loewith speech
"T Thank you, Dean Genetti. Greetings and welcome on this auspicious, beautiful day, to Chancellor Yang, the entire deanery (a word I’ve always wanted to use out loud), esteemed faculty, less-esteemed faculty (who may be said to be working up a head of esteem), overtaxed families with underfunded retirement accounts, other distinguished guests, undistinguished guests (you know who you are), staff who can’t wait for this weekend to finally be OVER, gleeful loan officers, folks watching on livestream across the country and the world, and of course, greetings above all to the brand new advanced degree-holders among us! YEE HA! We celebrate you; we salute you.

First, let me apologize. I’m not Jon Stewart. I know some of you were hoping for Jon Stewart. I know some of you thought I WAS Jon Stewart. It’s true that we are both funny Jews. But I do not have a Comedy Central show. Neither have I ever interviewed Barack Obama. However, I AM a Gaucho, a proud, proud Gaucho, and dammit, Jon Stewart isn’t.

After leaving the hallowed bike paths of UCSB I made my way to L.A .where I became a theater production manager, in the process learning that you should never put a silk pantsuit in the washer/dryer; I then worked in New York off-Broadway for five years, where I learned that John Turturro gets really angry if the temperature in the rehearsal room gets above 75 degrees (I hope these lessons are valuable); I moved five years after that to Chicago, where—with just the right combination of faith in my talents and an abundance of terror—I took an enormous risk in choosing to run a troubled theater, and that risk paid off in ways I could never have conceived; which is how I wound up where I am now, running a much larger theater in Washington, D.C., living a charmed and fortunate life.

For example: As a playwright, I have seen my work mangled by directors everywhere from Los Angeles to Lisbon. As a director, I have mangled the work of dozens of playwrights in return. I have negotiated awe-inspiring numbers of personnel disputes in a single day. And once in a while, I get to sit in a room with brilliant, talented colleagues to investigate deep and profound texts in hopes of sharing their mysteries with an audience. Those are very wonderful days.

If the pantsuit advice isn’t helpful, then I hope you take this one thing away from my comments: that finding the proper balance between blind trust in your talents on the one hand, and crippling doubt about them on the other, is the task before you... and quite possibly, the reason why antidepressant use has soared 400 percent since 1998.

So I’m going to salute your achievements, but I’m also going to keep you humble, because you’re going to need that humility in the months and years ahead – I see your professors and family members nodding to each other, perhaps this advice comes a little late for some of you—if only to ground you as you take ever—greater risks with your newly-earned knowledge. Because that’s what all of us here expect of you in the next decade: big, hairy, audacious goals, surprising risks, the occasional failure, and the more frequent leaps forward.

When Dean Genetti called me last fall, I was like, [whisper] “Are they allowed to revoke my degree if I haven’t given money to the Alumni Association? That seems draconian.”

But seriously, I was humbled she asked me to come before you today... how many of you are making it out after two years? How about three years? How many of you have spent four years here? Five years? MORE than Five years? Six years? Seven years? Eight or more? Dude, why aren’t YOU giving this speech?

I’ll tell you why.

What’s your degree? (God it better be a PhD or a double PhD)... _______________ OK, cool. So you may know just about all there is to know about __________________, but I promise you that after 8 years here you pretty much don’t know anything else. Your professors and families are nodding again. There’s no room in your brain for anything other than your dissertation—what’s the title? _________________________ Right, THAT. You’ve got room in your brain for that and how much a burrito at Freebird’s costs, and the phone number for your student loan officer.”

Student loans... scary. Fear keeps you humble.

But I’m also here to fill you with hope and optimism.

Because you ARE going to achieve tremendous, marvelous, unbelievable and (in the case of the dynamical neuroscience graduates), indecipherable things. Your parents are going to be so proud of you, even if they are the ONLY people to own a copy of your dissertation. They are going to bore DOZENS of their friends trying to explain Dynamical Neuroscience in layman’s terms over the Senior Special at a Souplantation in Orange County. You see them doing that, don’t you? While they stuff extra dinner rolls in their pockets for later? Because YOU might know about Dynamical Neuroscience, but THEY know how to balance their checkbooks. I now see ALL of you nodding.

Where are my Dynamical Neuroscience Masters and Doctors? [How about my environmental sciences grads? Mathematics? Film and Media studies?] Look at you three or four lonely people! Well I’m proud of you. Can you do me a huge favor? Would you three stand up? Go ahead, stand up. And now, on the count of three, at the same time, yell the title of your thesis or dissertation. 1 – 2 – 3

OK, you win for longest title.

You know what, let’s all please, stand up. Everyone getting an advanced degree today, stand up. Go ahead, this ceremony goes on for hours. [I am the ONLY thing standing between you and that little piece of paper worth a hundred grand, so stand up.] And now, at the top of your lungs, at the count of three, will you yell the title of your thesis or dissertation?
1 – 2 – 3.

Thank you. That was just amazing. Look, there’s a woman from Germanic Languages and Literatures still talking. Go ahead, take your time. You worked hard for that. OK now sit down.

My M.A. thesis here was a play I wrote, called “Peter and the Wolf: An Eco-Adventure Thriller,” which got performed by a bunch of undergraduates who sang and wore silly masks that we created from now-outlawed cancer-causing agents and danced and spouted propaganda and we moved the audience all over campus to the tune of Prokofiev’s famous musical leitmotifs, played by the carillonneur in Storke Tower. It was really cool, and really self-indulgent, full of idiotic ambition untouched by the tender balm of modesty. It was kinda great, and it also kinda sucked.

So I had to do a second thesis, a paper about a topic completely esoteric to you, but to us in the Department of Theater and Dance—where are my dance and drama peeps? Yo! Rock on!—the development of the musical A Chorus Line, which at the time I wrote it 20 years ago, was the longest-running show in Broadway history.

Now, in those days, Google WASN’T something you did. It was just a really hard-to-conceive-of number. Skype was an old English variant of the word “skip.” And – hold on to your RenFaire caps – the Internet wasn’t even a gleam in Al Gore’s eye. That’s right, to research my thesis I had to physically set foot in the library, order books and magazines and journals, use a thing called microfiche, and visit real people for what we called in those days “in-person interviews.” Where are my History folks? Yo, rock on. Microfiche!

Anyhow, I finally completed a comprehensive paper on the development of this musical. And I turned it in to my professor, who said, “Jason, after all this research, you’re probably one of the five most-knowledgeable people about A Chorus Line in the entire world. You’ve added significantly to the world’s body of knowledge on this subject. Congratulations.”

That blew my mind. Is it possible I had obtained such expertise on one topic? Were my thoughts worthy of such a profound contribution?

It is unlikely that any of you—any of us—will ever be surrounded by as much expertise, in so varied and diverse a range of subjects, as we are at this moment. Remember hearing those dissertation titles? Those are hundreds and thousands and hundreds of thousands of combined hours of research and knowledge-building and problem-testing and quantifying and qualifying and studying and the great thinking of complex thoughts. Are you not awed by this assemblage? You each have added, significantly, to the world’s body of knowledge on your chosen topic. And you will continue to do that. Let no mentor, or faculty colleague, or research director tell you different. You have proven yourselves worthy of the title EXPERT.

So please remember to done one important thing with your expertise: SHARE IT. Knowledge is NOT a commodity to be bought or sold. I don’t speak of the products of your knowledge—the books you will write, or the patents you will secure, or the grants for experimentation you will seek and seek and seek yet again. I speak of the knowledge itself, which flourishes in the bright, transparent light of collaboration. And not only collaboration with colleagues in your field, but colleagues outside of it. Let the neuroscience Ph.D. lie down with the communications M.A.; let the Geological Sciences M.S. reside with the Computer Engineering Ph.D.; the Feminist Studies M.A./Ph.D.s will graze with the Global and International Studies M.A.s; and (perhaps), a little Teacher Education GGSE combined M.Ed. SST will lead them. There is too much wonderful, specialized knowledge here today to share it only with the people in your department, office or lab.

Let your knowledge seek out other knowledge, with generosity, and without ego.

Speaking of ego. Let’s talk about humility.

When I’m in the rehearsal room with an insoluble problem, I think of stage director Ann Bogart—a true visionary who has had her share of spectacular failures alongside successes in her distinguished career. She told me that when she’s unsure of what to do, when she knows she’s lost the thread, when the entire room is looking to her for an answer she doesn’t have, and the adrenaline rush of fear begins coursing through her veins... she gets up, and strides towards the proscenium from the back of the house. And when she reaches stage, she opens her mouth. Fear—the certain knowledge of her ignorance in the face of the great mysteries—fires her creativity, and nine times out of 10 what comes out of her mouth isn’t just AN idea, it’s the RIGHT idea.

She recognizes her ignorance, but trusts her experience. That’s the equation for the risks I hope you’ll take going forward: the recognition that you are taking a risk, that you are bound to fail on occasion, and that your job is to learn from those failures so you can risk again. An overactive sense of humility will prevent you from challenging yourself. An overactive belief in your expertise leads to really long, really boring faculty meetings.

I came to UCSB a precocious, self-indulgent kid, and left with a mission: to tell stories that inspire my community, to change the world one audience at a time; in short, to borrow from Hamlet, to achieve great reckonings in little rooms.

I’ve failed many times trying to do it. And those failures hurt. But somehow I found enough confidence in my passion and intelligence to try once more. The moment of which I am most proud in my career, in fact, came from a near-failure. With my theater company on the verge of bankruptcy, I took a crazy risk to produce a challenging play, avant-garde for its moment and for Chicago, by Suzan-Lori Parks (who later won the Pulitzer). It was called In the Blood, a radical feminist revision of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, in which Hester Prynne is reconceived as a welfare mother of five children by five different fathers. In one scene, Hester provides a sexual service onstage to a preacher in order to support her family. I begged the director to stage the scene in such a way as to make the action less visible to the audience—I feared to lose our few remaining subscribers, and I feared for the end of my career. And the director said to me, “Jason, you must trust your audience. And most important, you must trust yourself. Because your passion led you to produce this play, and led all of us—me, the actors, designers and other artists—to invest in your vision.” The scene went on, fully visible, with no apology—and I was certain it was the end.

At the conclusion of the first performance, I stood in the doorway as is my wont, participating in the curtain call. And there was only silence. And more silence. But then... Two patrons rose to their feet. And then another couple. And another. And soon the entire audience had erupted into an ovation. And as they exited the auditorium, one woman who I shall never forget, tears in her eyes, came up to me. She shook my hand, and thanked me, and said, “I work with disadvantaged people every day on the South Side. Every day I am emotionally beaten into the ground by their stories, and the little I can do to help them. I did not want to come to this play. But you have taken me out of myself, for two hours, and allowed me to see my world anew. And I’m ready to go back.”

However that story translates to your field, you’re gonna do that. You’re gonna do that in ways I can never imagine. Balance your expertise with humility, add a dollop of cocktail conversation and a few shakes of inspiration, and the five people who give a crap about your dissertation now are going to quickly turn into 10, and those 10 will rapidly turn into 20, and soon hundreds and thousands and—quite possibly—millions of individuals will be living better and more fulfilled lives because you have thought complex thoughts, and shared them generously. You have taken the risks that make the world, for one brief day perhaps, or just one person, turn a little faster with the force of your imagination and passion, and intellect.

I revel in all you have learned, in the power of the great and complex thoughts you are about to unleash. Revel together, and let your knowledge lead you on to risk for the greater good.

In closing I’d like to thank my mentors from UCSB who led me to risk for the greater good. Thanks to Simon Williams, who gave me my first lesson in humility and thereby taught me to write. To Dave King, who gave me the gift of expertise. To Peter Lackner, watching this from Berlin, who gave me the courage to pursue my passions, and taught me to make the Storke Tower Carrillon toll its bells in the service of art. And to dear, departed Bert O. States, who introduced me to the mysteries of theory, and demystified each and every one of them. He is watching from that great Souplantation in the sky.

Thank you for letting me be the last Theater Arts alum to ever address the Grad Division at UCSB! They’ll never do that again. It’s been an amazing, singular honor. Congratulations, and onward!"