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Art in the Time of COVID: Princeton University Arts Fellows Will Davis and Danez Smith

By Brent Johnson,

originally published: 05/12/2020

Art in the Time of COVID: Princeton University Arts Fellows Will Davis and Danez Smith

Art isn’t easy in the age of coronavirus.

Just ask theatre director Will Davis and poet Danez Smith.

As millions of Americans are forced to stay inside and gatherings are sidelined to help save lives, Davis — who has helmed acclaimed productions in New York and led a famed theatre in Chicago — is seeing his industry reeling.

“The American theatre has historically required that you be together in one space to enjoy,” he says with a nervous laugh. “A lot of these theatres are very understandably needing to really think carefully about their planning. Work that I was hoping I would have, I don’t have anymore. And I’m certainly not the only person in that boat.”

As a writer, Smith — a poet with a National Book Award nomination and sizeable attention on YouTube — can work anywhere. But is a period when you’re stuck at home all that inspiring?

“Hell no,” Smith says, breaking into laughter. “I’ve been writing poems and working on things that I was maybe gonna work on anyway. But it’s not inspiring. It doesn’t really feel like a time where I say, ‘Ooh, I should write a lot.’ It feels like my brain space and my anxiety is preoccupied with everything.”

Still, both Davis and Smith have something to look forward to. They’ve won the new art fellowships at Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts.

Art in the Time of COVID: Princeton University Arts Fellows Will Davis and Danez Smith

The fellowship gives emerging artists — those with notoriety but still in the early part of their careers — financial support to develop their work for two years, while they also teach a course each semester or undertake a project involving students.

The program usually draws hundreds of applicants a year, and Davis and Smith emerged from the most talented and diverse batch of hopefuls, says Stacy Wolf, the Lewis Center’s fellowship director.

“We’re not just hiring someone to come and do their art for two years,” Wolf explains. “Other fellowships do that and do it well. But we really want people to be engaged. From the minute they walked into the room, we just felt they were a powerhouse.”

For Davis, the timing, with a deadly virus shutting down key parts of America, is crucial.

“It’s nothing short of a lifeboat,” the 37-year-old director says. “The fact the fellowship is gonna give me two years of a lifeline, I just cannot overstate the rescue of that.”

Now, the question is whether classes will be in-person when school resumes in September. Either way, Wolf says, she’s not worried.

“I think one of the things that artists typically bring to the table is unbelievable ingenuity in being able to make a lot with limitations,” the program director says. “I will feel very sad if our students can’t meet these two incredible artists in the same room, in person in September. But I feel 100% confident whatever they do will be extraordinary.”

Here’s a closer look at both recipients:

Art in the Time of COVID: Princeton University Arts Fellows Will Davis and Danez SmithWILL DAVIS

After a decade of directing other peoples’ work, Davis is looking for a change.

Known for his physically adventurous productions of both plays and musicals, the California native has garnered sterling reviews for his off-Broadway verions of Jaclyn Backhaus’ “Men on Boats” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Road Show” in New York. Recently, Davis added Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita” to his resume. And he spent a notable stint as the artistic director at Chicago’s renowned American Theater Company.

But Lewis had another idea when he wrote his application for the fellowship: He wants to make his own work now.

“I’m bursting with ideas of performance I’d like to make,” he explains on the phone from his home in New York City. “What I don’t know is: I have no practice developing and creating something that comes just from me. So the fellowship is going to be a space for me to really shift into a different creative gear and learn how to be a solo generative artist. I can’t shake it. I really need to do it.”

The piece Davis is planning is deeply personal. It highlights his relationship with his two brothers, and he’ll not only direct and develop it but perform in it — with both of his siblings. One brother, who’s around his age, is a dancer. The other, 14, is a piano player.

The director calls it a “show-and-tell piece” in which they would each create something — in spoken word, dance, and music — and then combine it “live in the moment for every performance.”

Davis, who is transmasculine, says what he’s most interested in is “investigating ideas around family and masculinity.”

“As a trans person, I haven’t always been their brother,” he explains. “But now we’re all brothers, and we’re all artists, and I just want to get into the why of that.”

Art in the Time of COVID: Princeton University Arts Fellows Will Davis and Danez SmithHe says it’s possible they’ll perform it at Princeton, or at least show the work in progress.

Growing up in northern California, Davis studied ballet as a young girl. That led him on a path to theatre. He does his own choreography in his productions.

“I think I learned how to understand the world through movement and through special relationship,” Davis says. “And the theatre is a kind of amazing space for that. Because it allows always liveness, always freshness that comes from the way space and time is new in every moment.”

Wolf, the fellowship’s director, says Davis has “unbelievable energy, incredibly interesting experiences as a theatre-maker, and real vision and the ability to bring a room together.”

“We also knew he would be a tremendous asset in the theatre program,” she says.

Davis will also co-teach a class called “Maximizing the Minimal” with video and projection designer Alex Koch. An alternate title, Davis says, could be “Everything You Need Is in the Room.”

“We can really dig deep into the toolbox of what performance is made of — which, to me, is space, time, text, the body,” he says. “All of those things are always in the room with us, and we can utilize them to great effect.”

With the uncertainty of COVID-19, Davis and Koch are prepping two versions of the course — one taught in person and the other online.

Teaching, Davis says, is also a chance to challenge an idea he says young directors are often taught: “that being invisible is a value.”

“It’s not important for them to show up as artists in the work, it’s important for them to facilitate it but not leave their mark,” he explains. “Teaching for me has become a very important part of my life, as well as rehearsal room pedagogy. Not just what we make but also how we make it.”

“So this class is also going to be about that,” Davis adds. “About how we show up as artists in the room with other artists and how that is meant as an invitation for collaboration instead of a squashing of other people’s visions in favor of your own.”

Art in the Time of COVID: Princeton University Arts Fellows Will Davis and Danez Smith


Is Danez Smith — that’s Dan-EZ, accent on the second syllable — more a writer or a performer?

“Yes,” the poet says without hesitation before letting out a laugh. “I think I’m a good writer and I think I’m a good performer.”

The hundreds of thousands of people who’ve seen Smith recite on YouTube would likely agree.

Smith is not only confident and sharp, but as the poet’s bio points out, also black, queer, and HIV-positive.

With poems that explore complicated topics like race, politics, injustice, love, and friendship, Smith was a National Book Award finalist for the 2017 collection “Don’t Call Us Dead” and in January released a new collection called “Homie.” You can also hear Smith as the co-host of VS, a podcast from the Poetry Foundation.

Smith is gender-neutral and uses the pronoun “they.” No, they don’t think the world has evolved to a place where this is more accepted.

“The world always has a long way to go,” Smith says. “The world sucks. But just because the world sucks doesn’t mean that people have not been finding the pathways and the languages that work for them and demanding that the world says so because that’s who we are.”

Now, Smith — who has previously taught at the University of Wisconsin — will helm a course at Princeton with a simple but fitting title: “Writing and Performance.” 

“We’re just gonna be thinking of how poetry happens across different mediums and how sort of the avenue by which the poetry is either conceived or delivered changes it,” they say of the class. “Thinking about writing on the page versus performance. … Thinking about: Can we map how our experience in poetry both as readers and writers is different once the final form it’s gonna take is decided?”

Wolf, the fellowship’s director, says the Lewis Center was enamored by the idea Smith could “bring creative writing into a multidimensional performance forum.” And Smith’s diversity — and embrace of that diversity — is a plus, she says.

“We want to bring in artists who can demonstrate to our students: This is how you can be an artist in the world, this is how you can be a citizen, this is how you can contribute to the greater good,” Wolf explains. “And we just felt like Danez would be an unbelievable person to have around our students, and also a part of our community.”

Smith grew up in St. Paul, Minn., and was drawn into writing through a theatre teacher enamored with spoken-word performance.

“I loved it,” Smith remembers. “And it felt electric. And it felt unlike any of the poetry that I had been shown before. …  And nobody told me poems were stupid after that. Even if they did, I didn’t believe them.”

Art in the Time of COVID: Princeton University Arts Fellows Will Davis and Danez Smith

“Homie,” Smith’s new book, is a meditation on friendship — a thing the poet says is “one of the largest and most sustaining types of love in my life.” But it didn’t start out with that theme.

“Poetry collections, I kind of don’t know I’m writing them until I’m already writing them halfway,” Smith explains. “I just kind of looked up one day and had pages and pages and pages of these poems that I had been writing to my friend, and so I decided to lean into it.”

In general, Smith says, the inspiration to write varies from day to day. Sometimes, they say, it comes from language.

“I love a word or a sentence or an image that takes up space in your brain and you start playing with it for a little bit, seeing what happens,” they explain. “Sometimes, you really want to say something, maybe to someone, and the poem is what takes its shape.”

“I guess that’s the funny thing about art,” Smith continues. “Once you’re kind of just doing it, I think inspiration is kind of a tricky thing to start to depend on. I show up because I am a poet, and I both have to show up to the page when I am inspired to and when I’m charged to, and sometimes I just have to show up and make something happen anyway.”

“Inspiration should be that slippery,” they conclude. “It should be kind of hard to pin down.”

But is writing a struggle?

“Sometimes I love it. Sometimes it f**king sucks,” Smith says, laughing. “But it’s a struggle. It’s one of the struggles that I love. Writing can both be ecstasy and torture, depending on the idea, depending on the poem or the project. I guess it’s all that. It’s my greatest love and also one of the biggest pains in my ass. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Still, Smith says one thing that hasn’t been inspiring is the coronavirus pandemic.

“Maybe what’s most strange about this, I think for me, poetry is very much about intimacy and connectivity and how one observes and reports back the world,” they say. “So being sort of enclosed to the house has sort of affected the work. I’ve just been writing a lot about the house and my partner. Maybe that’s because it’s mostly what I see.”

So if inspiration frequently varies and writing is a struggle, is it also difficult to teach?

“I don’t think what you’re doing is teaching someone how to write,” Smith says. “Especially in creative writing. I can’t tell you what a poem is, so I can barely teach anybody how to write a poem. What I can do is help nudge folks along in the directions of their own curiosities, their own questions, and their own confessions. And I think that’s what teaching writing is.”

About the author: Brent Johnson is a pop-culture-obsessed writer from East Brunswick, N.J. He's currently a reporter for The Star-Ledger of Newark. Before that, he was a longtime entertainment and music columnist for The Trenton Times. His work has also been published by Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated On Campus and Night & Day Magazine. His favorite musical artists: Elvis Costello, Billy Joel, The Smiths, Roxy Music, Dave Matthews Band, The Beatles, Blur, Squeeze, The Kinks. When he's not writing, Brent is the lead singer in alt-rock band The Clydes

Content provided by Discover Jersey Arts, a project of the ArtPride New Jersey Foundation and New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

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