Knight Foundation Supports New Project Exploring School-To-Prison Pipeline

Philadelphia Theatre Company will host a residency for Anna Deavere Smith leading to the creation of her new work, The Pipeline Project thanks to a generous gift from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as part of its Knight Arts Challenge.  The Knight Arts Challenge funds innovative projects that engage and enrich Philadelphia’s communities.

The two-year, $100,000 grant will support the research and development of The Pipeline Project through its commission and production.  This is PTC’s second grant from the Knight Arts Challenge, having most recently received a two-year grant to expand its PTC@Play festival of new work.

The Pipeline Project will address the increasing numbers of American youngsters – especially African-American males – being “shuttled” from school into the criminal justice system. During her 2013-2015 residency at PTC, Smith will use elements of the theatre process that she has refined over the past three decades to create a compelling theatre piece that is also an opportunity to spark city-wide dialogue and public engagement about our education system and our civic responsibilities to children.

“It is a great honor as well as an exciting opportunity for PTC to provide Anna Deavere Smith with the resources to help her create both a civic dialogue as well as vibrant theater,” said Executive Producing Director Sara Garonzik. “The Pipeline Project will allow us to deepen our connections to our own community as well as to this extraordinary artist, activist, and thinker.”

“One of the most important things great art can do is inspire a conversation about an important issue. We’re excited by the idea of Anna Deavere Smith’s piece and look forward to watching it engage the community,” said Dennis Scholl, VP/Arts at Knight Foundation.

Smith explains, “In The Pipeline Project I plan to use not only what I know about creating a drama, but also what I know about creating conversation, to make the process as well as the product useful to the cause of increasing awareness about what is happening to our young people. I also intend to create new audiences and spur advocacy while doing so.”  She continued: “I am delighted to be returning to work with PTC both because of their track record, which is unquestionable, and because this is a theatre which at its very root has compassion. The project that I am about to create requires an environment that can support it artistically, but also, has, in its own DNA, true civic empathy.”

During the two-year residency, Smith will be in residence at PTC to conduct in-depth interviews with advocates, teachers, students, parents, and law enforcement officers involved in the school-to-prison “pipeline.”  A community-wide and public reading of the piece performed by Smith and later a workshop will be highlights of her time in Philadelphia.  The world premiere of The Pipeline Project would be the final production of the 2014-2015 mainstage season.

Playwright, actor, educator, and journalist Anna Deavere Smith last appeared at PTC in Let Me Down Easy in 2011 for which she won the Barrymore Award for Best Actress. She is probably most recognizable in popular culture as Nancy McNally, national security advisor on NBC’s long-running hit The West Wing and as Gloria Akalitus on Showtime’s current hit series Nurse Jackie.

Looking at current events from multiple points of view, Ms. Smith’s theater combines the journalistic technique of interviewing her subjects with the art of interpreting their words through performance. These one-woman shows are a part of a series she began in the early 1980s called On the Road: A Search for American Character. Her goal has been to learn as much about America as she can, by interviewing individual Americans from diverse backgrounds, and putting herself in other people’s words the way you might think of putting yourself in another person’s “shoes.”  Twilight: Los Angeles received two Tony nominations, an OBIE, Drama Desk Award, and a Special Citation from the New York Drama Critics Circle, and Fires in the Mirror, examining a race riot in Crown Heights, Brooklyn (1991), when age-old racial tensions between black and Jewish neighbors exploded, received an OBIE Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

The recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Award, Smith’s work blends theatrical art, social commentary, journalism and intimate musings.  She was the 2013 recipient of the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize awarded to “a man or a woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.”  She is the recipient of numerous honorary degrees, among them those from Juilliard, The University of Pennsylvania, Arcadia Northwestern, Williams College, Radcliffe, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Barnard, Spelman, The John Jay College of Criminal Justice and many more.

She has been artist in residence in environments as varied as MTV networks and Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.  Smith is also a teacher.  She is currently University Professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.  She also held tenure at Stanford University, was a professor at the University of Southern California and Carnegie Mellon.  She taught at the former Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts.

She has been awarded the 2009 Social Justice Award by the Urban Justice Center and the USA Susan V. Berresford Fellowship from United States Artists. In 2007, Americans for the Arts presented her with the Kitty Carlisle Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Arts. She also received the Mayor’s Award for Art and Culture from the Mayor of New York City in 2007. In 2006, she received the Alphonse Fletcher Fellowship, which recognizes work by scholars, writers and artists who address and carry out the broad social goals of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954. She was four times nominated for the NAACP Image Award and received the prestigious New York Women in Communication’s Matrix Award for her remarkable achievements and outstanding leadership role in her field in spring 2008.

Smith has been featured in several films, among them The American President, The Human Stain, Dave, Rachel Getting Married and Rent.  She was a regular on the CBS series Presidio Med, had a recurring role on The Practice and co-starred in HBO’s 2007 film Life Support.

Smith founded and directed the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, originally funded in large part by the Ford Foundation, and was the Ford Foundation’s first artist in residence (1997).  The Institute is now at New York University and focuses on developing curricula for arts and social change. Anna Deavere Smith Works is a program of the Aspen Institute.  It convenes artists from around the world who combine artistic excellence with content that aspires to effect positive societal and global change.

Founded in 1974, Philadelphia Theatre Company is a leading regional theatre company whose mission is to produce, develop and present entertaining and imaginative contemporary theatre focused on the American experience that both ignites the intellect and touches the soul.  By developing new work through commissions, readings and workshops, PTC generates projects that have a national impact and reach broad regional audiences.  Under the leadership of PTC’s Executive Producing Director Sara Garonzik since 1982, PTC supports the work of a growing body of diverse dramatists and takes pride in being a home to many nationally recognized artists who have participated in more than 140 world and Philadelphia premieres.  PTC has received 46 Barrymore Awards and 155 nominations.  In October 2007, PTC opened the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, their home on Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts, which has helped contribute to the revitalization of Center City Philadelphia’s thriving arts district.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. The foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit