops and Marcus Shelby’s on-stage cello riffing providing a robust yet subtle jazz-inflected lament, completes the effect of there’s much more going on her than just one person on stage.

Somehow, just by changing her garb, vocal tonality or regional accent, Deavere Smith creates 17 unique portraits — with the help of director Leonard Foglia — that constantly question the powers that be. 

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Deavere Smith got an Acting M.F.A. from San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. After that, she went on to create numerous productions (Fires in the Mirror; Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992; House Arrest; Let Me Down Easy; The Arizona Project), win a plethora of awards (a MacArthur Fellowship; the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show; a Matrix Award; The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize and a National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama, among others) and has been nominated for the Drama Pulitzer and two Tonys.

She’s been an artist-in-residence at the Center for American Progress, and has taught at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts as well as at NYU’s School of Law. From 1990 to 2000, she was a drama professor at Stanford University and had taught at Carnegie Mellon U.

But this theatrical chameleon has not only made the stage her home; she has also done television (The West Wing, The Practice and Nurse Jackie) and film (Philadelphia, Dave, The American President, Rent, and Rachel Getting Married) as well. 

In February 2014, “Anna Deavere Smith: A Young Arts Masterclass” was part of the HBO Masterclass documentary series. And Smith has published two books: “Talk to Me: Travels in Media and Politics" and “Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts – For Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind.

In advance of her current show, she conducted this exclusive one-on-one shortly before previews began.

Q: How did you get all these interviews down and select the characters who ranged from Congressman John Lewis to inmate Denise Dobson.

ADS: The job of selecting characters is always hard. I did over 250 interviews to get them… It’s a process of trying a… I hate to call them characters, I like to call them portraits. I think of them as real people. Making an assemblage of them, bringing them into rehearsal, hearing from the dramaturge, hearing from the director, hearing from other people around and then going home and writing a different play and then bringing that one into rehearsal until I find out who’s going to work together. Because these fragments of things… are people speaking in their real life.

Q: Where does the journalism end and the creation begin; how did you draw the line between one versus the other?

anna standingADS: I don’t really think of the things as “versus” in a way. [The author] Studs Terkel was a mentor of mine and his book [structured with interviews], “Working,” had a huge effect on me. It also became a Broadway show a long time ago as you know. 

I always had been attracted to documentaries. I think there is something in truth that you can’t make it up, and I believe people, when they express themselves, are making a kind of art. That’s one of the ways I pick who ends up on stage, people who are doing something really artistic just by nature by the way they move and express themselves.

Q: What were your conversations like with the great civil rights advocate and congressman John Lewis?

ADS: I went to see John Lewis because I had heard he had gone back to Montgomery and the Police Chief made an apology to him for the things that had happened during the Civil Rights movement and had offered him his badge. So as soon as I heard that I went rushing over to his office and he was kind enough to meet with me and a tape recorder and tell me the story.

Q: How did you find the other people? How did you choose them such as NAACP legal counsel Sherrilyn Ifill and Freddie Gray beating videographer Kevin Moore?

ADS: It’s like selling Girl Scout Cookies. You knock on the door and somebody lets you in, and they feel they like you because you’re a nice kid and they say, “The lady across the street likes the mint cookies, why don’t you go sell some to her?” You meet one person and they say you should meet that person or they introduce you to someone and before you know it you went to a town with one lead and you have ten interviews before you leave.

Q: Which character was the hardest to construct or edit and were the male characters harder than the female ones? 

ADS: No, it doesn’t have anything to do with that. I think about it as singing songs that people are composing as they talk to me. I wouldn’t say anybody is more challenging than another. Everybody deserves the attention that I and my coaches give them as I try to respect what they said to me.

Q: Do you think creating work like this which provided an alternative to conventional structured drama; have you changed the face of theatre in some way?

ADS: I wouldn’t presume to say [something like that…] You’d have to ask somebody else that, I wouldn’t say that about myself. People say I created a new form of theatre that’s now called “Verbatim Theatre” that I’ve been doing since the late ‘70s

People do recognize that I’ve contributed something to the field in that regard. But I also… particularly in my teaching for 40 years and my book, Letters to a Young Artist, I hope that one of the things I do is give courage to younger people that try to do this. It’s very, very hard in any field in the arts to make a mark, as they say.

Q: Selma director Ava Duverney’s latest film, a documentary titled The 13th, complements your show. Have you seen it?

ADS: I saw Ava; I went to a screening of the show here in New York, and I was able to see her at the reception. I hope she can come to this show, I know she’s shooting something else right now. I would really like her to see it, I really admire her and her work.

Q: Do you think you can change people with a show like this, maybe they will change the way they vote by having them see your show?

ADS: I don’t think any of us can change anybody, really. All we can do is make ourselves present and hope that maybe something rich happens by the fact that we’re in each other’s company. We all have mini transformations all the time.

Q: Have you invited President Obama to one of these performances?

ADS: The President is well aware of this project. I had been invited to the White House to address a meeting of people doing work on school discipline. But I’m not bothering the President or anyone around him right now, I think they have other things on their minds. But the President knows about the project.

Q: Maybe they need to get some people down to see this before the election.

ADS: Once we get past this election I’ll do that, but otherwise I think they’re presently engaged.

Q: Do you hope that the audiences that sees this will think about who they’re voting for?

ADS: I sure do. It’s a very critical time right now, I’m supporting Secretary Clinton. I stand for a lot of what she stands for. I stand for justice, I stand for kids, I stand for a country where more of us can strive to love one another, I’m for her. Secretary Clinton and President Clinton have seen another one of my works, Twilight Los Angeles, and I’m hope we’re able to get them here too.

Q: How do you manage to avoid getting exhausted since you play so many characters in one intense two-hour+ performance every night?

ADS: Kale. 

Q: Cooked or uncooked?

ADS: Both. [I like] kale and collard greens.

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