USC School of Theatre Commencement Speech By José Rivera
Congratulations, we’re all colleagues now.
Having been perpetual students of an art form that can’t be fully learned because all the stories haven’t been told yet, we are now able practitioners. Not only that, we’re partisans in a great struggle that may seem holy to some and crazy to others, but is wildly quixotic even at the best of times. We’re all veterans of hope, sergeants and captains of an idealism and courage that seem anachronistic and beautifully, dolefully, painfully antique. Because what we do, what we are trained to do, is to keep an ancient and sullied and disrespected and much maligned and amazing tradition alive.
We together keep the spoken word from going silent, spectacle from disappearing in the ones and zeros of forgetfulness, great life-and-death themes from dying of malnutrition, enormous characters and souls from the purgatory of indifference and ignorance. Together we keep the The House of Atreus from foreclosure and the Skryker from extinction and Kent and Salem from dying of cancer and Pozzo from getting too lucky. We are apostles of language, dreamers in blank verse, aristocrats of sight gags, archeologists of gesture and dance and sword battles and mask wearing and mythic games of tragic and comic consequences. We bring Falstaff to the party and hope he doesn’t get too drunk and pinch too many butts even as we enter through the back door and try to deliver dream-worlds to the wary and the post-modern and the unsuspecting.
We traffic in awe and metaphors and are impatient with the ordinary and expected. We fight the inertia of silence and talk too loud in polite locations and there is no Ritalin for us. We don’t succumb to psychoanalysis and the voodoo of easy answers. We thrive on complexity and ask that our monsters truly terrify us, that our lovers truly slay us with their passion, that our magicians truly make something out of nothing and hand it to us with smoke and a rakish smile. We seek connections with the strange and communion with brave souls seeking the truth – not the entire truth, just a piece of it will do – a coin of truth we can keep in a pocket near our valuables, that we can spend in those frightening moments when we don’t know ourselves, when we’re in too deep and some clarity would help, some beauty that could redeem and enliven the night.
We turn awful experience and bad relationships and murdering office jobs and loveless parents and poverty and addictions and angst and loss and death itself into the fearsome gold of art. We are alchemists and con artists, acrobats and used car salesmen, liars and enlighteners, and we are here to do the earth’s bidding because the earth is screaming out its stories and begging for us to write them down, and act them out, and draw her pretty pictures on the face of the clouds.
What’s in store now that you’ve made it through this training ground of the imagination? Here are some of the highs and lows you can expect on this amazing journey.
There’s joy as you travel to wonderful places and receive the smiles and affection of new friends made in the crucible of performance, in front of raging armies of critics and prove-it- to- me, I’ve-paid-too- much-for- these-tickets, I-saw-it-last- year- in-London audiences and a perfect stranger comes up to you after the show to say they never felt so transported in the theatre before and they understand something about life they never understood until tonight and how you captured her parents’ pain and nobility so beautifully. Fatigue as you give it everything you have, every single day, every muscle engaged in a marathon that doesn’t end until you end. Pain because you tell yourself it’s just a gig, just a job, but then you fall in love with it anyway. Discovery of your limits and appreciation for the breathless power of your mastery. Bliss when you’ve written that one good sentence; or you delivered that one perfect moment when the lights are on you and only you; or you discover in the text an idea or an image or a parable so true that it makes your audience weep with recognition; or you put out into the world a rendering of a staircase or a costume or a throne of gold in three brilliant dimensions that just last week existed in none.
Awe when you sit backstage, a moment before your entrance and realize you’re about to give the greatest soliloquy in our language. Gratitude when it dawns on you that you make a living from the honey and perspiration of your mind. Excitement when you write Act One, Scene One on the top of the first page; and you sit along the wall on the afternoon of your third call-back for your favorite play; and you stand in the back of the house and that moment you worked on for fourteen hours with that actor who never seemed to get it gets the biggest laugh of the night. Amazement when your lights reflect in the physics of time and space exactly what’s happening in the unlit chambers and labyrinths of the hero’s soul. Even more amazement when your project, which you put together with faith, spit, and favors turns a remarkable profit in actual U.S. currency.
Humility when you look around and everyone else seems more successful, or richer, or quicker, or better reviewed or living on both coasts and are equally familiar with Silver Lake and Williamsburg. Relief when you figure out that, like all great cyclical events in nature, your long career will rise and fall and you’ll be hot, then forgotten, then hot, then forgotten, then hot again. Anger when the words won’t cooperate and the costume’s too tight and you made a grave error in casting the world premiere, or passion seems to be ebbing, or you’d rather have a baby, or the grant goes to your rival, or that barbarian in the second row keeps texting his lawyer, or ten people show up to your reading in a theatre with three hundred seats, or you can’t stand Bushwick anymore, or the McArthur people overlooked you – again – or the sitcom’s too tempting, or your favorite actor’s not available, or the culture’s going north while you’re going south.
Or maybe you’ve forgotten something – you forgot the joy and the magic and the purpose and the need for it all. But then you remember and come back anyway. That’s the amazing part.
You come back the next day because even when the words don’t come and the costume’s cutting off the blood to your legs, this activity connects you to your most authentic and naked self, to the child who told sweeping sock puppet sagas and imitated your dad’s big laugh and drew pictures of avenging super heroes, to the adolescent who fell in love with the smell of opening night flowers, to the mature artist who became enthralled with the great blank space, that enchanted oval, on which battles determine the course of history and lovers learned the key expressions of the heart and men and women modeled heroism and humanity and Estragon lost his way and colored girls considered suicide and Proctor wouldn’t sign his name and Arial was free to go and a wicked Moon under a Lorca sky betrayed the idea of love. You come back to balance art and family, and sometimes your checkbook, because nothing feels as good as the act of acting.
You endure the indifference of agents and literary managers because nothing sounds as nice as the click of that perfect metaphor falling into place. You put off children, or you put off real estate, or you put off the thousand intangible compromises of the spirit because nothing frees you from the dark enchantments of gravity like this. You stay up to three in the morning memorizing those sides for your best friend’s new play even though she wrote the part for you and the producers insist you have to audition anyway, because nothing brings you closer to Creation that this.
So why do you do these things? Why come back when it hurts so much? What kind of people are we? How crazy do we have to be to put up with this?
Let’s face it, given the speed of today’s run-away clocks, given the accumulation of power and money in the hands of the very few and all the injustice that flows from that, given the complexity of social intercourse in an age of instant talk and delayed reflection, you’re a member of a different species entirely. You age differently than the rest of the population. You try hard not to succumb to the common theories and manias of the crowd. You speak in tongues when everyone else is speaking in fortune cookies. You make one-of-a-kind little miracles with your bare and blistered hands for below minimum wage as stock markets soar and die and soar and die. You write about your existential pain in unsentimental words for sentimental audiences.
Your curiosity is so vast and out of control you don’t know boundaries and you annoy your lovers with your constant need to analyze their every nuance and no answer is ever good enough because each answer leads to ten new questions. You dream in such vivid colors, you wonder if you can market your sleep as the next cool drug. Your sensitivity to the pain and joy of others is so acute you might as well have multiple personalities. You and failure are so intimate with each other you could birth one another’s bawling babies. You are gifted and cursed with a love of words so intense few other pleasures can move you like Lopahin’s declaration that he bought the cherry orchard, or what Li’l Bit had to do to learn to drive, or what devils of self-doubt whispered to a beautiful and wounded soul in a psychosis at 4:48 am.
For all this and more you came to this school and sacrificed, and worked your ass off, and delayed some big life decisions, and dreamed exceptional dreams, and fertilized your mind, and kept important promises you made to yourself. That’s the important part: you kept the promises you made to yourself to stay in it and learn.
So now that you’ve come this far, and we’re in this room, together, what’s my advice?
It’s not a lot.
Recycle your pain.
Think about greatness.
Make babies and make art for them.
Slay your heroes.
Laugh at yourself.
Betray no one’s trust.
Make time for silence.
Search and search and search and search.
I could go on, but I don’t think you need any more advice from me. I think you’re ready.
You, the fighter and hero of this morning’s tale are trained and ready to unpack your Heiner Muller and your tap shoes and your colored pencils and are brimming with ideas and full of courage and full of fight and you know the obstacles and laugh in their faces and the dragons you fight are windmills and the windmills you fight are straw and the time to talk about doing it is over.
It’s time to do it.
So let’s go out now, you and I, let’s go out and make some art.
Thank you and all the best of luck.
– José Rivera