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Monday, November 17, 2008

ON IMPROVISATION (dedicated to Dan Spurgin)


I’ve been thinking a lot about improvisation lately. I’ve been involved with it on and off for more than fifteen years. In many ways I trace my acting career back to the little improv/comedy troupe I was asked to help start at the University of Kansas in 1992. I’ll never forget the Renegade theatre (an abandoned tire shop) on the South side of Lawrence where our little company would do marathon Saturday night shows for sold-out crowds until the wee hours of the morning. I fell in love with improvisation hard and fast and I’ve always kept it a big part of my artistic life. As I have grown older (not up) I’ve had many amazing opportunities to fuse the kind of spontaneity and energy I found in that early work with my “classical” training and conservatory approach to my professional life. One of the reasons I gravitated towards the NYU Graduate Acting Program when I did was that there was a discernable emphasis put on training through improvisation in the form of games, commedia dell’arte, and clown classes. Since getting my MFA, I’ve continued to be involved in improvisation, with a concentration on long-form scenic work. The training centers that embrace this scenic (rather than gimmick-oriented) approach to the work include Improv Olympic and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre; just to name a few.

I have always felt that the work that is being done in these scenic improv theatres is such important and crucial work for the professional actor. Whenever I’m in between jobs (and have the money), I get into a class to give my imagination a place to work out. Fortunately and unfortunately the last few years have been busy ones for me professionally and the time (and occasionally, the money) hasn’t really afforded me the opportunity keep up my training or given me the time to consistently participate in the long-form “community”. One of the crucial ways of learning how to do the work well is to be part of a consistent company (or team) of actors who work in sync in front of an audience on a regular basis. I’ve rarely had this opportunity myself. When I spent some time in Los Angeles, I briefly was able to be on a couple of teams and even found myself in a situation where I would be on stage multiple times a week with different teams. However, I then booked a play in New York that turned into another play in New York that turned into the journey of the last couple of years.

Now, a few years later, as I am taking stock of my life; where I’ve been, where I am, and where I would like to go, I feel in my bones that scenic improvisation both as an end in itself and as a means of development for more "scripted" material is going to play a larger and larger role in my artistic life. When I think about the values taught and exercised within the scenic-improv community and remind myself of the amazing variety of tools I was taught during my classical training, and finally think of the most common problems facing the professional actor in today’s American theatre, I can’t help but to think that the professional actor has much to gain from incorporating the philosophies and skills taught in the long-form improv world.

What’s interesting is that not everyone who is involved in the long form world has developed the “chops” to be a classical actor. I wouldn’t think that many of the people involved would be good at, or even interested in, taking on Websters' The White Devil. However, the skill set that is being exercised and developed within the long-form world, I am convinced would be absolutely revelatory and awe inspiring to the classical actor rehearsing The White Devil. I feel like I am at a very interesting intersection of skill sets. I started my artistic life with sketches and short-form laugh-oriented improvisation and now live an artistic life where I relish being able to mine the depths of Chekhov and Shakespeare but with an approach that is probably more informed by long-form scenic improvisation than almost anything else. I often describe myself as a “classically trained improviser who mostly does plays". That said, this long form world that I am talking about, is one that I have always felt a bit dangential to because I haven't been able to focus my full energies on it for any significant length of time. I want to keep developing this skill set through classes, training, and performance opportunities but often find myself challenged by economics or scheduling. But I would love to have an opportunity to do months of "intensive" work where I could really sink in, work with others, and internalize to an even deeper degree these important skill sets.

Additionally, when I think about the trajectory of my career and of my life, I am beginning to think more about directing and teaching. I’m often suspicious of graduate acting programs that require their students to teach undergrads. My thought is, “Wait a minute. If I’m here to shake myself up, expand the definition of myself, and develop a more coherent and useful skill set…what do I really have to offer as a teacher for undergrads?” But now, as I am nine years out of conservatory and have worked in films, television, regional theatre, non-profit theatre, basement theatre, readings, and Broadway with luminaries, students, divas, friends, role models, true artists, and true assholes, I feel like I really do have some perspective now on approaches to both the work of the actor and the life of the actor that not only work but make the world a more colorful and exciting place to live in. So I’ve been thinking about teaching. I’ve been thinking about teaching for a few reasons. First, because I think that I have some principles, approaches, and perspectives that make the work more doable and more enjoyable and I’d really like to share them with actors in training. And secondly, from a more self-interested point of view, I feel that teaching a class would force me to be able to articulate these approaches to students, and therefore to myself in a more simple and understandable way that wouldn’t just benefit my students, but also myself as an actor in continual “training.” I embrace the idea of the professional teacher as someone who can constantly learn more about themselves and their own craft by teaching it to others. And when I think about teaching and the things that I would like to teach, a quick few classes jump out at me. First, I would like to teach improvisation as the bedrock foundation work for the actor and second, scene study class. I'd like to teach them both because I would love to give actors that foundation work through games and improvisation and then be able to guide them in using those same techniques for exploring a "great" piece of drama.

So I’ve been writing on and on about how much I love long form improvisation and how valuable and useful I think it is. And I have been talking in incredibly personal, but broad strokes. But it’s the specifics that are so exciting, and so useful to the actor in training and in rehearsal. So what is it that I’m talking about? What is long form improvisation? What is scenic improvisation?

It’s my belief that teaching scenic long-form improvisation to actors emphasizes the imaginative resources of the actor with the aim of developing independent, supportive, company-minded, positive, and playful actors.

I firmly believe that improvisation is the foundation on which compelling, exciting, and illuminating acting is built. There is a sense of play, fun, high-stakes, risk-taking, and cooperation present in actors well-versed in improvisation that is often obviously lacking in actors who are not. An actor's ability to be at home on stage with only their own (and their fellow actors') resources to rely on is the crucial first step to an authentic and exciting life on stage.. If an actor can walk onto an empty stage with nothing but their own imagination and their fellow actors to rely on and feel confident that what will transpire will be a collaborative work of art, they will feel all the more confident and free when they have sets, props, costumes, and the words of William Shakespeare as a prism through which to shine those strengthened imaginative powers.

I know that quality conservatories understand that improvisation is an important aspect of actor training and have a number of quality classes in place designed to free the actor, ignite the imagination, and make actors feel comfortable “working without a net” on stage. That said, I think there is another level of skill development to be introduced that would make the improvisation work even more valuable to the actor in training. The next step in the evolution of improvisation within the conservatory is to introduce actors to games, skills, and structures that make it possible for them, as a company of actors, to improvise fully realized short plays. (This is where I finally tie back in the kind of long- form work I was discussing in general terms at the beginning of this post.) Del Close, an early Second City company member, felt this need more than twenty years ago. Frustrated by the limitations (and intentions) of the short games that were featured in Second City shows, he branched out on his own and started a theatre called Improv Olympic where he invented a set structure, or long-form improvisational game that he simply called, for lack of a better name, “The Harold”. The Harold is a loose structure in which actors, through a series of recurring scenes and characters, can thoroughly explore a theme. (Del was inspired by improvisational jazz musicians. The Harold’s structure works in the same way that jazz musicians begin with a standard rhythm or key that establishes the “song” that the musicians will improvise together. It’s the set structure that allows the musicians to branch off into the unknown and be able to return to the synergistic, continually-blossoming, and mutually created song.) Within the Harold, a word, topic or them inspires a thirty minute (or longer) series of scenes that are inspired to varying degrees by that topic or word. Within the game, scenes and characters begin to overlap until, ideally, by a third round of scenes, an array of different characters and given circumstances have begun to intersect and interact in a way that’s completely surprising, spontaneously discovered, and in the best case, amazingly realized and poignant. There have been dozens of variations on The Harold structure since Del Close introduced it in Chicago (he encouraged the form to be dismantled and reassembled constantly as he refused to be dogmatic about what it was "supposed" to is improvisation after-all), but what strikes me as most useful to the actor in training is the structural component of revisiting scenes and characters over the course of a game or improvised play and allowing for unpredictable and unseen connections to occur between them. No matter what variation is used, the structure relies most heavily on recurring scenes with recurring characters. Del called it “The Harold”, I call it “scenic improvisation”.

There are many reasons why the actor in training can benefit from becoming skilled in scenic improvisation. First, for scenic improvisation to work, actors must completely internalize the phrase “Yes, and…”. One of the first lessons taught in most improvisation classes (and perhaps not coincidentally in many Buddhist temples) is that the student must say “Yes” to everything that happens on stage. The actor trained in scenic improvisation is conditioned to be “in the moment” and use what is actually happening in that moment in relationship with their scene partner(s). Through time, the actor lets go of the need to impose their idea of what should happen in a scene. The instinct to judge, force, or try to do the “right” thing slowly erodes and is replaced by an instinct to embrace, support, and celebrate what actually is happening on stage rather than long for what they think or have previously decided should be happening. This is an incredibly powerful principle to be internalized by an actor. (And one that all too often is obviously not embraced or internalized by many professionals in the field. "Are you going to do it like that?") An early exercise simply pairs two actors who build a scene from scratch one exchange at a time by saying “Yes, and…” to each other. Once the “Yes, and…” becomes second nature to the actor, a new way of seeing the stage (and often the world) begins to emerge for them. The “Yes” principle helps actors get beyond muscling scenes, judging their scene partners (and themselves), or ignoring things that spontaneously happen on stage. (How many times have we cringed to see the actor ignore the fly on stage or the saucer that just broke…or the fresh way their scene partner just communicated their intention?) The actor who has an internal switch flipped into the “yes and…” position is an actor ready to celebrate tonight’s performance in the here and now, with all of its’ guaranteed uncertainty and anarchy, scripted or not.

Secondly, scenic improvisation encourages good scene work. Just as yoga is wonderful for actors in training them to be “in the moment”, scenic improvisation is excellent practice in listening and reacting honestly. Unlike scripted material, where two unskilled actors can easily recite the lines of a play back and forth to each other without listening, being in the moment, or honestly reacting, unscripted scenes give the actor no such safety net to rely on. For a scene to work, the actors must be incredibly attentive to each other. There must be a constant give and take and a constant affirmation of the choices each actor makes. If actors aren’t listening to each other, the scene dies. If judgment creeps in, the scene dies. If actors aren’t supportive of each other, the scene dies. So, when actors, versed in scenic improvisation, approach regular “scene work”, they are more attuned to each other, better at listening to each other, less likely to judge, and more likely to say “yes and…” to what is happening in the moment with their fellow actor.

Thirdly, scenic improvisation gives actors the skill to be ready to work fully and creatively on day one of any process. An empty space or stage becomes the imaginations’ gymnasium to the actor versed in scenic improvisation. While exercising within the structure of scenic improvisation, actors learn to create their locations, relationships, and given circumstances with specificity and artistic skill. An actor who has improvised for years and has had to create coffee shops, freight boat decks, the back office of a mafia restaurant, and a thousand other locations will enter a rehearsal room for an Arthur Miller play with a thousand ideas erupting from the volcanic core of their being. (And not ideas they’ve been at home imagining; Ideas erupting and born from what and who is in the room they’re rehearsing in.) These actors won’t wait for the director to give them a task to do. They won’t need the script to tell them what kinds of props and settings might make the scene work better. They will simply begin their work with imagination and skill and their fellow actors and directors will be glad for it.

Fourth, scenic improvisation encourages actors to support each other and work together as a company. There are many ways in which scenic improvisation lends itself to company development. The actor trained in scenic improvisation is constantly looking for ways to help and support their fellow improvisers. Additionally, as previously stated, in scenic improvisation structures, actors are encouraged to look for connections between scenes, themes, and characters. Because what is happening on stage between two of an actors’ fellow company members can and will effect their own scenes throughout the structure, they must pay attention, care, support, and participate in those scenes. There is no “waiting to enter” for the actor trained in improvisation. There is, most commonly, the feeling of “What can I do to help?” A scenic improvisation may start with two policemen in a break room talking about their sons. Many scenes later, a kid may get caught shop-lifting, providing a perfect opportunity for one our policemen to re-enter the structure in a completely different set of circumstances… and for the kid to end up being one of the sons that had been talked about so extensively in the opening scene of the structure. In short, the more the actors listen, remember, invest, support, and care for one another, the better the stories become and the better it feels to play the game. The sense that you've "won" in the game is predicated on how good everyone feels when it's done that they were all fully out there for each other.

Fifth, the actor skilled in scenic, character, and relationship-driven improvisation is at an advantage in the working world than the actor without it. More and more films and television programs are hiring and relying on actors trained in this kind of improvisation to make their films and television programs more interesting, more entertaining, and more honest. Tina Fey, Will Farrell, Stephen Colbert, Stephen Carrell, Amy Poehler, Jack McBreyer, and the majority of the casts and writing staffs for the television shows The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, 30 Rock, The Office, and many others all have this long-form improv training in common. More and more, there is an elite professional company of actors at work in the commercial world. This company of actors also shares the distinction of being accomplished writers and producers. This company shares a common history, a common training, and a common approach to the work. And what may be most interesting is the fact that they are, in a way, a trained company of actors. They aren’t classically trained. Most don’t know what scansion is or what operative words are and even less could tell you much about the virtues of the Alexander technique. However, they have spent years together in small basement theatres, drinking beer and talking about how to give better “gifts” to each other on stage, how to be a better teammate, how to push the limits of their imaginations further, how to be more honest in their work and approach, and how to do more work that is artistically relevant and inspired for their audiences. This company is made up from members of different theatres across the country. From The Magnet Theatre in New York to Improv Olympic in Chicago to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles, they are having the same conversations and when they meet each other, it doesn’t matter that they didn’t take the same classes with the same teachers. The principles were the same all over and the shorthand dialogue about the work is fully ingrained. They work together easily and respond quickly to each other because of a shared philosophy. This company is becoming more and more artistically valuable, socially relevant and professionally powerful and any actor who is versed in the principles and techniques which serve as the foundation of this company will be at a comparative advantage to those who aren’t. Add to the mix that actors so trained who also have the incredible toolbox that classical training provides will simply be that much more attractive to this group and to each other. I realize I just made it sound like there was a long form improv illuminatti out there...and maybe there is...but they're not scary...they're mostly just funny.

Finally, to a similar point of having a professional advantage over actors without training in scenic improvisation, I believe that our culture as a whole is at a watershed moment. I believe that the contemporary theatre is poised to make a grand return toward actor-driven theatrical experiences. The economic realities facing America are going to necessitate that theatres concentrate less on ornate sets, costumes, and gimmicks and more on skilled actors telling stories in space on stage. Quality training programs have proliferated in the last few decades, resulting in the graduation of hundreds of skilled actors into the acting community each year. Where years ago, there were still many more actors than there were jobs, now the situation seems to be even more incredible in that there are so many more skilled and trained actors than there are jobs for them to do. The result is plain to see. Look at any television program and even the smallest part is usually expertly played by a highly skilled actor. (You didn’t get many Yale School of Drama Grads for one-line receptionist roles in 1973.) Look at and you will see hundreds of actors turned film-makers creating their own work and posting it for the world to see. (see iChannel) New actor driven theatres are popping up in places as far reaching as Kentucky, Missouri, California, and Maryland. I have spoken to many of the actors who are starting these theatres. For the most part, they are people who graduated from a quality training program, found Los Angeles and New York hostile to their desire to do good work with like-minded artists and left to find as Coriolanus said, “A world elsewhere.” These pro-active young actors are slowly and incrementally churning what I believe will become an artistic tidal wave bound to radically alter American culture in the decades to come.

It has been my experience that often the most satisfying work that an actor does is work that they have created themselves. Whether directing colleagues in a play, creating a new piece with friends, creating an avant-gard one-man show, or putting together a project for the Fringe Festival to play in a church basement on Leonard St, these actors tend to be happier and more artistically fulfilled than actors who simply wait by the phone waiting for their next audition. Scenic improvisation trains actors to be proactive and to exercise their imaginations daily. The growing skill level that accompanies practice ignites self-confidence and an awareness that directors, designers, and even playwrights are secondary additions to the immediacy and power of the actors’ independent spirit and craft. That self-confidence I believe gives actors an understanding of their own ability to not simply be a vessel for other people’s art, but become an ever-combustive muse of fire for themselves, capable indeed of ascending the brightest heaven of invention.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Steppenwolf on Patriotism

What follows is an incredible meditation on the role of theatre in people's lives.


Posted by Martha Lavey on 7/09/2008

I’m thinking about patriotism. I write this on our Fourth of July weekend as our final production of our “What does it mean to be American?” season is on the Steppenwolf stage and our presidential candidates exchange assertions of their patriotic pedigree. I find the whole discourse about their relative patriotism mad. Mad. And distracting. Two men who have devoted their lives to public service, two men who are willing to endure the ridiculous scrutiny of the electoral process–the enormous personal sacrifice of putting themselves on the line on a daily basis in front of the American electorate–and anyone is questioning their “patriotism?”

What it provokes in me is self-examination. How am I asserting my patriotism? I consider myself patriotic. Which is to say: I think that the principles upon which this country is founded are majestic and that the documents that encode those principles are breathtaking in their wisdom. I think there are many moments in America’s history when we have, as a people and as a government, risen to that majesty. And moments when we have miserably failed those ideals. I believe my responsibility as an American citizen is to continue to examine our behavior against our ideals and as a theater artist, to use my work to encourage that inquiry.

I guess I believe that the central contribution that we, as theater artists, can contribute is to keep asking our audiences to see themselves, first, as citizens. Not consumers, not taxpayers, citizens. Which is to say: people whose primary relationship is to community; people who are negotiating their behavior in relation to the well-being of others. Not a person in relation to the acquisition of stuff (a consumer); not a person in relation to the government (taxpayer); a person in relation to the well-being of others. Others: both fellow American citizens and fellow citizens of the world.

How do I think theater can do that? By keeping us in touch with our humanness. By making us feel more alive. By touching the deep parts of ourselves–our sadness, our joy, our humor, our intelligence, our shame, our love, our fear. Because when we get in touch with those parts of ourselves, we open onto our compassion, we see ourselves in relationship to the great stew of human thought and feeling.

If everyone who left a Steppenwolf play feeling that life is complicated and rich and that they, themselves, are part of that complicated richness, I would feel that we are doing our patriotic part. Because experiencing one’s own complexity and depth is to experience one’s self as a citizen–a person in relationship to other people. A person engaged in the world, a person capable of compassion.

It’s an honor to play to you. I’d be really interested in how you think about patriotism and what it means in your life.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Function of Theatre

The most important function of theatre, as I see it, is that through participating as a community in the active watching of a potent piece of theatre, the audience has the mirror of nature held up to them in such a way so that they can see, whether through the eyes of Hamlet, Willy Lohman, or any fantastic character yet to be born of the writers’ imagination, that we, as human beings, are at long last, truly all in this life together. The theatre should in its highest function, affirm our lives, enhance our understanding of each other, and bridge the gap between neighbors, friends, and enemies as we come to the supreme understanding of our common plight as people being born, living, and dying on this planet.- Me

Rob Breszney: Flaming Boddisatvah

My friend Lucy Betteridge loves to post discoveries in the Newsfeed section of facebook. Today she linked to Free Will Astrology. I just went to the website to read my horoscope; just for fun. It was fun. I liked what he had to say. It wasn't your typical, "avoid high stress environments today Gemini" horoscope. It was so unusual that I went to the home page of the website and found this essay that Rob Breszney, matermind behind Free Will Astrology, wrote. I was inspired.

The following essay is called "Liberate Your Imagination". The idea of "liberation" is one that is very strong for me. There are so many people in the world that are trapped in one way or another. Whether in a war-torn country, a horrible marriage, a bad job, or as Breszney maintains...inside their own world view. I think great art is about liberation. The poem to liberate pain, the song to ignite the heart, the play to point at the box you've put yourself in, the painting to inspire new landscapes inside of your own heart. I think art is a great liberator and a champion of the kind of rekindled imagination explored here.


The following piece is adapted from my book
PRONOIA IS THE ANTIDOTE FOR PARANOIA: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings

Let me remind you who you really are: You are one of the chosen ones. You're a luminous being. A primordial miracle. A resplendent avatar. You are a deity in disguise--not a Buddha or a Christ, but of the same lineage and made from the same mojo.

I want to be sure you get what I'm saying. You're an immortal messiah. You have been around since the beginning of time and will be here after the end. Every day and in every way, you're getting better at playing the mysterious master game we all dreamed up together before the Big Bang bloomed.

Let me put it another way. You're a rebel creator longing to make the whole universe your home and sanctuary. You are a dissident bodhisattva joyfully struggling to germinate the seeds of divine love that are packed inside every moment.

It's time to remember. You are a shimmering burst of spiral hallelujahs that has temporarily taken on the form of a human being, agreeing to endure amnesia about your true origins. And why did you do that? Because it was the best way to forge the exquisitely unique and robust identity that would make you such an elemental force in our 14-billion-year campaign to bring heaven all the way down to earth.

You and I are freedom fighters scrambling and finagling and conspiring to relieve all of our fellow messiahs from their suffering and shower them with more blessings than they know what to do with.


Lately, I must admit, our work has seemed almost comically impossible. Many of our brothers and sisters believe that everything is upside-down and inside-out. Is war really peace? Is slavery really freedom? Is ignorance strength? How did it all get so insane?

Even many of the smartest among us seem to have lost their vision. Cynicism has become a supreme sign of intelligence. Compulsive skepticism masquerades as perceptiveness. Mean-spirited irony is chic. Beautiful truths are suspect and ugly truths are popular.

At this peculiar turning point in the evolution of our 14-billion-year-old master game, it ain't easy to carry out our mission. We've got to be both wrathful insurrectionaries and exuberant lovers of life. We’ve got to cultivate cheerful buoyancy even as we resist the temptation to swallow thousands of delusions that have been carefully crafted and seductively packaged by those among us who bravely volunteered to play the role of deceivers.

We have to learn how to stay in a good yet unruly mood as we overthrow the cockeyed mass hallucination that is mistakenly referred to as reality.

Maybe most importantly, we have to be ferociously and single-mindedly dedicated to the cause of beauty and truth and love even as we keep our imaginations wild and hungry and free. We have to be both disciplined and rowdy.

That's especially thorny because of the fact that a genocide of the imagination is raging world-wide. It threatens to render our imaginations numb and inert and passive and tame.

I know you know what I mean.

Aren't you psychically assaulted by dangerous images every day? Don't the media relentlessly blast you with their trendy doom and gloom fixation, barraging you with messages about how bad life is? Doesn't the entertainment industry force-feed you insipidly paranoid scenarios in the same way a French foie gras farmer crams eight pounds of corn down the gullet of his prize goose every day?

Aren't your eyes and ears constantly scalded by blistering harangues to buy stuff you don't really need? Isn't the sacred temple of your imagination pounded ruthlessly by smart bombs whipped up by evil advertising geniuses in their Madison Avenue laboratories? Hasn't your ability to envision the astounding intricacy and richness of the web of life gotten hijacked and hooked on decadent fantasies about new possessions that would allegedly make you happier?

Your imagination is supposed to be the engine of your destiny. It is the wizard's wand you can use to design your future. Your imagination is your power to create mental pictures of things that don’t exist yet and that you want to bring into being. Every human creation on this earth has begun as a vision in someone's imagination.

Your imagination is also your very own all-purpose joy stick, your snakeskin bag of magic tricks. It's your remote-control channel-changer, and the only reliable rearranger of anything anywhere anytime. It's your X-Factor, your wild card, your wicked funny instigator, your Goddess-sanctioned trouble-maker -- your swarming, terraforming, always-morning brainstormer.

Love desperately needs your imagination. As psychologist James Hillman says, "For a relationship to stay alive, love alone is not enough. Without imagination, love stales into sentiment, duty, and boredom. Intimacy fails not because we have stopped loving but because we first stopped imagining."

Your imagination is the single most important tool you have in your daily fight to be free. It is the source of every act of liberation you will ever need to pull off.

But how can your imagination flourish--how can it dream up scenarios that energize you to create your own version of heaven on earth--if you are forever deluged by dazzling psychic toxins that sting and sap and wound your lust for life?

Too many of our brothers and sisters have fallen victim. Their swarming terraforming always-morning brainstormers have been cruelly fooled into acting as if their deepest desires are impossible lies. As a result they live incoherent lives corroded by chronic anxiety.

I for one am no longer willing to tolerate the epidemic obsession with big bad nasty things and flashy trite empty-hearted things. I say it's time for us to re-consecrate and regenerate and lubricate and liberate and take back our imaginations. Here are my demands.

DEMAND #1: I demand that Amnesty International launch a crusade against a form of terrorism I call the genocide of the imagination.

DEMAND #2: I demand that you periodically go on a media fast. For a week at a time, once a season, avoid all TV, movies, novels, yalk shows, newspapers, magazines, and Internet.

DEMAND #3: I demand that you learn to tell the difference between your own thoughts and those of the celebrities who have demonically possessed you.

DEMAND #4: I demand that People magazine do a feature story on "The World's Fifty Sexiest Perpetrators of Beauty, Truth, and Rowdy Bliss."

DEMAND #5: I demand that you wear underpants on your head and dance naked in slow motion whenever you watch movies on TV about tormented geniuses who create great art but treat everyone in their lives like crap.

DEMAND #6: I demand that you refuse to be entertained and entranced by bad news--by stories whose plots are driven by violence, abuse, terrorism, bigotry, lawsuits, greed, crashes, alcoholism, disease, and torture.

DEMAND #7: I demand that you seek out and create stories that make you feel that the universe is friendly and life is on your side. You could hunt down stories about how, for example, rising rates of intermarriage are helping to dissipate ethnic and religious strife worldwide; how the violent crime rate in America has been steadily declining for 30 years; how death rates from cancer are shrinking; the birth rate among teenage mothers is the lowest it's been in six decades; acreage devoted to organic farming is increasing rapidly; the number of refugees and weapons sales all over the world are way down from the level they were 15 years ago, and how the actual bare naked truth is that levels of literacy and education and political freedom and peace and wealth are steadily growing all over the world.

DEMAND #8: When you're too well-entertained to move, screaming is good exercise. Which is why I demand that you scream now and then whenever you're soaking up slick crap generated by the imaginations of people who are devoted to money, power, and ego instead of love, reverence, and play.


There is another force that fuels the war against the imagination--and that's fundamentalism.

The fundamentalist takes everything way too seriously and way too personally and way too literally. He divides the world into two camps, those who agree with him and those who don’t. There is only one right way to interpret the world, and a million wrong ways. The fundamentalist not only enslaves his own imagination to his belief system, he wants to enslave our imaginations too. The liberated imagination, God forbid, is taboo.

In one of her poems, Diane DiPrima declares that a war against the imagination is raging worldwide. "The only war that matters is the war against the imagination," she says. "All other wars are subsumed in it." If she's right, then the war against terrorism is a symptom of the war against the imagination. The war against our civil liberties is a symptom of the war against the imagination. The war against the environment, the war against the poor, the war against some drugs--all symptoms.

It's the fundamentalists who want this war. They fight it and force everybody else to fight, too.

And who are the fundamentalists? It's not just the usual suspects; it's not just the religious fanatics of Islam and Christianity and Judaism and Hinduism.

There are many other kinds of fundamentalists, and some of them have gotten away with practicing their fundamentalism in a stealth mode. Among the most successful are those who believe in what Robert Anton Wilson calls fundamentalist materialism. That's the faith-based dogma that swears physical matter is the only reality and that nothing exists unless it can be detected by our five senses or by technologies that humans have made.

There is no inherent meaning or purpose to the universe, the fundamentalist materialists proclaim. There is no divine intelligence. The universe is a dumb accidental machine that grinds on endlessly out of blind necessity.

I see spread out before me in every direction a staggeringly sublime miracle lovingly crafted by a supernal consciousness that oversees the evolution of 500 billion galaxies, yet is also available as an intimate companion and daily advisor to every one of us. But to the fundamentalist materialists, my perceptions are dead wrong and utterly idiotic.

There are many other varieties of fundamentalism. Every ideology, even the ones I like, has its share of true believers, fanatics who judge all other ideologies as inferior, flawed, and foolish.

I know astrologers who insist there's only one way to do astrology right. I know Buddhists who adamantly decree that the inherent nature of life on earth is suffering. I know progressive activists who sincerely believe that every single Republican is either stupid or evil or both. I know college administrators who would excommunicate any psychology professor who dared to discuss the teachings of Carl Jung, who was in my opinion one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century. I know pagans who refuse to consider any other version of Jesus Christ beyond the sick parody the Christian right has fabricated.

There are true believers everywhere. And they don't like to hear that there are at least three sides to every story. They don't like to hear that everyone has a piece of the truth.

And here’s the really bad news: Many of us here, including me, are infected with the fundamentalist virus. Each of us is fanatical, rigid, and intolerant about products of the imagination that we don't like. We wish that certain people would not imagine the things they do, and we allow ourselves to beam hateful, war-like thoughts in their direction.

We even wage war against our own imaginations, commanding ourselves, sometimes half-consciously, to ignore possibilities that don't fit into our neatly constructed theories. Each of us sets aside certain precious beliefs and symbols that we give ourselves permission to take very seriously and personally and literally.

Our fundamentalism, yours and mine, may not be as dangerous to the collective welfare as, say, the fundamentalism of Islamic terrorists and right-wing Christian politicians. It may not be as destructive as the CEOs who worship financial profit as the supreme measure of value and the scientists who ignore and deny every mystery that can't be measured.

But still: We are all infected, you and I. We are fueling the war against the imagination. (What's your version of the virus?)

This has got to stop. We are primordial miracles. Resplendent avatars. Deities in disguise. Rebel creators. We are wrathful insurrectionaries and exuberant lovers of life dedicated to navigating our way through this peculiar turning point in the evolution of our 14-billion-year-old master game. It is our sacred duty to keep our imaginations wild and hungry and free, and to make sure that all of our fellow messiahs, even those who volunteered to play the roles of ignorant deceivers, have the chance to keep their imaginations wild and hungry and free.

How might we start curing ourselves of the virus and move in the direction of becoming more festive, relentless champions of the liberated imagination?

For starters, we can take everything less seriously and less personally and less literally.

We can laugh at ourselves at least as much as we laugh at other people. We can blaspheme our own gods and burn our own flags and mock our own hypocrisy and satirize our own fads and fixations.

We can enjoy the pleasures of healing mischief, friendly shocks, compassionate tricks, irreverent devotion, holy pranks, playful experiments, and crazy wisdom.

We can inspire each other to perpetrate healing mischief, friendly shocks, compassionate tricks, blasphemous reverence, holy pranks, and crazy wisdom.

We can be humble enough to understand that it's a crime against life to act like a know-it-all who has everything all figured out.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Topeka High School Commencement Speech MAY 17, 2008

Thank you. Hello. Greetings. Well, well, well…the class of 2008…hello.

So, this has been hard. I’ve been working on this speech on and off the last month. I honestly thought it’d be easier. I thought, “Ah yeah. I’m an actor, I know what to do in front of audiences. Make a speech? OK. That’s what I DO! Topeka High, You just made a real smart call.” I thought, “Sheez. I got PLENTY to say! I’ve got mad wisdom to drop on these kids. They’re gonna go home and journal about me.” Then as I started to write… it hit me. “Ohhhhhhh, Wait a minute, I’m good in front of audiences with other people’s words. I’m good at being a vessel for other people’s mad wisdom.” So I just wrote this shotgun blast of a speech…just like fifteen pages of madness…just word vomit everywhere and I started to read it and I thought, “Oh man, I don’t even understand this speech and I WROTE IT! I’m in trouble.” So the last few days I’ve felt like a student again, scrambling to finish a final paper…and I haven’t written a paper in ten years. But finally, about five minutes ago, I got it into a shape that I feel pretty good about. So let’s see what happens, shall we?

Well I figured the best place to start with a high school commencement speech is to put myself in your shoes. I’m trying to remember where I was when I graduated from Topeka High. I mean, I remember where I was physically. I was on the field at Moore Bowl over at Washburn with my class. I remember that. On one side of me was my high school girlfriend Jennifer Segrest, now Jennifer Thompson, and on my other side was my best friend Ryan Hunter, now Ryan Hunter. But where was I really? I mean, who was I? What was I thinking about? Well, I can tell you pretty clearly what I wasn’t thinking about…the commencement speaker. I have NO idea who gave it, what was said. No clue… And I mean, that’s no insult. It might have been great, I don’t know. You know, it just hit me. My commencement speaker may very well be here today. If my commencement speaker happens to be here today, “Sorry. I just wasn’t interested. I was thinking about other stuff.” I was probably thinking about Jennifer moving to Texas, Ryan and I getting an apartment in Lawrence and the party that I was throwing at my house right after because commencement was also my 18th birthday. So there’s a comfort in that. Because if sixteen years from now, most of you won’t remember this speech…it kind of takes the pressure off, right?

So maybe you’re in the same headspace I was. OK…by a round of applause, screaming, and general mayhem…how many Trojans here are going to tear it up tonight?…. Seriously? Is that it? Let me hear the Trojans that are getting on board the crazy train tonight! (ALTERNATIVE: Wow. I wasn’t exactly expecting that response. You’re a very contemplative class huh? Well, that’s good for me. Maybe you’ll remember this speech after all. Oh no, the pressure’s back on!)
OK, very nice….Now by shyly coughing into your hand, how many people are psyched to watch “America’s Most Wanted” with mom and dad while eating vanilla ice cream tonight? OK, so I’m getting the feeling the majority of you are planning to rip it up. Cool.

OK, now that I’ve confirmed that, I imagine that you’re in very similar mental space to where I was when I commenced. NOT CARING ABOUT THE SPEAKER. So, if you take nothing else from this speech, maybe you’ll look back and remember that Carson Elrod, at the very least, met you for a moment where you actually were mentally and simply wished you a warm, strike that, a red HOT “CONGRATULATIONS CLASS of 2008!!! HOY HOY MIGHTY TROY! Hoy Hoy might troy! SENIORS! SENIORS!!!”

All right. No, I’m not done yet. I just wanted to do that. I just wanted to get you all excited. You guys sound awesome. That’s a good mental space to be in. I’m with you. I’m excited too. Thanks for letting me part of this. But mental space aside, your physical space is pretty cool too when you think about it. I mean look at us. We’re all wearing Medieval church clothes. That’s where these things came from. You’re at the focal point of a really big and really old ritual right now. Commencement. You’re commencing… which literally means, “to make a new beginning.” So that’s what’s actually happening right now. You’re surrounded by your friends, your family, your faculty, …and your high school has flown in a complete stranger to give an “important speech” about what it all means. The village is here to celebrate your new beginning. If we were in an Aboriginal village in Australia, this would be the point in the ceremony where I would yell, “NOW!” and the adult men of the village, tattooed in their own blood, would come running in and haul you off into the forest to circumcise you with a sharp rock. Different society, very different ritual…but with the same point really. Namely, to convey to you in no uncertain terms that you are not who you were…you are not a child anymore…you are beginning a new life…as an adult member of the village.

So that’s what all of this is really all about. All the songs… “Thank you Mr. Eubank.” All the pomp and circumstance, the outfits, the degree itself….sure it’s a celebration of what you’ve done, what’s come before. But more than anything, it is a commencement…a new beginning.

So what’s beginning? Well, like I said earlier, the ritual is overtly about beginning your life as an adult in the “real world”. Now for some of you, that’s fairly appropriate. Some of you are super-stoked to be done with school, anxious to start working or serving, making money, and raising a family. To you I say, “Welcome. Jump on in, the water’s warm…and it’s only getting warmer.” For others of you, you’re off to college for the next four, five, or ten years. There you’ll live in the safe, yet incredibly fun womb of the university. Real societal “adulthood” in the sense of having to support yourself, may still a distant blip on the horizon. Either way, what I’d like to invite you to begin today is to understand that your happiness, like most everything else about your life, is up to you. If you remember nothing else I say today, remember this…the only thing in this life that you have any real control over is your own interpretation of the events of your life. You see what you look for and your greatest power in this life is your perspective.

So, one perspective on what’s beginning today is that you’re moving out of the realm of the known into a great mythic adventure called “your life”, starring you as the main character. I’m an actor, so I gravitate towards thinking about life in terms of stories and characters. I certainly think of myself as the lead character in my own life and of myself as in the middle of a great adventure right now. I have no idea how it ends so I really don’t know what kind of story it is yet. There’s no way to know yet. But no matter how it ends, I’ve chosen to look at my life this way. This perspective gives more flavor to my life. “Adventure” what a cool word. This is what I’m talking about when I say that your power is your perspective. Even taking out the trash takes on a new resonance if you endow it with the adventure context. “Sure, I’m taking out the trash now. But one day. ONE DAY….I will rule this land!” Thinking about your life as an adventure raises the bar for what you think of yourself as being able to accomplish in life. Now, if you’re particularly ambitious, you could think of today as the beginning of the great adventure of the rest of your life with yourself as not only the main character, but the Hero of that adventure.

Now, this is big, because not everyone can be a hero. Most people aren’t. Whether your life is an adventure or just a boring short story, you’re the lead character either way. But even if your life were an adventure, you still might not be the hero. You might be the guy who chooses the wrong path in the maze and gets eaten by a giant spider. And if you’re life’s a boring short story you might…well, why go into it; It’s boring. Who cares? But a hero? The world needs heroes. Especially now. The hero, by definition, goes through a pretty universal process. It’s basically just a three step path. You’ve seen it a hundred times in the movies, in books, in the worlds myths…it goes something like this.

Step one. The Call To Adventure. The hero-to be is just minding his or her own business, you know, chillin’… livin’ life when all of a sudden a white rabbit runs across their yard… or they plant some magic beans and a beanstalk grows into the sky, a magical letter or a thousand arrives from Hogwarts, or a dude named Morpheus offers them a red pill… or they feel a spotlight hit their face and realize for the first time that they’re an actor. Something happens and they’re called…asked by the universe to commence into the realm of the unknown. You like how I did that? With the “commence”? Oh I got more.

Step two. The next step is an Initiation. The “Initiation” is the phase in which the hero, goes into the realm of the unknown, whether it be Narnia, Mordor, The desert, or college.
So into the realm of the new and unknown they go, where they have to survive a series of temptations, trials, traps, tribulations, and tons of other words that start with “TR”…TR Knight from Gray’s Anatomy…they have to fight him…everything …they fight through them to attain some incredible treasure and then the final step, step three, is a return to society with the cool prize they got. Now, sometimes society is totally psyched for the treasure. Sometimes the village is really thirsty and the hero brings back a magical fountain that sprays crystal clear water all over everybody and everybody’s drinking it and lovin’ it and everybody’s clothes are sticking to them and they all do a sexy wet-clothes dance and go “Oh Oh Ohohoh! Magic fountain tastes so good! Oh Oh OOOH!” Sometimes that happens. And on the other hand, sometimes society misunderstands the treasure when the hero brings it back. They were expecting the hero to return with an actual magical fountain that sprays actual crystal clear water everywhere and when the hero returns, beaten and bruised from his or her adventure, they say, “Yes! Yes, the treasure is a magical fountain…of the mind! Get it!? It’s a metaphor. The magic fountain represents a new crystal clear way of looking at the world!!” And the thirsty people go… “Oh no he didn’t just say it was a magical fountain of the mind!”…then they freak out, get pissed, and kill the confused hero. Most people aren’t heroes. Most people are just doing their best to get by day to day. But I think the reason more people aren’t heroes, aside from the whole “society misunderstanding the prize and killing them” thing, is that they’ve never considered the power of their perspective to look at their lives as heroic adventures and they’ve never heard a call to an adventure before…or they heard it but they thought it was just a camp out or a political rally or a rock concert.

Your life itself, whether you choose to adopt the “hero” mantle or not, already has an heroic mythic structure. The call to adventure; you were Born. You didn’t ask for it, but one of millions of sperm hit an egg and boom, here you are. Living. Then you face the initiation and road of trials and the quest for the prize…happiness, peace, contentment, love …your initiation is Life itself. Finally, there’s no escaping that great return; Death. The earth that called you forth to adventure now asks you to complete the ultimate end of every adventure, to die.…But even then it’s not over…none of the world’s myths are content to have death be the end of anything. And why should they?…your body turns into food for a baby worm and then the worm’s adventure starts! Yes. It’s the worm’s great adventure. The worm is born in the gooey dead tissue of your cheek and then it has to live…it seeks its own form of worm happiness somehow, trying to live, find another worm, settle down, find another dead body,… wait a minute, …Oh no, a bird just swept in and ate the worm, and off the bird flies back to its nest …and now that worm is a baby bird’s breakfast and the adventure continues… Holy Cow! …the person fuels the worm, the worm fuels the bird, and now the little bird has to learn how to fly!!! You see what I mean about perspective? Once you start looking not just at your life, but life itself as an adventure, you see it all over the place and life takes on this exciting and epic quality. Life is still the same, but the way you see it has changed…and that’s the real prize.
And once you start looking at the world this way you can totally get where Ani Difranco was when she wrote, “We can’t afford to do anyone harm, we owe them our lives. Each breath is recycled from someone else’s lungs, our enemies are the very air in disguise.”

OK, now just because your life automatically has this structure, that doesn’t mean you automatically have hero status. What really distinguishes the hero from the pack is that he or she musters up tremendous courage to fight for a treasure that will save the world. Now, I don’t feel like I’m giving anything away by telling you what the prize is. I mean I’ve kind of been talking about it this whole time. The prize is an item that the hero finds that possesses magical power to heal or save the world. It can be the Holy Grail, the Golden Fleece, the genie’s lamp, the fountain of youth, The “One Ring”, the Crystal Skull, A Platinum Record, Excalibur; Sword of Power, or Iron Man’s suit. But the treasure in all of these stories is always a metaphor for something bigger. The prize, no matter what physical shape it takes, represents an eternal truth that the trials and tribulations of the initiation have taught the hero. The second you travel into the unknown, you have to change…and every temptation, obstacle, and challenge along the way forces you to think differently than you did before. And throughout the myths and adventures, that truth is about truly experiencing a new beginning…commencing from one way of looking at the world…to another. The prize is that “power of perspective” I’m talking about. That’s it. That’s the boon, the prize, the Holy Grail. You have the choice to see the world as black and white, good and evil, us and them…or you can choose to think that “We’re all in it together.” It’s as simple as that. “We’re all in it together.” …Life. Every single person here was born, is living, and will die. We all feel pain, happiness, confusion, fear, desire, and the thousand other feelings all people feel. Everyone was born into a strange family. Everyone tries to figure out how to fit in with one group or another. Everyone wants to be happy. Everyone wants to feel loved. Everyone wants to feel part of something. Everyone wants to find a way to reconcile themselves to the hard truths of life like natural disasters, wars, disease, loss, birth, life, and death. That’s why you can listen to a song that feels like you wrote it. Because that artist has felt exactly what you have. The hero learns that we can save the world by choosing to look at ourselves as one with the whole world, all in this life together, united as human beings trying to survive on this small spinning planet in an infinite universe.

And with this prize, this new perspective, the Hero lives a new life. You know, a heroic life…helping the helpless, defending the defenseless, enlightening the ignorant, and fighting against tyranny and oppression. The hero lives with a new point of view that empowers her to love deeper, help a stranger, transcend the petty crap that divides us and be better neighbors, friends, and global citizens. I mean think about it. All the heroic acts are selfless ones. The hero throws himself in front the bullet meant for his friend. The hero fights to free a people. The hero stops the subway from shooting off the tracks into the street. Why? Why are any of them more important than he is? If the hero has incredible strength, insight, and power, why don’t they just use it to make themselves rich and powerful? Because the hero understands that we’re all in this together and that if they did that, they wouldn’t be a hero at all, they’d be a jerk. It really does take a hero to look beyond your race, class, religion, and region to see the Earth from a distance and see all human beings as just that…human beings…sharing this breath, this moment, and this adventure of being alive together. Today, as a graduating class, you’re all from different life circumstances, headed into the world from four hundred different directions. But you’re all headed into that wild world togetherYour path will be your own and it has to be. And even though I’ve speechifying up here about these great big important lessons, you won’t learn them from me today. You’ll learn them on your own, from your own experience. No one’s walked your path before. It’ll be a dark forest full of danger…but just know that everyone’s walked a dark and dangerous path before. Do you see what I mean? We’re all in it together…alone and together. And hey, you’re only at the beginning!

Now for you, I don’t know where or when the call to adventure will or won’t happen. I’m pretty sure there’s one of you out there who knows what I’m talking about. You’ve already felt it. You know there’s a path to your own happiness out there and you’re already following it. And you should. A vital life vitalizes every life it touches. That’s where leaders and heroes come from…For somebody else out there…and this is tough…you haven’t heard the call yet…and you might not….ever. And here’s the really scary part. You might never see your life as an adventure. You may never be able to wrap your mind around the idea that you and I share this breath with almost seven billion other people. You might not only not be a hero, you might be a villain. You might live your whole life thinking what you’ve always thought, buying everything you’re told to buy, looking out for number one, saying “no” a lot, being afraid of anyone who doesn’t think or look like you, never changing, never growing, never traveling, never expanding the definition of yourself, and finding a sick satisfaction in being in the way. Check in with yourself. Is this you? Am I talking to you? Are you the one who’s going to miss out more love, more happiness, and more fun because you never heard the call to adventure. Well, my friend, consider yourself called. I’m calling you. I mean, like I said before, from my perspective, you’re already on an adventure whether you like it or not. But today is your commencement. You choose what’s beginning. The world only spins forward. You don’t have to be what you’ve always been. I’m telling you today that you can say, “No more” to ignorance. You can say “no more” to fear. You can say “no more” to what supposedly divides you from this person or that person. You can say, “No more” to hate. You can say, “No more” to the parts of yourself that you know get in your way of sharing a euphoric experience of being alive with other people. And if you don’t… if you’re listening to me and thinking, “No. Life is about my one true way that I’ve got all figured out. I’m right. Everyone else is wrong. Absolutely. Definitively. Life is about me and mine. My family. My group. My truth.” Well… the world needs you too. Where would Indiana Jones be without the Nazis? Where would Batman be without The Joker? Where would God be without Satan? There always seems be “bad guys” and if you’re one them at this point in your life, so be it. We’re all in it together and those of us who know that will be there to help you when we can and maybe our love and compassion will help you change your perspective one day. But I hope I’m talking to a room full of heroes-to-be today. I really do. I hope I’m talking to a crowd full of newly adult villagers, ready to hear their own call to adventure, in whatever form it takes, and who will summon their courage, their strength, and their humanity to answer it, …and will bravely fight the eternal and universal fight…in courtrooms, on stages, in union halls, in bars, in classrooms, in offices, in neighborhoods, in homes, and in your hearts… …and that you all win the prize one day…the sublime awe of understanding that you’re capable of changing how you experience this life and that there’s a profound happiness, peace, and contentment that comes with choosing to love and help each other….because we are all in this life together…all on our own adventures...fighting the fight against our own limitations, ignorance, and fears; trying to make sense of it all, pursuing happiness…on our own… together. We can become better people. We can become better friends. We can become better sons and daughters. And today, we can let a ritual about a new beginning give us permission to actually have a new begging. No matter what you choose, good luck, God speed, and I’ll see you out there.

Thank you.