Anna Deavere Smith playwrighting workshop: Causing a Scene/Scene-ing a Cause

Anna Deavere Smith workshop

In Michaelmas term 2023 we welcomed Anna Deavere Smith to the English Faculty as the George Eastman Professor. Professor Smith is a Tony and Pulitzer Prize nominated playwright and actor, and she currently teaches at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Her plays include Fires In the MirrorTwilight: Los Angeles (a text studied by our students), House Arrest, and Let Me Down EasyTwilight: Los Angeles was nominated for two Tony Awards. Fires in the Mirror was runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. Her acting roles include Dr. Nancy McNally in The West Wing, Gloria Akalitus in Nurse Jackie and Tina Krissman on the Shonda Rhimes-produced series For the People.

In November, Professor Smith held two workshops for University of Oxford students entitled ‘Causing a Scene/Scene-ing a Cause’. Professor Smith was keen to bring to Oxford something more than a conventional lecture and we embraced the idea of a teaching encounter that would allow scholars, student actors and playwrights to collaborate in investigating the affordances of drama: a medium airing the ‘unsaid’, the difficult.

The workshops were designed to bring short scenes conceived by student playwrights into performance. Anna was especially concerned with the future of making plays in a culture where the stakes have been raised with regard to what can be said and shown: censorship both internal and external certainly but also how to address difficult issues responsibly and make theatre that may voice more than one side’s perspective.

A call-out asked for playwrights (and aspiring playwrights) exploring controversial matters and/or matters for which it is difficult to find words. They were asked to propose scenes which have the potential to provoke conversations on more than one side of an issue. Professor Smith, with the help of Professor David Taylor and Professor Ros Ballaster, selected four from the entries. Playwrights were asked to expand their four-page outlines to ten-page scripts and Professor Ballaster and Professor Taylor set about casting, advertising through the Oxford University drama portal and the English Faculty. We secured 12 actors who attended two full days of workshops with the playwrights at the Burton Taylor Studio in the centre of town. This is a great venue for small cast and audiences: a black box, well suited for intense and intimate drama.

Professor Smith led the workshops without ‘directing’, encouraging both playwrights and actors to think hard about what was not being said or what was difficult to address in the scenes. Strikingly, two of the scenes were built on research and first-hand knowledge of Soviet history and culture: Jake Robertson, studying for his doctorate in History, gave us an intense and intimate two-hander involving a performer and commandant in the Stalinist Gulag. And Klara Lindstroem, PPE student and military interpreter in Russian, an ironic investigation of evasions of political responsibility in contemporary Russia. Olana Peters, Prize Fellow at All Souls and taking a Dphil in History, also drew on research and experience to give us a tense dinner party scene in which Oxford student friends from different heritages, social classes, and histories conflict over the privileges and wounds of humour in tense times. And it was the risks and borders of friendship that made for a tight, funny, furious exchange over sexual identity from English undergraduate student playwright Jessica Tabraham.

On 3 November at 4 pm an audience of 50 joined us. Theatre historians Professors Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, Sos Eltis and David Taylor joined Anna Deavere Smith on the stage to bring their expertise to comment on their experience of the script-in-hand performances of the four scenes. We talked about the affordances of drama by comparison with other modes (print, prose, poetry, film): the power of bodies in performance and in the audience together in real time;  the capacity of gesture and silence to speak where language fails; the enduring embodied memory of a theatrical experience and its capacity to theorise experience itself.

Jessica Tabraham, one of the playwrights whose scenes were workshopped at the event, commented: “The Causing-a-Scene workshop pledged to give voice to issues that are often left unsaid. As I sat and listened to scenes that addressed the ingrained nature of Russian corruption, the nuances of social race relations and the issues with conducting a queer relationship in a gulag, I thought that the workshop had certainly achieved its aim in voicing subtextual issues. However, it also gave voice to parts of the dramatic process that are often skipped over. To me, the most important part of the workshop was the workshopping process itself, a process that there is often not enough time for in university drama. The value of having both actors and writers in the same room was unmatched. As a writer, the ability to hear the immediate reaction of actors changed the way I think about character and greatly influenced the way in which I edited the script in between workshops. We were encouraged to give our opinions on the other scenes not just our own and this process of collaborative directing not only helped me to think about my own scene, but is something I will take with me on my next theatrical project.”  

Caroline Taylor was one of the actors who participated in the workshop. She commented, “The workshop series with Anna Deavere Smith was a wonderful experience, and a welcome opportunity to engage in practice-based research. A common topic of conversation during the workshops was how refreshing it was to think about a text practically as well as academically. Preparing the scripts for performance allowed us to see in real time how theatre (more than any other literary genre) is intrinsically collaborative, and how the meaning of a dramatic text is in many ways created by the audience. It was a great lesson in the benefit of showing rather than telling. The experience was fascinating, and I send my profound thanks to Anna, and to Professor Ros Ballaster and Dr David Taylor for organising the event. I look forward to seeing the full length plays that the exceptional student writers produce!” 

Helen Dallas, another workshop participant, said of the experience: “Being a part of the workshops run by Anna Deavere Smith was a unique and thrilling opportunity. It was a fantastically interdisciplinary event, with playwrights from the English faculty, modern languages, history, and PPE. I’m very invested in theatre as cross-disciplinary work, and how the practical doing of theatre is a way of making research more accessible to more people, and even furthering research. The scene I was in, written by Klara Lindstroem, started life as a tutorial essay for her PPE course. Even in such a short time of working on it, I learnt so much about Russian life, culture, and politics, and got to experiment with dramatic form in exciting ways. I’m so grateful to Anna Deavere Smith for using her tenure as Eastman Professor to shape such a project at Oxford. Working with such a pioneering theatre-maker was a real privilege, and I hope it’s inspired all the writers and actors to keep creating!” 

— Professor Ros Ballaster