Douglas Carter Beane : Keynote Address 2013

Douglas Carter Beane Commencemet Address 2013

135th Commencement
May 16, 2013

President Buffington, Provost Pillow, Deans, Professors, Members of the Faculty, visiting dignitaries and honored guests. Representatives of the Philadelphia community, Quakers, Shakers, Mummers, Baileys, Banks and Biddles. Undergraduates and you the graduates. You magnificent, shining-like-chromium gorgeous bastards, look at you, just look at you. You’re all so splendid, so full of hope – the possibility is – I swear I can smell it from here. We all can.

We envy you and are excited by you and the way we look at you is not entirely appropriate for people of our age, but it can’t be helped.

I have been wondering what to say that is worthy of your spectacular moment. This the very second that you stand proud, up against the oncoming slog of mediocrity, you stand and you say “I today simply and boldly am saying yes, Art and yes now.”  Wow. Let me tell you, I love you for it, dear graduates.  It gives me hope. It gives us all a feeling of eternity.  I have often felt that art is like a relay race.  The traditions, the knowledge, the craft, the tricks are the baton we grab as the racer before us lunges to the finish line and that we pass behind us, without looking back as we ourselves race to our end.

Perhaps I have a greater affinity with you this day because if not for the quaint pranks of fate, I would be an alum of this very institution. You see dear graduates, the school I ultimately attended was not my first choice, my first choice was to attend the University of the Arts. There had been an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer stating the University of the Arts would soon be starting a theater program and I knew Philadelphia – growing up outside of Reading, Pa. Philadelphia was my artistic home. From Eugene Ormandy, to all the Broadway tours that came through, to every museum, to the discos that were playing McFadden and Whitehead.  I called the admissions office only to find out that the program didn’t start for a few years. So I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

So here I am, at last.  Sorry I’m late.  And this is quite something let me tell you.  I was out the other night and I asked some of my friends what to say to you I was so intimidated by the majesty of the moment.  Many said remember what you heard at your own graduation speech and build on that.  OK not the best advice.

My graduation from the academy was in 1980,  I was forty pounds thinner but had terrible skin – you see God evens life out like that, isn’t he nice?  The advice of my friends to build on the speech at graduation was indeed bad advice.

The commencement speaker was Roy Scheider fresh from his performance as Joe Gideon in “All that Jazz” and currently appearing on Broadway in a Pinter Play called “Betrayal.”  Roy was glamorous in the extreme. He sort of sauntered up to the podium and said – Hey kids – I’m not gonna BS you.  He then held up some blue index cards – I have a whole speech prepared here, but that’s not what you want.  I’m working and you’re not and you probably have a lot of questions for me –I’m going to rip up my speech and you kids fire away with questions. And with that he ripped his blue cards.  And let them flutter to the bottom of his bell-bottomed slacks and the tops of his cowboy boots.  Roy then gave a sort of gesture of openness.  Like I’m here for you.  And the audience went nuts. What a cool guy! Of course as I sat there with my fellow graduates. Who had been trained to be in the moment, who had trained to observe with our eagle eyes.  We all as one noticed that the blue cards were blank. He had come unprepared – oh please we’d seen it in our classes all the time.  So we sat there in stone cold disbelieving silence – this man had just turned our sacred moment into a press junket.  The first question came from the boy next to me.  “Mr. Scheider, are those your own teeth?”

So I told this story last week to my friends and they were all aghast and I immediately won the prize of worst commencement speech ever and I got a free cocktail.  But later, one of my friends said perhaps I should give the speech I wish I had gotten. I quickly replied, “it’s 1980 there’s a new company called Apple – put money in it!”

But no – actually maybe there is something to saying what I wish someone had told me as I graduated.  Things that I’ve picked up as I’ve make my way through this disco dance of art and commerce.   And maybe they add up to a portrait of how there is fun to be had in all this. Seven seems a quite mystical number. Seven deadly sins, seven pillars of wisdom, seven days in a week, seven dwarves, seven husbands for Elizabeth Taylor.  Seven sweets, seven sours. Done. Here are seven things I wish someone had told me and I pass them on to you with love.

OK, number one. “Rich People have no taste” It’s so sad, because it’s so true.  Don’t be fooled by the Preston Sturges movies where a rich person is Billie Burke flitting about saying, “the maestro will be performing for us tonight.” Rich people are really more like Fran Drescher saying “I don’t like orange, why is it orange?”  Dorothy Parker said, “If you really want to see what God thinks of the money, look at the people who he’s given it to.” And here’s the killer part.  You have to put up with them to do what you want to in your life. DON’T – look at me here – DON’T take this as a suggestion that you’re going to have to be a brown-noser here. I did not say that.  But you are going to have to handle them. And my but their money certainly has given them opinions. It’s sort of the quintesenetial American concept, isn’t it? You’re rich, therefore you smart.

And they’re more than a little rude and condescending about it, to boot. Jesus Christ says in the book of Matthew “verily I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven” In two thousand years has anyone found a good counter argument? Every museum, dance company, theater company that now functions with a non-profit status is dealing with a individuals on a board many of whom very rich, usually by mastering one tiny thing and are now, shazam, experts on the world or better yet inheritors of a fortune and have never worked a day in their life and yes experts on everything in this world. Or better yet, they inherited it, but act like they’ve earned it. You gotta figure out how to handle them. Educate them. You need them. Or best of all you have to find a rich person whether it be a film studio, a producer a benefactor who is actually nice. And has something resembling curiosity.  They exist and they are blessed.

Number 2. You are an artist. Say it all the time in conversation, drives people nuts. “I’m sorry that’s really about budget, and I’m an artist.” They see us as creatures of whim, living only to do what we feel like at that moment. Play it up and do it.  But know with the simple statement “I am an artist” comes a quite intimidating responsibility.

Just out of school I attended a speech given by choreographer, Agnes DeMille and at the end of the talk she sort of looked over at a group of the younger people in the crowd and improvised “Excellence. Think of the meaning of the word. Look for it in your ballet, look for it in your politicians, look for it in your life.”  So the baton I pass to you without looking back is Excellence.  Who needs it?  Well if you look around evidently no one.  You are about to head off into a terrible job market. And it’s even worse for artists.  So far the only advantage to your degree from and University of the arts over a liberal arts degree is at least you know what kind of work you’re out of.  Also no one cares if you’re any good.  Bad taste abounds.  Because of the economy every form   of art   has been dumbed down so that everything will want to be seen by everyone.  That means less individuality, less shocking work, less challenging pieces. What can you possibly do in its face?  Excellence.  Sorry you’re an artist, it’s your calling.  To be good is not enough when you dream of being great.  Anyone can just imitate what’s popular.  Anyone can make the obvious, comfortable choice. You have to make the unique fresh and honest choice. First time, every time.  Artistry, wit, intelligence. You’re our hope, you have to do it.  Excellence must be your devotion.  When the young child of Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes was filling out a form for her elementary school, she asked them what she should do with the box that said religion, Gena said – put down “artists.”  Which brings us to number three. 

3. “You have all the power.” In the midst of all the dung that is being offered to you, remember – you have ALL the power.  You can create something right now. A concert, and art show, a play, a film. Start it now. Don’t wait for Santa. Start it now. You don’t have to be a success to have your vanity company.  Do it now.  Saves time.  If you are working in a restaurant or an office find the other actors, find a director, find painters, find musicians find a playwright get together with them. Invite the press remember these reporters all are working for papers that are going under and wondering why they have an arts department at all.  They’re looking to discover something.  But be smart, make sure what you do is unique.

One of the most amazing nights I ever spent in the theater was watching something called “Black Box.” It was nothing but actors acting the final moments of planes crashing, the dialogue taken from the recordings of the plane’s black box.  I still think about it and get chills. And to be completely fair – I did tell you that how tough all the other fields are right now – but the one that is wide open to you is the Internet.  Webisodes, youtube.  Do it all. Now. Later down the road. You will be offered things.  How can you not be, you’re so industrious. And then you will be faced with the age old dilemma. I have been offered two projects – one is very artistic and one is very commercial.  One is for art, one is for money – which one should I do? The answer to that is so simple. Do the one you want to do. You are an artist, what you do will automatically be artistic. That’s just common syntax there.  There is no official artistic panel that decides why you chose what you chose and passes judgment.  You make the call, and in EVERYTHING do what interests you.  I have to tell you hope was not high when I said I was brining the godawful movie “Xanadu” to Broadway. Half the press said I had sold out the other half said it wasn’t very commercial. But I did it, and I made it my own. And by doing just that act I called everybody out on their own pretentions. Oh and the show was a hit and here’s the killer, it’s now being done in regional theaters in repertory with “Antigone”. In everything you must do what interests you.  If you are not doing what you want to do, get out of it as quickly as you can and do what you want.  Talent is very fragile. If it’s not in a loving environment, it leaves. And so should you.

4. Keep your sanity. And maybe you have to cultivate some nice non-toxic friends.  A first friend tends to be someone who is OUTRAGOUS – oh my God what did he just DO and SAY!!!! Later on you look for someone who’s there with the cardboard boxes when your girlfriend dumps you. Or buys you the burger when no one gets your work.  Or will go to the Keith Haring show and just spend the whole afternoon.  And not speak. Or run lines.  Or really discuss the merits of Prokofiev. Outragous can be fun too, but it’s a flavor, it’s not a meal. Also physical things are not worth it.  Highly overrated. So many of my early artist friends got caught up in living the high life they soon left art all together. Sacrifice. It’s a religion, remember?

5. “Would it kill you to be kind?” Number five here is going to be kindness. I know, it’s tough.  And since 1980 America has certainly got a lot meaner.  There are reasons for this and what they are for you depends on where your politics lie. If your view is left of center you know that the very rich have restructured the country so that the middle class has been decimated and 1 per cent of the country is awfully rich and the other 99 per cent is having to struggle.   If your politics are to the right of center, well then nothing really happened, and the poor are just lazy.  So what does that mean? Well everyone is very angry. And the last thing we needed to add into the mix was a device which would allow people to speak anonymously.  Internet, your name goes here.  So everything you do as artists will be met with rudeness and indifference or anonymous bile.  Welcome.  So maybe what has to give you the greatest pleasure in your work now has to come from within.  And maybe also from number 4 – not toxic friends -- you’ll just get there. So off you go into this mean new word and maybe your first response is not meanness back but kindness. In my entire life so far no screaming person has ever been calmed by me screaming back at them. Maybe you’ll get different results. Calm is very good here.  I just assume everyone has some awful burden that they are carrying.  A deceased parent. A wretched childhood. A fear.  And I cut them a huge amount of slack.  And if someone does something terrible to you, and they will, don’t worry about getting revenge.  Life presents its own revenge on everyone.  Live long enough, you’ll see.  Also remember that Kindness must never be mistaken for weakness.  I love that quote – never mistake kindness for weakness. It’s from A Bronx Tale. Sonny says it to the motorcycle thug just before he beats his face in.  So you know.   Be kind, but be strong.  Have faith, have hope, have charity, but have a lawyer. Live your life.

6. Keep your eyes on your own paper.  There is website called Playbill.com and it lists everything that everyone is doing in theater around the world. Everywhere. I’ve taken to calling my morning visits there, “Why didn’t I get that?”  Plays are being commissioned in Australia – why didn’t I get that?  Someone is doing the musical version of a driver’s ed film – why didn’t I get that? Cash prizes to actress of color based in South Africa – Why didn’t I get that? And the fact is – I’m booked. 

I have a new play, and a new musical – all with directors, producers’ money in place.  I am in negotiation for a television series and have about seven films in various stages of development. And I still feel that I’m being passed over.  God, the burden it was when I had nothing on my plate.  Careers are like snowflakes, everyone is different.  Some are huge successes immediately and forever. Some are up and down and some don’t happen till the very end. And all are valid and fascinating. What you want is a long steady creative life. Meet an artist who works fairly regularly and you are meeting a fascinating person. Meet an artist who was famous ten years ago and whose agent or manager has convinced him to pass on everything small so that they can hold out for something big, and hence hasn’t worked for five years?  Let me tell you, meet them and you know exactly where the exit is, you know what I mean? You are in it for the long haul.  Money jobs will come and go to you and to other people. Appreciation of your work will ebb and flow. You will be fired. You will be stolen from.  Awards will be given to you and not be given to you. You are allowed exactly one half day to either celebrate or bemoan these things, but then get on with it – make new art. You yourself can steal lie to get ahead as long as you are a sociopath. If not the guilt and the stress will get to you. Oh and you will be accused of stealing anyway even when you’re not, so just don’t and then you get to be outraged with conviction. But honestly, as far as anyone else’s successes or failures go? Truly, none of your business. They’re going through everything you’re going through. They just hide it better.

7. The final one. And the killer. “Confidence.” I have a failure of confidence quite often and you heard my resume. I’ve had it twice during this speech.  But I will tell you something that I sometimes tell myself when I am afraid. I am a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic arts.  You wouldn’t think just an associate of arts degree would give me such a lift.  Imagine what your glorious degree will do for you in your dark hours.  Things that I learned at my school I use every day of my creative life.  Being in the moment. What does the character want? How does he get it?  Thirty-two years later. When I was called in to re-write the entire book for “Sister Act” in three months, I knew I could do it.

What does the character want, how does she get it? What is her activity, what are the obstacles? Where are they coming from? The show had existed for six years and had been performed in Pasadena, Atlanta, London and Germany and no one had come along and asked these questions. That’s a lot of people stumbling in the dark there.   Now you all have more than you know. You have what you need. You will be using it for the rest of our life, and you are going to keep learning your whole life.  Pretty good career choice on your part. If the world word confidence intimidates you, just think of it as passion.  We all know you have that. Just be passionate about what you do. The untrained eye will mistake that for confidence every time.

So there you are you roving band of savage artists that make up the class of 2013. Seven bits of something to help you on the road.  All seven filled to brimming with homilies suitable for samplers and I encourage you all to take up needlepoint. I hope I’ve done my part in making your day as memorable and as wisdom-packed as humanly possible.  And I do have to tell you, my own graduation turned out to be something pretty splendid.  When the ceremony was over I looked back and my father had tears in his eyes.  My father is not an emotional man, and to say that he was against me working in the arts would be in line with saying the Titanic ran into some trouble and that Mr. Hitler sure had his moods.  And I asked him why he was crying he said, “Because you’re doing it,” and in that moment I realized I was doing it. For ever, for the rest of my days.  Now my father brags to his friends, “look at Doug, and he did it all on his own, no help from me.  My dad checks Playbill.com every morning and emails me – Why didn’t you get that?  So to the parents out there – supportive, eventually supportive or otherwise. Thank you. You evidently did something quite traumatic to these children that they have to express it in their art and need mass love for it.  So thank you even for that.

The other wonderful thing that happened at graduation was there was a teacher who was particularly tough on me.  Never had a smile or a kind word.  And as I walked by him he burst into a huge smile – the first time I’d seen and hugged me. Then shouted “Who is greater than Doug Beane?!!!!”

I looked at him wondering if aliens had perhaps inhabited his body. And I asked oddly – “is there anything else you want to tell me, any notes?” And he shouted – “You have what you need, just GO!!!!!”

And so I went. Six months after auditioning, two grads and I didn’t have jobs, so I wrote a play and we produced it ourselves. I discovered that I loved writing and rehearsing more than performing and have been doing it merrily every since...

You have what you need just go!!!

Maybe that teacher just was that happy to get rid of me. Or maybe that’s what today is about. You have what you need, the teachers, the parents have done that. Now just go. Astound us. Astonish us. We’ve made a mess of it, fix it. Show us the truth that we’re afraid of. Remind us all that we are human.  Show us that compassion and empathy are inevitable. Show up prepared, know your history, know every rule before you break it, remember to breathe.  Now, mess with our heads, please they could use a good messing.   Every form of art as we know it has just been stalling till now waiting for you.  McFadden and Whitehead are reaching across Broad Street all time and telling you “Ain’t no stopping you now, you’re on the move, Ain’t no stopping you now, you’ve got the groove.”

Be brilliant, be brave, be loud. Be passionate, be kind, yes, these are my real teeth, you have what you need, just go!!! GO!!!”