Saul Williams speaks with his whole body.
Chatting with 20 Duke students in a theater studies class, his hands gesture wildly as his head swivels back and forth, pausing occasionally to make eye contact with a student or nodding to emphasize a point.
His voice is jammed with inflections and he occasionally gets up from his seat, as if he can’t make his point unless his legs are involved in the argument.
And he clearly has no fear of the occasional curse word.
A poet and actor who often tackles thorny social issues, Williams came to Duke this fall to perform with the Mivos Quartet, a professional contemporary music ensemble.
While on campus, Duke put him to work. He met with students in classes focusing on poetry, theater and global innovations, and he was the featured guest for a one-hour conversation hosted by Duke’s Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American Studies.
His busy week on campus is just one example of many ways that artists interact with Duke students. When Duke Performances brings professional artists to campus to perform, it almost always brings them face to face with students as well. The organization is unusual in its two-pronged mission of entertaining audiences while also connecting artists with students in myriad ways to bolster the intellectual life of the university.
“We’re unlike a lot of universities in that we see ourselves as a delivery vehicle that brings world class artists to Duke and the Durham community not only to perform but also to develop new work and connect with the university and its students in a robust manner,” said Aaron Greenwald, the director of Duke Performances.
Williams spent more time with students than many of the artists Duke Performances hosts. Some pop into a single class; others meet with small groups of students in music or film. Others, like Williams, agree to a series of events over several days.
“I’ve definitely grown to enjoy the residency aspect,” Williams said prior to his class appearance. “It reminds me of my time in college. I was almost always enthralled by the energy that would come with someone -- either whose work I was familiar with or not familiar with -- but who would come with a different kind of energy than the professor.”
Wanted: Curious, Compelling Artists
As it pieces together its performing arts series each year, the Duke Performances leadership team thinks about more than just whether an artist can fill a room. It also looks for performers interested in spending time discussing their craft with students in academic settings.
While Duke Performances does have a great deal of autonomy in creating its performance calendar, it takes its role as a part of an academic community seriously, said Eric Oberstein, the organization’s associate director.
“We’re always trying to get world-class artists who are also interested in engaging with students,” he said. “In general, we’re always looking for artists who are curious, compelling and engaging.”
Last year, Duke Performances created more than 100 interactions between students and professional artists, and expects to do about as many by the end of this academic year.
While some artists are on tight tour schedules, plenty -- like Williams, the poet -- agree to hang around town and work with students. For a budding composer, this might mean going over a rough draft of a new work of music with members of the Mivos Quartet, who would also perform the student’s work for them. Or a dance student might learn a technique’s finer points from a member of a visiting dance troupe.
Sometimes, as in the case of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who visited in 2013 and 2015, area schools benefit as well. In both of those years, the musical director of the Fisk University-based vocal ensemble spent time with hundreds of chorus members at the Durham School of the Arts, a public magnet school within walking distance of Duke’s East Campus.
Duke Performances’ efforts to create such deep interactions between students and professional artists are unusual for campus performing arts organizations, said Scott Lindroth, a music professor and vice provost for the arts. They speak to Duke’s desire to make the arts a core piece of the college experience, not just a sidelight, he said.
“Duke Performances has really differentiated itself by finding ways to embed its programming into the life of the university,” he said. “They’ve become a core part of how we educate our students in the arts.”
He’s a performer
In a 70-minute theater class that focuses on social change, Williams displayed a wide-ranging intellect -- citing, at various times, Rwandan anti-gay laws, the ritual of communion, the ongoing immigration crisis in Europe, the writings of self-described Democratic socialist Howard Zinn and degrading lyrics featured in the iconic Dr. Dre record “The Chronic.”
And he sprinkled in quotations from Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau over the course of a class period that he began with the phrase: “I’ll break the ice by telling you about my first acid trip.”
“He’s a performer,” said Madeleine Lambert, who teaches the course along with Linden Harris. “He engages with audiences in a really dynamic way. I think he challenged students, met them at their level. Students left with a real urgency and a sense of how performance can be useful.”
One of Williams’ messages during this class visit -- that social change comes slowly and requires a resolute dedication -- was particularly meaningful, Lambert said. Students in this class seek ways to use theater to combat sexual violence by interviewing assault survivors and using those transcripts as monologues to create public performances.
“When you face issues for the first time, there’s a lot of rage and demand for immediate change,” Lambert said. “But his message was that there’s a way to channel that rage into something efficient so change can happen over the longer term.”
Animate the Syllabus
Connecting artists with students requires a good bit of advance planning. Oberstein and Greenwald are always looking for faculty members whose courses match up with the background and experiences of artists slated to perform at Duke.
To that end, a new faculty advisory committee debuted last semester. The 17-member group, comprised of professors from a broad swath of disciplines, is helping Duke Performances find more and better connections with artists. Down the line, perhaps a full course can be designed around an artist’s visit, Oberstein said.
“We’re seeking faculty partners who are engaged, who come to our shows, who teach interesting classes, who wrestle with interesting questions,” he said. “The goal isn’t to just parachute an artist into a class for an hour. It’s to animate the syllabus, to find someone who can really illuminate something in the course.”
Dancing for a Living
Whenever possible, Duke writing instructor David Font wants his students to experience real interactions and not what he calls “the metaphor of dialogue,” such as doing research, reading texts and listening to lectures where information is directed at them to consume.
So he looks for ways to bring writers and artists into the classroom to create conversations. This fall, he was pleased that Duke Performances provided two members of the Trisha Brown Dance Company to sit in on his Writing 101 course, which focuses on writing about music and cultures.
“It brings the artistic enterprise into a human scale for the students,” said Font, whose 12 students spent one October morning listening as professional dancers Leah Ives and Olsi Gjeci discussed everything from how venues affect audience interaction to the nuts and bolts of making a living as an artist. “The students see that it’s all about people. Real people. I think it changes student relationships to the written word. It humanizes everything.”
Ives, Gjeci and the rest of the dance company spent a week on campus in October, giving a series of performances in public spaces like Duke Gardens and the Nasher Museum of Art’s atrium.
Gjeci, who grew up in Albania and was a folk dancer prior to joining the Trisha Brown organization, told students that public performances -- like those in Duke Gardens -- let artists interact far differently with audiences.
“On stage, it’s dark out there. There’s an audience but you don’t see it,” he said. “When you’re this close to an audience member, everything changes. You smile, you wave, and all of that makes a big difference.”
Ives, a dancer with Trisha Brown for nearly three years, gave the students a harsh dose of reality, saying that while most dancers made enough to live, she works a second job as well and can’t afford an apartment on her own.
She also talked about people close to her who, as she was growing up, urged her to consider alternate careers.
“[But] you have to do the work you enjoy and hope other people enjoy it, too,” she told the students.