A THICK DESCRIPTION OF HARRY SMITH, a portable medicine show with live music, explores the life and times of avant-garde filmmaker, painter, musicologist, anthropologist, occultist, collector, and fabulist, Harry Everett Smith.
Smith, best known for compiling the Anthology of American Folk Music, lived an eccentric life invisible to most Americans. Yet, his alchemical endeavors revealed a web of connections across a wild terrain of human knowledge, and reshaped popular culture as we know it. Trucking with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Elizabeth Taylor, Moses Asch, Lionel Ziprin, Jonas Mekas, and Henry Phipps, Smith fluidly crossed disciplinary, aesthetic, and social boundaries. The alchemical nature of his work, the tension between his relative anonymity, his influence, and the unknowability of his character (Leonardo-esque genius? trickster? charlatan?), and by extension the “American character,” lies at the core of THICK DESCRIPTION.
Exploding conventional notions of theatrical biography, THICK DESCRIPTION is conceived as a proto-psychedelic medicine show – think: Prairie Home Companion if Garrison Keillor were possessed by Aleister Crowley. Performed by eight actor-musicians, the piece features contemporary adaptations of folk songs from the Anthology; radio drama vignettes that hopscotch across real and speculative episodes from Smith’s life; visitations from Allen Ginsberg, Richard Nixon, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Dr. Wilder Penfield; campfire storytelling; cabinets of wonder; and Foley work. An assemblage of the detritus of American culture, the piece is a quest for American identity from the perspective of a denizen of the Underground.
In performance, we envision a raucous, theatrical equivalent of a Rauscheberg assemblage that both celebrates and questions the notion of authenticity in America. We aim to create a portable performance that, like Smith, can easily move across different contexts – a piece that is equally at home in a juke joint in Mississippi as in an European opera house.