Anna Deavere Smith Wins $300,000 Gish, Recalls Being Poor

When Anna Deavere Smith came to New York in the 1970s as a young playwright, her budget was so tight she thought twice about taking the subway.

Things improved after her breakthrough one-woman show, “Fires in the Mirror,” two decades ago.

For real financial security, nothing could match winning a $500,000 John T. and Catherine D. Foundation “genius” grant in 1996. Yet tomorrow night comes close with the $300,000 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.

The award recognizes cutting-edge artists who also foster social change. I recently spoke by phone with the 62-year-old New York University professor who was in Los Angeles to attend the NAACP Image Award. She had been nominated for an award as best supporting actress in a comedy series for her role as hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus in Showtime Network Inc.’s “Nurse Jackie.”

Cole: Another call, another big prize.

Smith: I couldn’t believe it. It came out of the blue. I was driving in Aspen, Colorado, picking up my laundry on a sunny day and I took the call. I’ve known that I won the Gish Prize since June, and I was told not to tell anybody, and I didn’t.

Cole: You could work for the Central Intelligence Agency.

Smith: I could. I’m very good at keeping secrets.

Cole: What will you do with this prize?

Spark Discourse

Smith: I haven’t really thought about that. I’m focused more at the moment on the big value the prize has, which is to spark discourse about the wonderful opportunity we have to pair politics with art. I’ve been working on pairing politics and art my whole career. At NYU, I’m working on curricula for this.

Cole: What were your early financial struggles like?

Smith: My plays take a very long time to make. The economics of the regional theaters can’t possibly support my work. I and any actor are likely to make $619 a week for a new play that hasn’t been proven.

Cole: What was the lowest-paying job you’ve had?

Smith: I worked for free a lot. When I first came to New York, I worked in these off-off-off Broadway places where I barely made enough money to pay for the subway. But that’s where innovation happens, in these teeny, tiny places. We need to keep them alive.

Cole: Your work addresses political themes. Was being an artist and political incongruous 20 years ago?

Divisions Collapse

Smith: Back in the day, people did see a division. They also thought that if you did political work, you were didactic. We see now that those divisions have collapsed.

Think of the pictures that have been nominated for Academy Awards: “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Lincoln,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” It means that we’re in a moment where audiences want to be both moved and entertained, but they’re also looking for meaning.

Cole: Would government leadership be different if artists were in charge?

Smith: I don’t think artists should be in charge. Our job is to not be in charge. Our job is to be foolish. I was getting on a plane the other day and a girl was carrying a canvas bag with Steve Jobs’s picture on it, and it said, “Stay hungry, stay foolish.” That’s what artists should do. Stay hungry and stay foolish.

Cole: What do you tell artists about staying true to their artistic expression and the need to make money?


Smith: I used to do “under-fives” -- those are dramas in which you have five lines. One of the soap operas I would try to get on when I could were those sponsored by Procter & Gamble. On the back of every check I got it said, “It’s not creative unless it sells.”

I was sort of offended by that at first. Then on the other hand, it’s very difficult to make art for free. It’s very difficult to survive as an artist if you do not have money, resources or patronage.

(Patrick Cole is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

Muse highlights include Philip Boroff on theater, Max Abelson on music.

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