There are moments in our lives in which marking time becomes very simple. It boils down to before and after. When I was asked to give the keynote speech for the Iowa Thespian Leadership Day, I knew that I would be using one of those moments from my life. I knew that I wanted to talk about how our art practices can be a personal life-preserver in the face of tragedy. However, I also wanted to talk about how, as artists, we have a responsibility to provide that preservation, hope, and support for others.
Although this speech was specifically designed for a theatre audience, I feel that it works to substitute art or music throughout. I’ve included a video and the transcript here, because I hope that it will motivate you as we head back into another school year, audition season, or planning season.
Iowa Thespian Leadership Day Keynote Speech: Being a Leader Through the Arts
It is such an honor to be speaking here today for the Iowa Thespian Leadership Day, which is devoted to brainstorming, strategizing, and building robust theatre programs across our state – with student leaders at every turn.
The Iowa Thespians has been a constant leader championing theatre education in our state. Theater means so much to us: it gives us a place to find our tribe, to push our limits, and sometimes to sing show tunes at the absolute top of our lungs in the halls at school. But Theatre education will give you so much more than that. It will teach you some of the most important life skills you will learn in school. How to look confident when you don’t feel it, how to empathize with somebody you totally disagree with, and how to lie convincingly about your late homework. Trust me, these are essential skills in college. The Iowa Thespians understand that theater education gives us the opportunity to showcase our skills in both performance and technical theater, and on days like today it allows us to acknowledge each other and recognize the work we are all doing.
Like many of us here today, theater education has always been a huge part of my life. Many of you may know my family connection to the IHSSA; but even when I was still in elementary school, I already looked up to the high school student leaders in theater.
My High School Theatre Idols
In elementary school, my family lived in Le Mars, Iowa and my dad taught speech and theatre at the high school there. Our family would host raucous thespian parties at our house and there would be enormous stacks of pizza and pop bottles as far as the eye could see. If this was theater, I was all in! But, my favorite part of the day was watching these talented, hilarious, beautiful high school idols of mine play theatre games together in our yard. There’s just nothing like watching the dreamy quarterback stuff twelve marshmallows in his mouth and cry out “pudgy bunny.” Those students were golden, magical in my eyes. They were confident, funny, and charismatic. I wanted to be just like them.
When I see a room full of confident, funny, and charismatic high schoolers, it takes me back to the feeling of those golden afternoons.
You might not see it now, but today is one of your golden afternoons – no matter what the weatherman says. Today is going to be a day of good ideas and even better collaborations.
What Will Be Your Impact?
But, I urge you all to understand that today is also a day of reflection. This is a day in which you decide what kind of impact you want to have in your theatre program, in your local community, and as agents of theatre in your state.
When I reflect on what theater has meant in my life, it’s not the golden afternoons that had the most significant impact. In fact, the power of the theater and of my theater education affected me most on one of the darkest days of my life.
Performing Saved My Life
I have never spoken publicly about this before. It’s difficult to bring up and certainly doesn’t make for rousing dinner table conversation. But, I think it is important. Because life isn’t all about golden afternoons. No matter who you are, how talented, how smart, how attractive, you will face some dark days. And it is at those times when the power of the theater shines the most bright.
Nine years ago, almost to the date, I was violently assaulted by a stranger while walking to my new apartment from my new job.
I had just moved to Baltimore, Maryland for graduate school and I was in love with the city. I had been accepted into the prestigious Peabody Conservatory to study opera performance. My apartment had central air, and my new job at Fogo de Chao meant I would have free meals. I was living the life.
And then suddenly, it was taken all away. Before I even knew what was happening, I was falling backwards down cement stairs, shielding my face from being punched, and then it all went black. When I opened my eyes, I was in an ambulance and they were checking to make sure I still had all of my teeth. I made it into an emergency room before I even stepped foot in my school’s performance hall. It was a record, even for Baltimore.
While I was recovering from ten staples and a potentially deviated septum my first thought was how it would affect my singing and my ability to start grad school. My second feeling was deep, existential confusion. “Why would a mugger, someone who was experienced in stealing money, target me? Clearly a graduate student? It’s the worst target ever! Graduate students never have any money!”
We Would All Understand…
Afterwards, I was nervous about walking on the street by myself. I would gasp if someone ran up behind me too quickly. When the word of the attack spread, one of my professors reassured me that, “you know, Megan, we would all understand if you decided to move back home to Iowa…”
And for a few minutes, I thought about it.
But my ambition made me strong.
Because although I learned that the world could be a terribly dark place, I also learned how much performing meant to me. I was never giving up on my dream to become a professional singer. And that guy, now spending his days in prison, wasn’t taking it away from me. I had worked too hard, and I was not going back into another Iowa Winter, not when I had a free meal a day and a performance career waiting for me in Baltimore.
My ambition made me strong.
And my education made me strong. Because I remembered the Leonard Bernstein quote that my orchestra teacher told my class on September 11th, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
And that’s a quote that coming across my Facebook feed a little too often. However, it is giving a lot of artists and musicians strength right now in the face of terrible bombings, wars, and diseases going on around the world.
Theater, art, and music make us strong.
I’m sharing this with you in the hopes that today, as you think about what is coming up for you in the next school year, you will be inspired to take the next step. To not let anyone take away your drive to reach your goals. And, that you will be making art more intensely and more devotedly than before.
Becoming Emotional and Civic Leaders
The question is not if you will have some dark days. You will. Today I want to talk about what we do with those, and how we use our passion for art to become emotional and civic leaders.
As someone who is dedicated to performance, community building, and audience experience in the arts, I’m here to tell you that there are steps that we can take to become civic leaders through the arts. I want to focus on three B’s — build your team, brainstorm, and bring to light. The fundamental nature of a leader is exposed in these three areas.
Build Your Team
The first B is “build your team”. This is the belief that we are not alone and that we cannot do this by ourselves. This is the fundamental idea that in theatre and in the arts we can truly create something bigger, something greater, than the sum of its parts.
Everyone here has been in a show with someone who shows up late to rehearsals, who rejects the ideas of others, who doesn’t take a vested interest in the project, or takes over every moment to make sure the spotlight is always on them. Don’t be that person. They aren’t really leaders.
We want to build solid teams in which people feel engaged. Members of the group participate positively and actively toward the group’s goals.
Real leaders are the football quarterback who isn’t too full of himself to play “pudgy bunny” with the rest of his castmates. Real leaders invite students from various backgrounds to participate. Real leaders invite people who may be struggling to join a supportive group. Real leaders give newbies a place to belong. Real leaders make audience members feel welcome and wanted because they’re on your team too! Real leaders know that their community reaches far beyond the outer walls of their performance space.
The second B is “brainstorm” — I hope you’re about to do a whole bunch of this today! Brainstorming is making sure that each participant of the project has thought hard to come up with creative solutions to reach a broader goal.
The rules of brainstorming are: defer judgement; encourage wild, creative ideas; build on the ideas of others; stay focused on the topic; have one productive conversation at a time; be visual; and set outrageous goals.
I play this game with my voice students in which I force them to come up with, or brainstorm, as many words as possible to describe the ideal sound they hear in their mind. We usually get to about three before they say, “I don’t know.” So, I push them. What are other qualities or characteristics you haven’t imagined yet?
Think Beyond the Limit You See
When I was assaulted in Baltimore, I was shocked. I was confounded. “How could this happen? This isn’t what my life looks like.” As I started to regain some sense of safety and confidence, I thought to myself, “if I thought that wasn’t what my life looked like… what are some other areas of my life where maybe I’m not imagining the fullness of my experience here?” These were scary thoughts at first. But, they became positive thoughts. If I know those lows, how high can I go?
I want you to brainstorm the seemingly impossible today. I want you to think of the limit you see and then ask yourself, “what would happen if that wasn’t there?” How can you be responsible for augmenting the vision of your program today?
Bring to Light
The third B is “bring to light” — believe that your work – that your art – can have an impact.
As artists we reflect our world, real and imagined, back to our viewers. We must take this charge very seriously. Culture, more specifically the arts, teaches us about family roles, thought patterns, pride, personal space, attitudes toward the environment, gender roles, biases, self-concept, and so much more. These are often difficult lessons for people to put into words. Heck, this is even difficult for parents to put into words to their children. But, when we put them into stories the impact can be so much greater.
Meisner wrote, “Acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” We have this incredible ability to uncover the root causes of issues. Yes, being a leader through the arts can be amorphous. It can take on many shapes and topics including a mixture of politics, values, laws, economics, and humanitarian issues. Often in our art, we express stories that pit our inner world against the world at large. This is such a unique perspective and benefit to those who witness our stories and it is our responsibility to them.
Artists Are People of Action
Dozens of voices around us will suggest that situations can’t or shouldn’t change. But, we must ask ourselves the question: are there behaviors or conditions that we simply must address in our community? Some changes can be easy and simple. Some changes take a lot of time. But, think for a moment about all the discrete actions and art works that have led to giant changes in our culture.
As agents of the theatre, we have decided to take action. We, as people, agree to live by a social contract that defines how we will behave toward one another in a community, whether you define community as a small town or something much bigger. We can help strengthen, inform, and grow that understanding of community through our art practices.
There’s a Fourth B?
None of you need me to explain the fourth B…which is, of course, Hamilton.
Just kidding. That doesn’t start with B.
Thank You, Theatre
These three B’s are obviously not just for theatre work. It is my hope that building your team, brainstorming, and bringing to light will be core principles in your life. Let’s just be thankful that theatre is the door that has opened you to all of these life skills.
I Will Go Very Far
One of the most important performing moments of my life happened in 2012 when I was singing at the final marathon concert for the Bang on a Can Festival in MASS MoCA in Massachusetts. I was singing an absolute giant in the repertoire called “Ancient Voices of Children” by the composer George Crumb. The final phrases of the piece, translated from Spanish, are, “and I will go very far, farther than the seas, close to the stars.” I remember clearer than anything, sitting backstage and pondering those words. Then realizing, that I was also recalling my assault in Baltimore. Immediately my thoughts turned to
“I am the same woman who was there that is here.”
In fact, I am the same woman who was there that is here at this very moment.
and I will go very far indeed.
It is my wish that you will go very far. That you will go beyond what you have already imagined. That you will take those visions back to your community and make great art. It is my sincere hope that you will encourage each other. That you will build your team because theatre should always be greater than the sum of its parts. It is my goal that you are moved today to bring issues to light. And that above all, when you see the violence in the world, the ugliness, that you will draw back to these golden afternoons and make your art more beautifully, more devotedly, and more intensely than ever before.
Thank you for being here.
Let’s have a great day.