For two weeks, Hilary Clifford watched a new piece by acclaimed playwright and performer Anna Deavere Smith and cellist Joshua Roman transform before her eyes.
The fourth-year student served as the text coach for On Grace, Smith’s current work-in-progress, during her residency at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts.
The Theater and Performance Studies residency gave students the opportunity to observe—and in Clifford’s case, participate in—Smith’s creative process.
Like many of Smith’s plays, On Grace is based on verbatim excerpts of interviews with religious and political figures, including the late Rev. Peter Gomes, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Rabbi David Wolpe. On Grace, which features live accompaniment by cellist Joshua Roman, is Smith’s first play developed in collaboration with a musician.
Smith and Roman’s Logan Center residency culminated in a work-in-progress performance of On Grace at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance on Jan. 21. Students who attended the performance had a chance to talk with director Leonard Folgia before the event as part of the UChicago Arts Pass program and learn about the process of creating the piece.
“Anna Deavere Smith’s work is both intellectually demanding and socially engaged, and it invites us to think about the deepest issues facing our nation. She was the ideal artist to bring to Chicago, and we were thrilled to partner with the Harris Theater, TAPS and Rockefeller Chapel to share On Grace with a wider audience,” said Bill Michel, executive director of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts.
Reflecting on grace in public life
In addition to the Harris Theater performance, Smith and Roman also offered master classes and a workshop performance of On Grace at the Logan Center. The workshop performance was followed by a lively conversation on the topic of grace, moderated by Elizabeth Davenport, dean of Rockefeller Chapel.
During the free-flowing discussion, guests offered their own definitions and experiences of grace. For attendee Tahir Abdullah, grace is “the ability to forgive, or the ability to be kind.”
“Even on your worst day, someone opens the door for you,” added Heidi Coleman.
While at the University, Smith also participated in a public conversation on grace and politics with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, moderated by David Axelrod, director of the Institute of Politics. Co-sponsored by Rockefeller Chapel and the Institute of Politics, Preckwinkle later called the hour-long conversation “probably the most unusual event I’ve ever been to.”
During the discussion, Preckwinkle and Smith each reflected on the role grace has played in their lives and work, and the need for grace in public life.
“I even think people who appear to be on the outside of politics, just pushing and shoving from the periphery, have an effect,” Smith said. “That’s how we begin to see grace—as we each do whatever we do well.”
For her part, Preckwinkle said she thought of grace as unexpected blessings. “There’s really been a lot of unexpected blessings in my life, and unexpected blessings in the political scene.”
For example, Preckwinkle praised Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan for his willingness to work across the aisle in hopes of passing a budget. “I took that as a moment of grace,” she said.
Showing students ‘steps along the way’
In preparation for the Harris Theater production, Clifford met with Smith each morning to undertake the “really meticulous but rewarding” task of reviewing the script word by word. The process ensured Smith captured even the interviewees’ smallest verbal idiosyncrasies.
“She’s so committed to the idea of documentary theater,” Clifford said. “She really treats the words other people have given her with immense gravity and respect.”
Prior to working with Smith, Clifford said she hadn’t known what a text coach did. “I keep learning [about] new things that are done in this medium,” she said.
Exposing students to new dimensions of creative work is an essential part of the Theater and Performance Studies residency program, according to Heidi Coleman, director of undergraduate studies for TAPS.
“We want to show students the steps along the way,” Coleman said. “For a student to see that [the artists] didn’t know what they were doing in the beginning—that there is no right way—is hugely important. You start doing it, and then you figure it out.”
While the TAPS residency program has previously supported early-career and emerging artists and groups, such as 500 Clown, Actor’s Gymnasium and the Hypocrites theater company, Coleman said it was particularly exciting for students to work with someone like Smith whose work they have studied. “You don’t usually get to meet the living text,” said Coleman.
Her work is “both inspiring and really academically challenging—for us, that’s theory-practice heaven,” Coleman said.