Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Student Profile: Scott Kaplan on Organizing the "Bodies on the Line" Symposium with Anna Deavere Smith

A second year Draper student, Scott Kaplan is also a diversity educator, reading teacher, and playwright. He has written two full length plays--one of which had a reading at the off-Broadway theater company Primary Stages--and was recently awarded an Emerging Jewish Artist Fellowship by the Bronfman Center at NYU.

Scott has also worked with the actress Anna Deavere Smith since last year. A MacArthur fellow who is renowned for her “documentary theater” pieces which chronicle episodes of violence, struggle, and healing in contemporary American history and life, Anna is also a professor at NYU who seeks to involve graduate students in greater scholarly and artistic dialogs. As Anna’s research assistant, Scott helped organize a nine-day symposium called Bodies on the Line last semester. He sat down with us recently to talk about his research and work with Smith as well as this unique symposium.


Sitting around a table with Anna Deavere Smith and nine other artists last November, Draper student Scott Kaplan had to ask himself, “What am I doing here?”

Anna had gathered a diverse group of international artists and writers to participate in a nine day symposium called Bodies on the Line. Taking the complex idea of “borders” as a point of departure, Bodies on the Line sought to “explore...artistic representations and investigations of immigration, statelessness, and identity in the contemporary world.” The symposium paired nine fellows--including a Brooklyn-based professor, a French-Algerian rapper, an Argentinian printmaker, and a Vietnamese photographer--with locals artists for nine days of events. In one event, cellist Michael Fitzpatrick was paired with Rabbi Irwin Kula to “discus[s] the power of good vibrations” in promoting peace and compassion. In another, South African playwright Yael Farber’s play, “He Left Quietly,” which originally cast real people telling their own stories on stage, was reinterpreted by a cast of New York actors.

As Anna’s research assistant, Scott was glad to have a part in the preparation of Bodies on the Line. He had already been eager to develop practical experience organizing arts symposia, and found that this one afforded a unique opportunity to do so, since it pushed participants to consider the process of developing and participating in academic conferences just as much as the actual content of the symposium itself. Only half of Bodies on the Line was composed of public events; the other half was made up of working groups of invited fellows, local artists, and the symposium organizers. The dual principal, Scott explained, was for the participants to consider artists as objects of analysis while also reflecting on the methodology of the conference organizers.

These themes were particularly resonant with Scott because they formed some of the core issues that he and his fellow classmates explored in a course that he took with Anna in spring 2011: “The Aesthetics of You.” It was a selective class—Anna conducted interviews with students before admitting them—and Scott was the only non-actor to apply. Seeing a great potential for dialog in bringing together students with differing disciplinary background and artistic processes, Anna was “intrigued” by Scott’s application, and admitted him to the course.

“The Aesthetics of You” pushed students to grapple with the process of self-examination and artistic representation. One of the most memorable exercises the students undertook was to create a filmed presentation of themselves: an eight minute video where they said anything they wanted about who they were as individuals. Then, Anna assigned each student to replicate verbatim—in gesture and words—one of their classmate’s presentations. In pushing students to embody the physicality and language of their peers, Anna helped to exemplify what Scott refers to as one of her “credos.” Namely, “if you say a word long enough, it becomes you.”

This practice of empathy is an underlying theme in a talk that Anna invited Scott to give during her provostial lecture (called “The Mighty and the Vulnerable”) in October 2010, and again to the assembled artists and writers during Bodies on the Line. Scott’s talk discussed the recent suicide of Rutgers undergraduate Tyler Clementi. In this age of internet anonymity, when one’s words have such a large outlet and are so much easier to produce without worry of authorial identification, Scott used his talk to advocate for a greater sense of communal responsibility and awareness.

The importance of taking responsibility for what one says, writes, creates, and makes public resonated strongly with many of the artists attending the symposium. Many of these artists—such as photographer David Taylor, whose most recent project documented activity on the Arizona border—implicate others in their work, and as such “are very conscious of how their work is presented,” Scott says. “Of what is said, and what is left out.”

It didn’t take long for Scott to understand his role at the conference and answer his “Why am I here?” question. During a private meeting of one of the symposium’s working groups, he was the only person at the table who was a new organizer and a current graduate student. And it was precisely that combination that made his perspective and experience so valuable.

While Bodies on the Line—with its many different goals, complex structure, and the diverse perspectives of its participants—was already ambitious in scope, it was only ever intended to be a point of departure for those involved. During the nine days of the symposium, Anna and her fellow participants hoped “...to create new artistic partnerships, to inspire future projects, and to use artistic practice as a way of investigating new and historical ideas.” The next phase of the conference, for Scott, will be to co-write a piece with Anna about the symposium, reflecting on that experience and how to apply it in his future scholarship.

-Larissa Kyzer & Georgia Jelatis-Hoke-

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