University of Oregon Theatre Arts Commencement Address 2014

Thank you Professor Schmor, Professor Najir, and the commencement committee for inviting me to be your speaker today. I am honored to be included in this auspicious occasion and to offer my congratulations to you, the University of Oregon Theatre Arts Department graduating class of 2014.

It is truly a great day for you, one that should fill you with pride in your accomplishments here as well as excitement in anticipation of what is next as you take your last curtain call and exit this particular stage. I still recall my giddy feeling of joy  at my own graduation many years ago from the Theatre Arts Department at UCLA in southern California. Little did I know I would find myself 25 years later delivering this speech to you as a Eugene City councilor and director of a non-profit agency working in the field of public health. And I had no idea how my education and career in theatre would prepare me for the other roles I would play in my life.

What I did know then was that I loved working in theatre. I relished the immediacy of live performance in front of an audience; the drama and comedy occurring both on stage and backstage; the challenge of  hitting the mark just right performance after performance, and the incredible camaraderie shared by cast and crew that came from working together to put on a great show.

As a stage manager, for most productions, I was there for casting; the first read-through, all manner of rehearsals, and of course the actual performances, through closing night and load out. I was often the last one to leave the theatre setting out the ghost light after the final performance. From first casting call to closing night these productions were each themselves a life lived; with pathos and laughter, love and hate, frustration and triumph; often occurring simultaneously.

Each of these lives lived offered me an opportunity to build on the skills I learned in college and develop professionally in ways I could not have  imagined.  Without knowing it the experiences I had as a stage manager and crew member were building a portfolio that would serve me well when I eventually decided to take on new adventures outside of the theatre.  To put it another way everything I know about life I learned from the theatre.

To start with there are the fundamental lessons that the study of theatre offers about the basic struggles of human life from the Greek Classics to Shakespeare; Tennessee Williams to Athol Fugard; Neil Simon to Steven Sondhiem. Any good student of theatre eventually becomes a student of the human condition and  human history and comes to understand the struggles of others through our work in and study of theatre.

But those are lessons available to anyone who enjoys the theatre not just those who have dedicated part of their life working in theater. For those of us who have spent time on the other side of the footlight there are additional lesson a mere audience member can’t easily appreciate. 

Managing difficult people – no matter the profession or workplace there will always be someone who thinks they are special, that the rules don’t apply to them or who just need of a little extra attention. These folks can be a real distraction from the work at hand and a serious time suck. As a stage manager I was responsible for dealing with those personalities and making sure they didn’t disrupt a production that in some cases  involved a cast and crew of 200 plus people.  But I had to do it in a way that didn’t result in them walking off set. Basically I had to be able to disarm the diva and still have her there ready to perform when I called “places”. Tricky stuff when you are dealing with big personalities and hot tempers. Today as an elected official I need to be able to communicate and work closely with people who have opposing view points. In order to be effective I must negotiate with other elected officials and members of the public who may strongly disagree with a position I have taken. People can become emotional and angry and I must be able to maintain my composure and stay focused on the work at hand. Learning how to stay calm and collected while an accomplished opera diva screamed in my face was excellent preparation for my work in politics today. It’s hard to feel intimidated by a political blowhard once you have survived the experience of having an opera diva raise her full throated voice two inches from your nose.  

Another life lesson of theatre: improvisation is key to any successful endeavor – as students of theatre you all spent time in improv class. Some of you probably loved it more than others but you all had a chance to practice thinking creatively on your feet, responding to changing scenarios, and building upon the work of others. As a stage manager and crew member my opportunities for improvising usually involved some MacGyver inspired technical fix of a costume or prop – usually back stage in the dark using a min-mag lite and gaff tape knowing that the actor needed to get on stage in a few seconds. No pressure. In these high stress moments of creative adaptation I learned how to focus on the task at hand and trust that my fellow cast and crew members would be ready to pick up their cues when needed.

No matter where you find yourself in the future your ability to improvise and adapt will provide you with a set of skills and a level of confidence to get the job done in the face of the unexpected that others without your experience can’t match. In my work as  political advocate I have collaborated on many projects and public events. In every instance I have been the one calmly stepping up to fix an unanticipated problem while reassuring those less experienced that it will all work out – trust me I tell them it always does. And for those of us who have experienced a life in theatre we know the truth of that statement. No matter the chaos of dress rehearsal or the drama back stage somehow some way the curtain rises on time,  the actors remember their lines and the performance begins. To paraphrase Geoffrey Rush’s character in Shakespeare in Love as he tries to reassure the inexperienced and very skeptical financial backer of the Globe Theatre  “Nobody knows why it happens it just does – its magic.” 

Actually those of us who have been a part of creating that magic understand at least in part why it happens. And that brings me to the third and final life lesson of theatre that I want to highlight today. A simple but powerful mantra that guides all theatrical endeavors: the show must go on.

All true acolytes of theatre bow to this fundamental imperative. After all we have an opening night, a curtain time, an audience sitting there waiting to be entertained. Nothing short of death or complete disability will keep us from fulfilling our obligation to put on a great show.

How does this happen?  Team work, collaboration and trust. Working closely together to achieve a common purpose; putting aside our personality conflicts and petty differences; recognizing that we each have an important role to play in the effort; that if any one of us fails to deliver the whole enterprise might come grinding to a halt in front of dozens or in some cases hundreds or even thousands of spectators. 

This experience is perhaps unique to theatre but can serve to inform how each one of you approach your life and work whether in the performing arts or elsewhere. And as I have moved through the various workplaces and professions listed in my bio I have carried with me a deep understanding of the power of collaboration and the importance of playing and fulfilling my role while respecting the role that others play in the work we undertake together.

I believe that if we were somehow able to replicate this same sense of shared purpose and determination to achieve our goals collaboratively into other  parts of our lives it could be transformative. From corporate board rooms to the halls of Congress people would be engaged in bettering their worlds, setting aside their differences to work together in order to meet their commitments to the greater good. One can dream.

But we don’t need to stretch that far to see the value of this basic tenant of theatre to the rest of our lived experience – after all the show that must go on is the show that is our lives.

As you think about your own experiences here at the university  I expect you can recall a time when you were challenged and forced to stretch yourself beyond what you thought you could achieve; when the pressure was on and others were looking to you to step up and perform. In other cases you discovered all that you still didn’t know and learned that is was okay  to say “ hey can I get some help over here?” and that a fellow cast or crew member would be there to support you. You learned what you were capable of, and that what you had to offer was meaningful to others.

So now you are about to receive your diploma and end this particular chapter of your lives. For some of you today’s events may be just a blur of celebration and relief but you can be assured that these lessons you have learned during your life in this theatre will continue to serve you as embark on the next part of your journey and that they enrich your life forever. 

So I hope you are prepared because the audience is seated and curtain is about to rise on your next production so get ready because we are at “places.” Thank you.