Wednesday, October 7, 2009


The playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith has a splendid new show called "Let Me Down Easy," at the Second Stage Theatre in New York. (I used to work for Anna, doing research on this show and other projects.) For her plays, Anna interviews people about an event or theme -- this show is about the triumphs and failings of the human body -- and performs portions of those interviews verbatim on stage, adopting the interviewees' accents, speech patterns and mannerisms, not as a form of mimicry so much, but as a way of exploring their character through their use of language. An article by Susan Dominus in the New York Times Magazine this past Sunday captures something essential about Anna's method. I'd recommend reading the whole piece, but for the moment I just want to highlight one paragraph.

" '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!" ... I want to stand in that natural theater.' " 

Intuitively, that resonates, doesn't it? How many times have you watched the TV news, where someone is describing a car accident or a rescue attempt during a fire? Or how often do people on the street just seem to arrange themselves into a theatrical scene? There are two levels of theatre there -- there's the actual drama that happens in a car accident or in some quiet dispute between neighbors or whatever other situation, and then there's the way that witnesses or participants act it out afterwards. Why might we feel compelled to relate an event in that way? Especially in the case of a shocking event like a car crash, I suspect that relating the story or acting it out is a necessary release of energy -- the charge is neutralized, or perhaps passed to another person. 

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