Chairman Kovner, President Polisi, fellow honorees, distinguished guests, esteemed faculty, friends, family members, and finally, accomplished, ecstatic Juilliard graduates of the class of 2016: Let me start dear grads, by uttering some words you should get used to: “bravo, brava, bravi! You did it!”
I want you all to take in the joyful vibration at Alice Tully this morning—it may be the last time you are in a room full of this many performing artists all of whom are feeling perfectly happy and fulfilled.
I am so deeply grateful, so honored, and moved as well as giddy with excitement to be here at this year’s commencement ceremony. When President Polisi asked if I would speak today, I told him I’d be much too intimidated to address an audience of brilliant students on such a momentous occasion. But he simply said, “You attended the school. You have something in common.” Well yes indeed, my fellow alums, I began my studies at the Drama Division in the autumn of—good heavens—1970! The building was brand new and the elevator still had the new-car smell. At the time the entrance was on 66th Street, and as you walked into the lobby, there was a long, simple desk behind which sat a heavyset woman named Nora who, in a thick Irish brogue, greeted us all by our first name and was always up for a chat. I confess I can’t quite get used to the entrance on 65th, the stern-faced security guard, the turnstile and then that staircase that reminds me of a Mayan temple at Chichen Itza.
But honestly—it doesn’t matter which entrance you use, as long as you get into Juilliard! “Getting into Juilliard” has the same imposing ringtone as “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”—in and of itself it is major achievement. But this commencement ceremony, this day of celebration, is of course about having made it through Juilliard after striving, thriving, and finally surviving four years at this most demanding and prestigious school of the performing arts. As someone who lived through that experience over four decades ago, I salute and congratulate each and every one of you. Believe me when I say you already have one big thing on your résumé.
Now I’m told that the Drama Division is a kinder, gentler place than it was under the formidable John Houseman back in the 1970s, where twice a year after working on a production of Shakespeare, Shaw, or Chekhov, we, as a class, would be made to sit in a long row while each member of the drama faculty was given an opportunity to “critique” us individually.
My critique invariably centered on my need to relax. My tongue, which I was made to look at in a magnifying mirror, unfortunately had a deep groove. My S’s were sibilant, my voice was nasal, my jaw was locked, and my neck stiff, my shoulders chronically tense, my diaphragm not functioning properly. Also I had a pelvic thrust and fallen arches. But above all, I needed to relax. Well, thank you very much, but how was one to relax when subjected to a full-body CT scan every day with the test results publicly discussed twice a year?! Indeed how to let our natural talent flow and trust our instincts while being made to feel totally self-conscious—that has always been the dilemma for us Juilliard students and I sympathize with and applaud every student who has endured those daily prognoses.
However, that said, looking back after four decades, I find the memory of those ominous critiques to be wildly amusing and, for what it’s worth, I still need to relax. Even as I am speaking to you now, my shoulders are tense, my jaw’s a bit locked, and I gave up on my tongue years ago. As daunting, as competitive, repetitive, and humbling it all was, I can honestly say those were the most exhilarating years of my life! To finally have a breakthrough or receive high praise from a revered teacher—there was no greater euphoria. And, my God, even the morning elevator rides were in more ways than one an uplifting experience—rubbing elbows with musical prodigies, opera singers, famous faculty members, those flocks of exquisite young women in pink tights who shared our third-floor rehearsal spaces. I still can’t believe it but, I actually rode up on more than one occasion with George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Martha Graham, and once (be still my heart) with Maria Callas, who was giving her master class.
“Aspirational oxygen”—it’s the air we breathe at Juilliard, and being just across the street from those grand theaters, where on any given night world-class conductors, musicians, singers, dancers, actors are performing—you can’t help but feel you’re part of an awe-inspiring and lasting tradition.
You know there were no dorms back in the 1970s, and absolutely no campus life. In other words, no way to meet guys. I remember exiting the building one evening and being approached by a really handsome young man, a conducting student, who said he had an extra ticket to the New York Philharmonic playing Brahms. Well, I didn’t give a fig about Brahms, but it seemed like a chance to date a hot guy. We sat in the orchestra and shortly after the music began, I became aware of his heavy breathing, moaning, and body twitching. I looked up, his eyes were tightly closed, and I realized his rapture had nothing to do with his proximity to me. When the music stopped, he gushed “I have never heard the first movement played more brilliantly!” “I know,” I said breathlessly, feeling like I’d faked an orgasm. I had no idea you could get that excited about the First Movement. Or maybe it was the second. Well alas we had only one more date after that—considerably more lowbrow in nature. But I made subsequent dates after that at the Philharmonic. Buying inexpensive tickets, I had cheap dates with Arthur Rubinstein, with Vladimir Horowitz appearing as soloist. I stood outside the Metropolitan Opera many evenings after school ended hoping for a free ticket. I bought standing room and balcony seats to the opera and ballet. So much of the Juilliard experience was tied to the thrill of simply crossing the street and seeing great performers.
The reason I spoke of being “giddy with delight” to be here today is because this is the first formal ceremony I have ever attended at the school. After completing my first year, in 1970, I was awarded a $1,000 scholarship that was given to a hardworking, economically needy student. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize I had to show up and receive it at that year’s commencement—I just thought the check was in the mail! So I was M.I.A. Then alas, as Joseph said, in 1974 I didn’t attend my own graduation because I was already employed as an apprentice at the [American] Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Conn., so I never received my diploma. Then about 15 years ago, President Polisi very graciously decided to surprise me and award me my actual diploma after all those years at an alumni event in L.A. Alas, as he was making his surprise presentation after lunch I unwittingly was in the ladies’ room—M.I.A. again! So thank you Joseph for not giving up on me!
I’m not only honored to be here—I’m also relieved that I finally showed up! You know I’ve been talking to you all in my head for many weeks now, wondering what perspective to share, having preceded you into the professional world by four decades. Is there a quintessential observation regarding this life we share in the performing arts? And that story about finally showing up kept coming back to me. Because that is simply, essentially, what our life is. It is all about showing up. That is our passion, our task, our responsibility, our privilege. Our presence, with a capital P, is required. We show up on time because that is the first measure of our professionalism. We show up in good health because stamina and mental clarity are the sine qua non of a performing career. We show up prepared for the work at hand or we waste our colleagues’ time or an audience’s money. We show up when we are underslept, or our bodies are aching, our hearts are breaking, or our personal life is a distraction. And alas, more than ever these days, we must show up ready to have our work process compromised by scheduling or budgetary issues. There will be only one run-through with the full orchestra, or soloist. There will be fewer previews, less rehearsal time. The script will be late, lines must be memorized overnight. We now must work on dangerous sets, sing when jet-lagged, dance when injured, act in a close up well past our 14th hour on a film set.
This brings me to my favorite line in all of Shakespeare spoken by Hamlet when he said, “The readiness is all.” Indeed, in our work, the readiness is indeed all. We must show up time and again in readiness to walk on that high wire and often under very difficult circumstances. But if this high wire is the most terrifying and challenging aspect of our lives as performers, the most glorious aspect is this: on cue, on point, on the downbeat, or on Action!
We get to show up in the fullness of our being and present not just our talent and technique, but the depth of our character, the force of our personality, the breadth of our life experience—our point of view. And this is worthy of a lifetime of discipline and exploration—to refine that presence with a capital P. What’s more,—our vulnerability, our human frailty, even our failings and darkness can be our greatest gift as artists. Since I’ve quoted Shakespeare, there’s nowhere to go but Kanye West, who sang “Damn! Everything I’m not made me everything I am.”
Happily, dear graduates, you have chosen a very secure profession. You cannot be replaced by a computer or an automated voice. Be outsourced to Mexico or China or made into an app. In this hyperkinetic age of information and technological advances, we living, breathing artists get to show up and invite people to experience in our presence the beauty and the complexity of the human condition through language, music, and movement.
I believe our gifts are more important than ever now. The playwright Tom Stoppard (who can easily out-verbalize Kanye), wrote: “We get our moral sensibility from art. When we have a purely technological society, it will be time for mass suicide.” Well that’s a fairly dark assessment, but without a doubt we are living in a transformative, convulsive time in history. We are overwhelmed not just by technology but by a hyper sense of consciousness on issues of race, gender, religion, and politics, which seems to divide people more than ever. Surely the work we do as artists can have an enlightening, humanizing, alkaline effect—at best a hopeful and healing one.
So my fellow alums, it is something of a spiritual mission that we keep showing up. We are a civilizing force. I urge you to have faith in time— good work, certainly great work requires time. Take your greatest joy from the daily practice of your work. Ours is a collaborative art, so turn off your phones and get to know your colleagues. You need your colleagues. Even if you’re playing Mame, you need a chorus of adoring young men to sing to you and keep lifting you in the air all evening—believe me, it helps if they like you. And try not to think of your youth as a commodity to be cashed in or of your age as a liability.
I would encourage you to carefully read the biographies of the esteemed honorees here onstage with me today. They kept showing up and doing their work—often brilliant work—every day and for decades.
If it’s any comfort, I did not have my first big theatrical success until my 30s and did not start making real money until my 40s.I just turned 64 a few weeks ago, and I’ve never been busier. Furthermore, when I grow up, I want to be Cicely Tyson!
Finally, before closing, I’d like to acknowledge the families of the graduates who are here today. Undoubtedly, you are so proud, happy, relieved and, well, perhaps, in debt. My mom was widowed when I was 8 years old and, despite my having almost a full scholarship, she had to make great sacrifices to pay for my housing and living expenses. So whether [you’re] from Buffalo or Beijing, I know similar sacrifices have been made and the parents here should be acknowledged and thanked as deeply as the faculty and administration.
One of my most poignant memories was my mother waiting for me in the lobby of what was then called Philharmonic Hall [now Geffen Hall] in the summer of 1970—I had to reaudition for the speech faculty after doing some corrective work on my sibilant S. I remember racing from the third-floor office of John Houseman to tell her the awesome news—I got into Juilliard! We then went to the Algonquin Hotel, on 44th Street, and had two Southern Comfort Manhattans straight up with a cherry each. It was the only time I got drunk with my mother. So this evening at 7pm, I am taking my family and a few friends back to the Algonquin Hotel, 46 years later. I shall first drink a toast to Virginia Baranski, who would have been gobsmacked that her daughter became a doctor. Next I’ll drink a toast in gratitude to Juilliard, and all my extraordinary teachers, many of whom became lifelong friends. And last but not least, I shall drink a toast to the graduating class of 2016. May you show up and make your presence felt as artists in the world for many decades to come! Congratulations again on getting into and getting out of Juilliard! Bravissimi!