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Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-Up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts--For Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind Paperback – 3 Jan 2006


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Amazon.com: 18 reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
ENTERTAINING AND ENLIGHTENING LISTENING 10 April 2006
By Gail Cooke - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
While all young people embarking on careers could probably use some good sound advice, one cannot help but think that those hoping for a stage career are especially in need of encouragement, warnings, and practical guidance. That is precisely what actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith delivers in her book, which borrows its format from Rilke's Letters To A Young Poet.

Smith has an exciting career, having won two Obies, two Tony nominations, a MacArthur "genius" fellowship, and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Now, Director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic dialogue and a New York University professor, she has seen her share of disappointment and joy. All of this she shares candidly, expressively as she narrates the good, the bad, and the rewards of "life upon the wicked stage."

Much of what she has to say is simply common sense, such as reminding us that good ideas are abundant but turning these ideas into reality takes determination and concentrated effort. Smith warns of procrastination, and the down side of fame. She provides hints for boosting confidence, acquiring a presence.

Rather than being a plain vanilla how-to book, Smith alternates her advice with stories from her own life, sometimes funny, at other times sad. It's a winning mix that makes for entertaining and enlightening listening.

- Gail Cooke
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Fantastic Insiders Guide to Arts Industry 28 May 2006
By PennyLane - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This was a fantastic read! Very accessable to all ages, various art forms, and levels of experience. Most books that talk about acting and making it in the arts don't neccessarily focus on some of the most key areas: integrity, presence, artistic vision and inspiration, staying connected to the world, and confidence. This book did. I am sure I will refer back to these chapters time and time again throughout my career as a performer!
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Paradoxes in looking at art and life 8 April 2007
By Erik Sherman - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith wrote a series of letters, collected as Letter to a Young Artist (2006; Anchor Books) about "the rules of the road in the business of making and selling art." Certainly the book has received high praise from sources including actors, editors, authors, and museum directors. I found my own reactions more ambivalent, partly due to a prejudice I have regarding how people in the arts tend to talk about themselves and their work. Let's get that out first. Mind you, I'm a writer, photographer, and am often involved in various ways in theatre, so I'm not indifferent to the arts. Yet I dislike the term artist, because its context has come to emphasize the individual at the expense of the craft. But to many, the label is important and they tend to focus on the primacy of the "artist," not the art. Sometimes in the book that is the sense I have of Smith. For example, she writes:

"I think of art as work, so I worry about going off into the stratosphere with theoretical questions like, 'What is art? What is truth?' ... If we get caught up in pondering these questions, we sell ourselves short. How we live, and how we treat one another, is what is at issue."

Yet then she goes on to nothing less than questioning the nature of art. Although she is trying to pass something on, I had the sense that she really usually doesn't know the answers and often is as puzzled as the fictional BJ, whom she addresses. That, to me, made the book intriguing. At times I found the contradictions gave me material for thought. In one section, she discusses the fictional difficulty that BJ faces when his or her school is about to turn a painting studio into a state-of-the-art biology lab and move the studio into a basement. On one hand she arguing about the uselessness of such a lab "ridiculous." Nevertheless she still goes on to write:

The awareness of the importance of the artist's vision always needs to be enhanced in schools. it is shocking to me that the argument continually needs to be made--but it does.

Now think of the biology students who for some apparently extended period of time had to make due with second-rate facilities. Also, it is easy to take some of her stated reactions, like being spell-bound by a given recorded performance of a song, and as self-indulgences unless you can remember having similar moments. (I can remember once being so floored by hearing a guitar transcription of Bach's Goldberg Variations that I stood still for a while just listening, and then immediately bought a copy.)

There are times that I got the sense she was missing the very point of an experience that she was trying to communicate, such as her father telling her, "Don't take it too hard," on finding that she didn't win a Tony. "I could feel his resignation about his failures in his own life," Smith wrote. Maybe that's what he felt, or perhaps, in his 70s, he knew that the real failure is to take such ephemera as important when in the most profound sense they mean nothing. After all, when Herman Melville died, the critics had long written him off as an unimportant writer, rather than one of the foundations of American literature. J.S. Bach in his day was considered a second-rate composer. How foolish on reflection is our collective wisdom, and how more foolish to spend precious life paying attention to it.

Nevertheless, there is a lot of good in the book. Smith well understands the practicalities of art - that there are power structures one will deal with and that a Tony might well mean the difference between a show continuing or closing. Those are certainly lessons that those in the arts need to learn, that they will be engaged in commerce, whether they like it or not. Ultimately, I found that reading the book and engaging with the author led to my rethinking things, and whether I agreed with Smith or not, as always it is a useful exercise.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Bedside Reading 9 Oct 2006
By Kevin Killian - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Anna Deavere Smith knows what it's like--the struggle of the artist, the cold night of the soul when sometimes you feel punished for being a visionary, and she gets a lot of it down on paaper in this book of letters modelled to a certain degree on Rilke's famous LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET. She's seen it all in her multi-tasking career, and if she doesn't know it, she has a host of excellent friends to ask, everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Paul Van De Carr. James Baldwin, whom she met when she was just a struggling actor, told someone that she reminded him of "Lorraine" (Hansberry, the playwright who wrote A RAISIN IN THE SUN) and this overheard compliment sustained Anna Deavere Smith through many a disheartening audition. She's been on THE WEST WING and she played the mother in the movie of RENT. It's a bedside book you might give to any young friends you might have, or hope to influence. They'll read a few passages and take heart.

It gets docked one star for its relentless name dropping. We know she's at the very top of the tree, but she doesn't miss a beat about talking about famous friends, or people she's met in the publis sphere, and some of her enthusiasms get a little embarrassing. Did she have to tell us that Lauren Hutton should win Kennedy Center honors for her smile? That's the kind of thing Louella Parsons used to say, and it didn't sound any more sincere the first time around. And her inability to say a negative thing about any of her friends grows tiresome, especially when she says that "Naomi Campbell has presence" or brags that Condoleeza Rice came to one of her performances when they were colleagues at Stanford. Please, ADS, draw a line somewhere!

Though to be fair she does spoof her own propensity for the spotlight. She's not without humor, it's just a little weird to be writing a whole book of letters to an imaginary young girl, or is it? I think the scheme helps her incorporate different journalistic assignments she's been given over the years. For example, the imaginary teen is supposed to be a painter, so ADS gives an account of interviewing Brice Marden, "and just like you guessed, he is indeed tremendously sexy." Such double dips are a commonplace in occasional books of this kind, but we expected a little bit more from the genius who gave us TWILIGHT LOS ANGELES and FIRES IN THE MIRROR.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
A STAPLE IN EVERY ARTIST'S LIBRARY 18 Mar 2006
By D. Carter - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I read this book in one afternoon; or it was more like I inhaled it. I had my pen in hand because there were so many things worthy of underlining.

This book is for artists of all ages and levels of experience. I consider myself a veteran in the entertainment business but there are still elements of my 'persona' still waiting to reach maturity. There is also a lot of compact info I can pass onto my students which could save me an hour's worth of 'searching for the right words'. I will be using many quotes from her book in the future.

It's the first 'user's manual for artists'that I've ever read, but hopefully not the last.

Excellent work!
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