Theater companies have increasingly seized on the talkback as a value-add for ticket-buyers in an increasingly crowded entertainment marketplace. It usually takes the form of a post-performance Q&A session, often with actors fresh from a quick-change into street clothes. Even among the most erudite audiences, a frequent line of questioning involves how the actors remember all their lines.
But what if the talkback were truly part of the show itself, and not an epilogue? That’s the model Anna Deavere Smith works with in “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education,” a show that the actress/theater-maker seems to view more as an exercise in citizenship than simple, sit-and-applaud entertainment.
Based on about 250 interviews Smith conducted around the country, the show tackles a phenomenon that’s been called the school-to-prison pipeline: the often disproportionate punishments meted out to minorities, and how such treatment can nudge children toward a lifetime of involvement with the criminal justice system.
“I stop the play in the middle. I come out and say: You know what, this is all I know. I know a lot of you come to the theater for a takeaway — I don’t believe in that,” Smith says. “All of you came and brought something. Everybody had an experience with school. All of you have an experience with violence, with punishment. Someone here is a sociologist who knows much more than I presented. Let’s be real about that. Now show what you got.”
It’s a steamy July day, and Smith speaks in a pleasantly air-conditioned office at the American Repertory Theater, where “Notes From the Field” makes its New England debut beginning Saturday. As she discusses the show, it’s the second week of rehearsals, and there’s no shortage of news to make the issues in the play ever-more relevant. The previous week, a procession of speakers at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland were calling for “law and order” and downplaying complaints about police misconduct. The day before, news broke that three Baltimore police officers who’d been facing charges related to the death of Freddie Gray while he was in their custody last year would not go to trial.
Smith is familiar to television audiences for her work on “The West Wing” (as Nancy McNally, the national security adviser) and more recently as Gloria Akalitus on “Nurse Jackie.” But her prodigious theatrical work has netted her two Tony Award nominations and finalist status for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play “Fires in the Mirror,” which incorporated voices from the Crown Heights riot of 1991. She’s taught at Carnegie Mellon University, Stanford University, and NYU School of Law.
In her new piece, Smith portrays a series of her interview subjects. Even as the shape of the show shifts in rehearsal — there are still decisions to be made about which voices will be included — Smith is focused on what she calls the play’s second act. The audience will be divided into groups of about 20, with facilitators who are trained to lead discussions cued by the play. The actress returns to the stage after for what’s being called a brief coda.
“We should have just talked about the second act,” Smith says amiably, after a long discussion about her extensive research process, various academic studies, and the state of race relations in America. She speaks in thoughtful paragraphs, often sounding like the part-time professor she is. She references conversations with President Obama, journalist Bill Moyers, and various academics.
“I’m breaking up the theater experience. I’m trying to do something to break open the ways in which we are strangers to one another,” she says. “I’m giving up some of the time I have onstage to run my mouth. [As a nation] we’re always talking about this conversation on race we’re going to have. But when do we have it? We never have it.”
Director Leonard Foglia previously worked with Smith on “Let Me Down Easy” off-Broadway. His design team for this production is stocked with Broadway regulars. Foglia says audiences for “Notes From the Field” should walk away with more questions than answers.
“Hopefully there won’t be a [sole] message,” he says. “You don’t want it all tied up in a ribbon and say, ‘Here’s the answer.’ I think that the whole body of Anna’s work for the last 30-some-odd years is about asking questions.”
Smith has previously performed “Fires in the Mirror” and “Let Me Down Easy” at the ART; she also founded the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at Harvard University before moving it to NYU.
After a series of workshops and limited runs, some in conjunction with interview processes Smith conducted in northern California, Philadelphia, Charleston, and her hometown of Baltimore, the show’s Cambridge incarnation represents the more-or-less completed version. She brings it to New York’s Second Stage Theatre in October.
Foglia likens the play to a documentary film. Smith says she’s looking to inspire, “to use the commonly overused term, civic engagement.”
“My goal is always to do well enough on the arts pages that I can be in the other parts of the paper, and with my past work, that’s pretty much what happens,” Smith says, and indeed, her visit to Baltimore for “Notes From the Field” was chronicled in a piece on “PBS NewsHour.”
If her latest theatrical creation is discussed more as a community gathering than as a staged work of art, it seems that would be just fine with her. For a theatrical journalist, there’s always another story to tell.
NOTES FROM THE FIELD: Doing Time in Education
Presented by American Repertory Theater. At the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Aug. 20-Sept. 17. Tickets from $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org