2010 Commencement Speech by Jack Watson
It’ odd. In nearly 40 years of teaching, I’ve never had to write a speech out word for word. But this occasion seems deserving, so here goes.
One of our freshmen recently wrote on Facebook: where has the year gone?
Some of you are thinking: where have the four/five years gone? I won’t go higher than five to protect the innocent
The parents are wondering: where have the past 21 years gone?
I’m thinking: how the heck did I get so old that they asked me to give the speech at graduation?
And we’re all probably thinking: how did I get here and what comes next?
A song from the musical “Applause” goes “When I was eight, I was in a school play, I’ll never forget it, I had one line to say, My big moment came, I said What pro, the Hince; my sister applauded, I’ve been hooked ever since.
It wasn’t quite that simple for me.
I was a music major (my 3rd major in three years !) when the Theatre Dept. needed another boy in the chorus; then I got a small role as 2nd woodcutter in Lorca’s Blood Wedding; then a lead when a young man who was the lead singer for the Kingsmen (as in Louie, Louie) didn’t learn his lines and I was called in four days before dress rehearsal. I won’t deny I loved the attention and the applause. But as I continued to study theatre and perform, I realized theatre was more than just applause and a really good time. I realized I had found a field that helped me understand who I am: a field that gave me the tools to create the person I wanted to be. My father never understood: he never saw a performance of a live play in his entire life. But he never got it my way. I knew that theatre offered me opportunities for understanding myself, others, and the world around me in a very unique way, and I then was truly hooked.
We live in a world where creativity is in danger of being only another cog in the great corporate machine I read about a person who had this horrible nightmare. After several years he had the chance to revisit Michelangelos’ supreme Sistine Chapel. He looked to the very top, center of the magnificent room and there was Adam stretching out his hand toward his Creator, who was offering him a Bud Light.
Daniel Mendelsohn tells a story of meeting an old woman who had emigrated from Poland not long after the end of War World II., having survived in the Polish ghetto and suffered in the concentration camps. At the end of their conversation he turned to her and asked: “so what happened when the war was over? What was the first thing that happened, once things started to be normal again?” “You know, it’s a funny thing, she told him. “when the Germans first came, in 1941, the first thing they did was close the theatres He paused, unsure of what theatre she meant – the great Beaux Arts opera house? “No, they closed all the theatres, she said, “ and I’ll tell you something, because I remember it quite clearly,: the first thing that happened, after the war was over and things got a little normal –the first thing was that the actors and theatre people who were still alive got together and put on, in Polish , a production of Sophocles’ Antigone. “ At a time when it seemed that their very culture had been in danger of ending, the first thing they knew they needed to do was to put on a play. To restart the theatre’s ancient duty of preserving our stories, of bringing our heritage alive, of providing a forum in which we can debate the most vital questions of our time.
Throughout history (as you surely remember from Theatre History) in Rome, in Civil War England, and even in some instances in high schools in Oregon, people have tried to close the theatre. Why? Because it’s dangerous. Because it seeks truth. Because it exposes our dreams and our nightmares: our glory and our demons. Because theatre reminds us how difficult and how beautiful it is to be alive.
Theatre has many voices. It may be Susan Sontag’s remarkable production of Waiting for Godot in a war-torn Sarajevo with Serbian artillery shells landing not far away; it may be the one-half hour play by a teenage girl being presented despite threats from the Taliban and real danger in present-day Afghanistan; it may be Sophocles’ Ajax being performed for wounded veterans who understood all too well how a person can be driven mad by the reality of war; it may be high school students presenting The Laramie Project in a local park after the production was banned by the school board; it may be a Broadway musical exploring the nature of bipolar disorder as was the case with this year’s Pulitzer Prize winning Next to Normal. Or it may be a group of graduates from the University of Oregon who, not fulfilled by their “real world” jobs, find a space somewhere and present a play that expresses how they see the world, in a theatrical language all their very own as we saw with the recent visit of The Free theatre. It doesn’t take a Robinson Theatre, it doesn’t take a sponsor and a big budget; it takes creativity and passion. And you have both. No excuses accepted. Let your voice be heard.
You are a very special group of people. Your legacy in this department includes such memorable events as a joint production of Threepenny Opera with LCC; acting alongside professional in Wild Oats, a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream honored by the American College Theatre Festival; and productions of the works of Sarah Kane, Euripides, Shakespeare, and Mary Zimmerman. You dedicated this remodeled space with AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS and inaugurated the Hope Theatre with AS YOU LIKE IT. You surprised us with ANONYMOUS , you broke our hearts with TROJAN WOMEN, and you charmed us with ANNELIE IN THE DEPTHS OF THE NIGHT> You even had one term in the Pocket Playhouse that featured TWO productions of HAMLET. You are exceptional and your potential is unlimited.
And I would suggest that your future depends on whether or not you have learned the most important thing we had offer you – the power of the creative spirit. Hold your hand in front of you: at the tips of your fingers are patterns that are unique to you. There is only one of you. The one thing you have that is different from everyone else is you. Hundreds have the same degree, thousands will be doing what you want to do for a living; only you have custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just your life at a desk or in a studio, or on stage . Not just your mind, but your heart. And the thing that sets you apart from most others is creativity.
You, as few others on the planet, know about creativity. You’ve bathed in it for the past how many years. A devised play under the dynamic leadership of John Schmor; learning to paint a giant backdrop under the magical hand of Jerry Hooker when you previously couldn’t draw a good stick person; reading an exciting new play with Theresa, or learning to dissect one with Sara, or writing your own with Jen; discovering the hidden meanings in clothing and light with Sandy and Janet or taking the reins as a director with Joseph or coaching with the one GFT that somehow got you to see through all the crap and discover an ability you never suspected you possessed. Or working with your peers at some ridiculous hour of the night or morning, making magic in the Pocket (did someone say Billy Goats’ Gruff?).
Your future may lie in the theatre; it may not. But every moment of your life is something you create. The novelist Anna Quindlen wrote: From now on, you are beginning with a clean slate: Every day, look at the choices you are making and when you ask yourself why you are making them, answer: Because they are who and what I am, and mean to be.” And George Eliot added: “It’s never too late to create yourself; it’s never too early either.”
You probably began your work in this department with a book entitled Acting Onstage and Off. I know you’ll know the answer to this question: “Why are you doing this?” Right, “It’s the best thing.” Well, the biggest part you’ll ever play starts today. It’s up to you to live the play you want to produce; to creative the life you want to live.
In an article in American Theatre, director Steven Woolf stated that what theatre needs is more students who graduate with “passion . . not just talent or analytical skills– too many graduates don’t really understand theatre is about making a deeply involved emotional commitment — that’s the core of why we work in the theatre and why audiences attend it.”
There will be many parts of life that will attempt to silence your creativity. The lure of a paycheck, the weight of student loans, the rigor of a career, the needs of family and friends will all demand your time and talents. But your creative gift is something special. And it carries a special responsibility to nurture it, to use it, to find and develop that special voice that is yours and yours alone.
Your creativity is how you define yourself and how you remind yourself who you want to become. Speak up. You owe it to yourself; you owe it to the world.
Now I regret to tell you that even though you may have passed your finals and written that last term paper and you probably will never have to do another 30-page dramaturgy for theatre history, your education isn’t over; it’s just begun. Every day is a continuation of your coursework in theatre. Every person you meet is a potential teacher who holds wisdom you need. Every day you produce, write, direct, and star in, your own play. I cant’ tell you if will be Chekhov, Shakespeare, Mamet, or heaven forbid Samuel Beckett – but it’s up to you. The whole world is a Pocket Playhouse where you can perform your most outrageous dreams.
Yes, life is just a big classroom, and the final exam can be tough. No one ever said on her deathbed. “I wish I had spent more time at the office.” Or as Lily Tomlin said: “If you win the rat race; you’re still a rat.”
None of you is a rat. Each one of you is rare and precious with a unique voice to share with the world. I treasure the times I’ve spent with you whether in class, in rehearsal, or watching a play in London. I am grateful for the honor of sharing this day with you, and I thank you for all that you have taught me. The world awaits all you have to give. It’s finally really and truly opening night. Break a leg and Aloha!.