I’ve said before that my college theater was wonderful because they gave me a lot of “yes.” Recently, I was digging through my old files and I found the speech I gave at honors convocation in my senior year at Hiram College. I read it expecting it to be vaguely embarrassing, and was surprised to learn that I still feel like much of what I said is true. When I teach college students, I work hard to give them the same feeling of freedom and safety that my college theater gave me. I don’t remember knowing, at 21 years old, what a formative and powerful thing that theater department’s “Yes, and…” was for me.
So here it is– a bit of capricious youth, but not as much as I might have imagined.
Nuclear Winter and the Dramatic Arts
Once, when I came to the Honors Convocation, I heard a young man speak about his research during an internship at a pharmaceutical company. He was telling about his magnum opus, in a sense. I think that is what students generally do at the Honor’s Convocation—they present what they consider to be their greatest work. It is usually something tangible: papers they’ve published, innovations they’ve made, marks they will leave on Hiram after they are gone. I would like to do the same thing, but my greatest work, my biggest discovery is something that I must sneak up on. It is not substantial, like the plays I have directed or the research I have done. I can only see my greatest discovery out of the corner of my left eye, but I know it is there, informing all of my concrete work. To loosen its guard and distract it a little, I would like to talk about one of my favorite poems. It’s by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and because it’s pretty short, I think I can quote it in its entirety:
Rick Hyde sent me this poem in late August of my junior year, because I was considering trying to direct some Shakespeare, and I had been talking with him about how nervous the whole idea made me. It was a big idea, and this was before I knew that I was doing Antony and Cleopatra, which is not the easiest of Shakespeare’s plays. I thought the whole thing would go down in flames, and Rick emailed me that poem and also some words of encouragement. He said that as artists, and I am quoting here, “we have a responsibility to chaos, and a need to take the leap and risk something.” He told me that it is both frightening and necessary to fly without a net, and he is right.
My high school theatre was unbelievably tense. My teacher correctly thought that it was an effective motivational tactic to keep all of us on our toes, constantly afraid. By the time I graduated, I really felt that the world would end if anything went wrong in a show. It was like, if you could walk around on this stage, and somewhere—you don’t know where—on the floor there is a two-foot square invisible button that could start a nuclear holocaust. One misstep, and everything ends! Of course you stay where you are, because you know it’s safe. You don’t want to kill the manatees, right? When I was sixteen, I thought, on some level, that any failure as a director, actor, or technician at that little high school in the backwaters of West Virginia would absolutely ruin my career forever. I directed some good stuff in high school. I considered what I had done in high school to be a success. Then I came here.
It’s hard to move forward when you are scared to move—I would think of a brilliant and exciting project, and then a voice in my head would start screaming, “Don’t risk it! Think of the lemmings!” When I came to Hiram, Rick kept telling me not to worry. He said I had to let myself fail.
I remember the first play I acted in here. It was Anton in Showbusiness, spring semester of my first year. My character, Joby, was a drama critic there to see the play within the play within—you had to see the play to get it, but basically I sat in the audience and interrupted the play every now and then to tell the actors that what their characters were doing didn’t make any sense. I didn’t particularly like Joby. She was a know-it-all who was too scared to actually get up there and do the theatre herself. Instead, she made a career out of sniping at it, pointing out other people’s failures. One night at rehearsal, Rick was trying to help me get Joby’s last major moment. As she is leaving the theatre, Joby suddenly gets it. She suddenly becomes human and it is a stunning thing that happens there. I was having a terrible time with it, and Rick was trying to help. He said, “Do it one more time, and then we’ll call it,” so I did. That time, I really got it, and I started crying. I don’t think I had ever cried in rehearsal before, and I don’t think I’ve done it since. What happened was that suddenly I saw myself in Joby—scared to take the risk, scared to move anything forward because any failure would end life as we know it. That night at rehearsal, I saw that for the first time, and it scared me. I didn’t want to be that.
A lot happened in the year and a half between that play and the email from Rick. I learned a lot about failure—for one thing, that I can’t help failing. You may have seen the Far Side cartoon where the top of the frame is filled with a big mushroom cloud, and below, underground, are a man and a woman in a bunker, surrounded by stacks of canned food. The woman is saying, “How many times did I tell you, put a can opener in that shelter!” That’s me. I’m the sort of person who prepares like crazy, but always misses something crucial. I’m getting better about that, because I would rather make the kinds of failures I allow myself to make than the ones that come from simple carelessness.
When Rick sent me that Ferlinghetti poem, he was telling me to learn to fly without a net. He said that I should just jump out there. Sure enough, I did. Some of you might have seen Antony and Cleopatra. It wasn’t perfect, but it was about the most fun I have ever had directing. I loved going to rehearsal. I was doing something far too big for me to handle, and having a blast. I really felt like I was doing cartwheels on a tightrope, and nothing but the air underneath me, and the ground a long way down. It felt free. I forgot about nets entirely.
It wasn’t until recently, when I reread Rick’s email because I was trying to find the poem, that I found something else he had written. It was sort of tucked in at the bottom, just a brief note after the poem, easily forgotten. He said, “There is a net—it’s my job—a dirty one, but someone has to.” At the time, maybe I didn’t think much about that, but now I think I know what he meant. The problem with my work in high school was that I had to create my own net. I had to set up my own precautions because if I fell, that was it. It is. Think about it—if you were falling through the air and you tried to catch yourself, you would still hit the ground pretty hard, and look silly when you got there. In the Ferlinghetti poem, he never says that there is no net. He doesn’t say that there is one, either. Maybe there is someone else waiting to catch beauty’s fair eternal form, just in case the poet fails.
I took a writing class with Joyce Dyer, and she was always telling us not to “self-edit,” to just write whatever comes out and then go back and correct it later. That’s a good system for writing—you can delete your errors before anyone sees them, but you also can be free to explode your thoughts onto the page. Theatre doesn’t work like that—because it all happens in the fourth dimension, I can’t rewind and change it. If I want to be my own safety net, I have to edit and create at the same time. The reason I could feel like I was flying free here was that Rick offered catch me. If I accidentally triggered the Button, he would deactivate it. If my project failed completely, he would let me direct again. It wasn’t until I applied this system to my own directing that I understood how hard it is to be the net.
As a director, I am constantly begging actors to take risks. Actors hate to do this. They will tell you that they are brave, and they put up a good front, but really, they are all frightened. They are up here, all alone, they feel so naked and if anything goes wrong—even with just the director watching—they feel like fools. I had to learn to trick them into jumping.
Last year, for my directing class, I did the first fifteen minutes of Copenhagen. One of my actors was paralyzed by stage fright, but I needed him to work. I kept begging him to trust me, to trust the text, but he was too afraid. Finally, I told him that I needed him. I asked him take care of his scene partner. I told him that she was just as nervous as he was. She needed him. I asked him to be her safeguard, so he could forget about trying to guard himself. Meanwhile, I was standing there waiting to catch him if he needed me. He didn’t.
Probably my biggest accomplishment with Antony and Cleopatra was that I was able to be a net for twelve people. It’s harder than it sounds—standing there on the ground with my arms outstretched, trying to guess who will need catching. It’s never the actor I think it will be, because the actors with the most obvious problems will never get the guts to jump. It’s like juggling in a strong wind. I never knew what would come falling down, or where it would land. My focus was on ensuring that they felt happy with the experience, and survived it. I told them that I didn’t care if we never even performed the piece. Maybe we would just workshop it, interact with the text, and decide that that was enough, that we were satisfied there. I wanted them to experiment, and, really, I wish I had been able to convince them to do more of that. I wanted them all to feel like it was ok to fail, because when failure isn’t holding people in check, they can do their most vibrant work. To some extent, I succeeded, but I want to do more of that. It was good for me, too—because I was so focused on being their safety, I forgot about being my own.
This semester, I am Writing Assistant for Ellen Summers’ FSEM. One day, she was trying to explain literary interpretation to our students. She said, “Don’t stick with the safe stuff. That’s not criticism.” She is right. Walking the line that everyone else has walked is important, because everyone stands on the shoulders of giants. When that line ends, it’s time to fly. I’ve been trying for years to learn what interpretation is. Now I know. It’s directing. It’s living. It’s flying. One day in our class, I was egging Professor Summers on, just a bit. The lectures when she lets herself go, lets herself get excited about the material, gives in to her literature addiction, are the most enjoyable and worth listening to. One of our students accused me of being an enabler. I’m sure she meant it pejoratively, but I took it as a compliment. I want to enable people to trust their madness. I want to do that for myself, too.
As I learn to fly with a net, and to respect that net and to depend on it, I start to notice that it’s not just one net; it isn’t just Rick. I look closer and begin to understand that it is a patchwork of nets that will catch me if I fail. My professors, friends, and family are looking out for me. I understand and appreciate the value. Just because I know it is there, my work improves tenfold. I can do things that are above my level. My reach can continue to exceed my grasp.
This fall, I took Bio for Non-Majors with Greg Szulgit. He said an amazing thing. He told us that the earth won’t end, no matter what we do to it. Even if we do our worst, hit that button, it will just turn into a little black ball. Eventually, after millions or billions of years, it will start over again. When people talk about destroying the Earth, they really mean the current forms of plant and animal life, and of course, human civilization. We can’t really destroy the whole thing. Conservation of mass. So even if I direct a play that is so bad that it starts a nuclear winter, spring comes eventually.
My magnum opus, my greatest and most difficult work, of my time at Hiram is that I have learned how to let myself fail. I still don’t like failing, certainly, but there is a great freedom that comes from knowing that I can’t permanently destroy anything. Everything can, and will, rebuild. The least destructive thing I can do as an artist is to trust my chaos.