Baccalaureate Address at Kenyon College, given on May 19, 2000
In your time at Kenyon you have been recognized for your creative genius, the rigor of your scholarship, or at the very least for your ability to show others a rascally good time. But after tomorrow you will be judged on the basis of how quickly you can froth a cappucino at Starbuck's. You will be a nobody. It will not feel good. You will pout alot and demand to know when your time will come. Your day will come but in the meantime, you've got a alot of meantime to get through. Four years ago, on Founder's Day, I tried to help you sidestep your first year misery, today I will tell you how to sidestep the misery of your first year out. Let's hope it's just one miserable year. Two years max. I think I can safely promise that by age 30 things will be looking up. But it's important that you pay your dues as a waiter, a personal assistant, a sales clerk. Why? Because for the rest of your life, you will remember what it feels like to be a waiter, a personal assistant, and a sales clerk and you will tip appropriately, you will say thank you, and you will not claim the garment was stained when you bought it. You need to be a nobody so that when you become a somebody you don't become an asshole. And let us question, shall we, what it means to be a somebody.
When I was at Kenyon, a design professor optimistically suggested I do an internship after I graduated. It didn't really matter where, she assured me, because wherever I was they would quickly recognize my talent and intelligence and I would move up the ranks. Ladies and gentlemen, this was a LIE. At my first internship, nobody recognized my talent or intelligence. I was lucky if they remembered my name. I was a directing intern on a production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM at Arena Stage which means that I clung barnacle-like to the side of the actual director, waiting for instructions that never came. I had no job, which is the very worst job to have. I was expected to be there ten hours a day but for no apparent reason. The one and only time I was assigned a task it was to sit in the Green Room, listen to the monitor and notate in a script where the actors were putting the stress in the iambic pentameter. We CANnot FIGHT for love as MEN may do/We SHOULD be WOO'D and were NOT made to woo.
So how did I survive this humbling internship? I did what any smart-alecky 21 year old would do. I set out to enjoy the follies of people who were more important than me. Kathleen Turner, fresh from her steamy debut in BODY HEAT, was playing Titania, the Fairy Queen. In their excitement over having a contemporary sex goddess, the director and the costume designer had outfitted her in a flesh colored unitard. Only a flesh colored unitard. When she arrived in Washington, everybody realized that she had dieted herself silly for BODY HEAT and in the meantime had had a thing or two to eat. She looked less like a Playboy centerfold and more like a normal woman. Horrified, there were strategy sessions about how to hide her curves, or as they called them, her "lumps." They came up with the idea of disguising figure flaws with little clusters of ribbon and frou-frou that the crew came to call "fairy dandruff."
Meanwhile, the director and set designer had come up with a tour de force set design that featured an actual swimming pool in the middle of the stage, which was meant to suggest a magical woodland pool. When Titania entered she would appear to be floating in her magical bower, while actually hovering above the water on a prosaic piece of Plexiglass. Then while that naughty Puck leered down at her from a Plexiglass canopy of trees, she would climb out of the water a la Maxfield Parrish onto a magical mother of pearl surface. Well, during tech week, the plexiglass raft did indeed glide Titania into the middle of the pool. And Kathleen Turner did indeed look very good wet. She climbed languorously out of the pool and...totally wiped out. With the very first drop of water the magical mother of pearl surface had turned into an Olympic luge course. Suddenly Kathleen Turner looked less good wet and there were ice packs and emergency strategy sessions. They first tried adding sand to the paint, thereby achieving a magical mother-of-pearl sandpaper effect. It succeeded in browning down the mother of pearl surface to the point where it looked my grandmother's linoleum but the forest floor was no less slick. With heavy heart everyone realized the fairies' entrances from the pools would have to be cut. From now on the fairies would dive into the pool only when exiting. When they re-emerged below the stage they would be met by an army of towels and blow-dryers as this was December and fairies were coming down with walking pneumonia. What I learned from my fabulous internship opportunity is that not only does Shakespeare's work not require chlorine, it suffers from it. I remember the humiliation of having to call my father to come pick me up after rehearsal when my dying 67 Volkswagon bug absolutely refused to start. This seemed the perfect metaphor for my life, for my career so far. I saw people not much older than me working in the theater but I didn't know how they got there. I didn't know how to get from here to there, from nobody to somebody.
After I did my time on Arena's star-studded MIDSUMMER I was invited to do a stint in their literary office. It was an office full of men and day after day about one in the afternoon, I remember the lilting refrain, 'Mark you going to lunch? Jerry, can you take a break? Doug, we're going next door." Not once, and I cannot emphasize this enough, not once was I invited to lunch with my betters. But the literary manager there, Mark Bly, was the first to notice my talents in the way that my professor had promised. He had taken notice of the fact that I could put a sentence together and he asked me to be a reader of the new plays that came in. I was exasperated by the sheer hackdom of most of the submitted scripts and I shot them down with all the compassion of a John Simon at New York magazine. For those of you who don't know John Simon, he is the Luftwaffe of drama critics. It was then that Mark Bly took me aside and gave me the single most valuable piece of advice I've ever been given. "Wendy, " he said kindly, 'There's no need to use a sledgehammer on a flea." But my hubris as a script reader led me to believe that there might be some room for me in the playwriting racket and a few years later I applied to the playwriting program at the Yale Drama School.
Okay, fast forward twenty years. I am now, if not a somebody, then at least less of a nobody. I am a playwright, I am a professor and I spent the year as a staff writer on a tv show called POPULAR. As my theater agent likes to say, I'm just back from darkest Hollywood. In a way, it was my second first year out of Kenyon. I had moved to a city and started a new job in a strange new world. I had moments that rivaled the Arena Stage internship in misery and so I felt a certain compassion for the recent college grads who were working on the show as production assistants and secretaries.
At lunchtime, the staff writers mostly liked to go to the Disney commissary with the other writers. We didn't set out to exclude the assistants. We just wanted to be able to bitch indiscreetly about how our scripts were rewritten. But there were certain assistants who were able to break into our inner circle and with an eye to your future, I will tell you exactly how they wormed their way into our hearts. The executive producer's secretary was a severe-looking 20-something named Skye Kang. Skye Kang never, ever smiled. Skye Kang reminded me of those women in James Bond movies who wear string bikinis and shoot poison darts. She frightened me. But one day she told me that she had seen my film THE HOUSE OF YES three times and that she thought it was a work of genius. I suddenly saw great promise in Skye Kang. In my mind I took back that James Bond thing. She wanted me to teach her how to write so I recommended that she read Aristotle's Poetics and she actually did read Aristotle's Poetics. She asked if she could read more of my plays and when I gave them to her she actually did read my plays and in no time at all, Skye was getting the invite to the commissary. I cannot overestimate the importance of hard-working sychophancy. People are always flattered when you want to do what they do, know what they know. Skye also reminded me of how much I missed teaching.
There was another guy named James, a production assistant, who happened to be from Cleveland. He had never lived down the fact that when he was sent to the grocery store for cream cheese by an office full of former New Yorkers he had come back with the strawberry-flavored kind. When he heard I was from Ohio he introduced himself to me. Now I bristled slightly when he said he heard I was "from" Ohio because I think of myself as an Easterner, but I had to admit that I was more from Ohio than I was from LA He threw himself onto my Midwestern mercy, and I was forced to acknowledge James' humanity. I loved the fact that he was living in glamorous L.A. and missing, really missing, Cleveland. He was no longer just one of those guys who put the pages I didn't read into my in-box. He was James, the guy who missed Ohio and I insisted up and down the office corridors that I liked the strawberry cream cheese. Remind them of your humanity. If they don't care to be reminded, remind yourself of your own humanity.
As you begin to become a somebody, there is still the danger of becoming a nobody if you don't sustain some kind of inner life. In Gambier, there is the time, the quiet, the boredom, to noodle around, to read a book because it was mentioned on the back of the last book you liked. As Aristotle says, philosophy begins in leisure. In the so-called real world, there is no time. You commute to the office, you go to the gym, you go to a movie, you go to bed and then you die. The urban world is designed to stimulate you in a way that prevents you from ever thinking deeply about anything. After mere months in L.A. I could feel that something in me was imperilled.
How do you keep that somebody in you alive? You may have been told that your elite education is an indulgence. It is not. You may be the people who save civilisation the way the scribbling monks did in the Dark Ages. When I was a student at Kenyon I was studying the book Two Women by Alberto Moravia in a World Lit class. We were discussing the intellectual character in the book and at one point the Italian professor asked rhetorically, "And what is the role of the intellectual? The role of the intellectual is to lead the masses." This was news to me. It reeked of communism. It reeked of elitism. It reeked of...work. But substitute "educated" for intellectual and "culture" for masses and she's on to something. What is the role of the educated man or woman? To lead the culture. Because you have studied art and architecture, you could save the culture from vinyl siding and Wal-Mart. Because you have taken political science, you will question sound bites and poll politics. Because you have taken women's studies, you will question a film and television industry in which 85% of the women portrayed are between the ages of 18-34. In your four years here, you have been taught to think deeply about yourself and the world you live in.
This was brought home to me at a dinner party in L.A. where the guest list was made up of various 20-something Kenyon alums. Some were my former students, some I didn't know, but as we sat around the room, we discovered that everybody had listened to NPR on the way home from work that day, and everybody had an opinion about what was going on in East Timor. Suffice it to say that nobody I worked with at the TV show was losing sleep over East Timor. They cared about last night's screening and what was going on in "the trades." There is in the real world a certain tunnel vision which is antithetical to a liberal arts world view.
One of my former students invited me to attend his church. It was a stately Anglican church in Hollywood which was an intriguing combination of high church and high camp. It served a large gay community and it was a parish that had been galvanized by the AIDS crisis. It had an interesting mix of old money and young families and people in the industry. The extravagant altarcloths and vestments had been designed and donated by an Emmy-award winning designer and the annual fund-raising was done from the pulpit by a gorgeous array of church-going movie actors, one of whom was the same handsome Irish priest you saw praying as the Titanic went down. Needless to say when these square-jawed creatures appeared and asked for money the congregation couldn't whip out their checkbooks fast enough. But I mostly went there for the music and the time to think. The choir sang beautifully and every week when they got to the psalms, I would weep. I was mystified by own tears, and yet they were predictable enough that I started to stuff my purse with tissues Sunday morning. I was embarrassed because I was surrounded by people who had recently lost loved ones and were in real pain. I saw them trace their fingers over the name plaques on the walls as they walked to their pews. I was blessed by comparison. But one morning it dawned on me why I was crying in church. I had overlooked the obvious. I was crying because I was unhappy.
I decided to go and talk to the rector who I had gotten to know through my Kenyon friend. Father Barbour was an older gay man who had lost one son to AIDS and had another son who was HIV positive. Father Barbour gave fabulously scandalous sermons about his life before he stopped drinking. I remember being wide-eyed at the sermon in which a married Father Barbour went home from a bar with a moustachioed policeman and in an alcoholic haze climbed into bed with this man-in-blue and his cooperative girlfriend. I figured this priest knew something about life. He listened to what I had to say about my job and my life in L.A. and then told me something that was elegant in its simplicity. He said, "When you are doing God's will for you, you will be happy." Indeed, when I began working on my new play in Chicago, I was happy, happier than I'd ever been writing for the television show, ecstatic in fact. Theater was my calling in a way that television was not. Listen for your calling. We are often made to feel that pursuing our own happiness is selfish, but what if we take our own happiness as proof of a larger destiny?
Everything you are is everything you will be. You have by now, established patterns in your life. If they are patterns of success, remind yourself of that. If you have always worked hard and gotten good grades, it is likely that you will work hard in a job and succeed eventually. If you haven't always worked hard and gotten good grades, well, every professor here can tell you about a former student who made a come from behind finish. Thinking about what you haven't done is the road to madness. Think about all you've accomplished so far.
The biggest mistake I see twenty-somethings make is that they put all their energy into hustling, and not into making something that's worth hustling. I meet young film makers who are more concerned with getting the financing than with rewriting the screenplay. I see actors more concerned with the quality of their headshots than with the quality of their training. I see playwrights mailing out scripts to 70 different theaters without considering whether the play is ready to be produced. Newspapers and magazines, which are in the pocket of Hollywood press agents, make us feel that if we haven't made it by 25, it's over. But most overnight successes are not overnight successes. Real success is the result of a life's work. I smile when a student tells me she's going to give "the acting thing" five years and if it doesn't "work out," she's going to law school. Five years is nothing. As one of your fellow alums told you when she was here two weeks ago, Allison Janney didn't begin working until she was 35. You've got to be willing to give your life to something. You must value your craft even more than your career. As Genet once said, "Talent is courtesy with respect to matter." This is Genet, that gender-bending, bourgeoisie-shocking, venereal disease ridden ex-con, and he's talking about courtesy.
This winter my father was in the hospital. He had gone in for a fairly routine but complications led to paralysis in his legs. So things seemed pretty bad. We've all heard the saying, "I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet." Well, in an astonishing illustration, my father's roommate in the hospital was a man left quadripalegic by a motorcycle accident. My father was well-off by comparison.
When I visited my father in the hospital I would bustle up and down the halls seeing to this and that and one night I heard the strains of "Amazing Grace" coming from somebody's room. I poked my head in the door and saw a man playing the concertina. The Concertina Man came to the hospital every Saturday night to soothe the patients off to sleep. He would ask for requests and invariably people would ask for "Amazing Grace." He finally reached my father's room and my father's roommate also asked for "Amazing Grace." I watched the Concertina Man's face for a flicker of impatience or boredom but he gave no sign that anyone else had requested the song that evening. He launched into "Amazing Grace" as if he had been hoping somebody would request it. This was a man who was using his gift as a gift. It was the first time all year I had seen an artist who wasn't concerned with getting a development deal. This man did indeed have amazing grace. This man was truly somebody.
Four years ago I told you that if you do what you love, the money will come. Life gets harder when people offer you more money to do something else. But I urge you to do what you love and to do it out of love, not for the money or the outward success. Question what the world is valuing. Decide what you want to place value on. Assume your job should contribute something meaningful to the world. And that doesn't mean you have to work for Amnesty International or join the Peace Corps. Those are certainly meaningful callings but perhaps your calling is subtler or closer to home. You will know your calling when you've answered it. If you are unhappy, you are off track. Demand happiness. It's my hope for you. It's God's will for you.