Friday, September 14, 2007

Arts Ed Graduation Day Speech

Today I was lucky enough to be asked by Jane Harrison, Head of the Acting Department at Arts Ed, to give a speech at the Graduation Day of the BA and MA students who have just completed their studies.

It's the first time in my life I've ever worn a gown and 'mortar board' - is that what they're called? We didn't have such a costume to wear on graduation day at Dartington College of Arts in 1987 - though I gather that Dartington does go in for using such a uniform these days...

The following is the text of my speech:

First of all, thank you for inviting me to speak on this special day.

Well, I’m honoured to have been asked. I know that in the past some far more illustrious theatrical luminaries have stood here to make such a speech - but for every theatre maker or actor who ends up being a household name, and on the front page of The Stage or even Heat Magazine, I guess there are many others who, perhaps like me, keep on turning up to rehearsals day after day and trying to make interesting productions.

My name’s Will Kerley and I’m a freelance director of theatre. I direct plays, and I direct operas. I do a bit of writing and a bit of broadcasting. I’m self-employed - which, obviously, means I work for myself - I’m my own boss.

Like any freelance actor or director, I don’t get paid if I don’t work - in fact I’ve never had a paid holiday… People ask me where I work, and I don’t have a normal answer to give them. I don’t have one set work-place, you see - because I work where the work is - so, if I’m asked to direct a new play in Shepherds Bush or an opera in America or Shakespeare in Edinburgh - then that’s where I go to make the work happen.

Theatre is what you might call a broad church, it's rich and it's various, and I’ve made theatre in all kinds of contexts, at the National Theatre and the RSC, at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, with kids with learning difficulties in inner-cities, I was even assistant director on a production of Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd just up the road, in Wormwood Scrubs Prison with the lifers of ‘C’ Wing. And I’ve had the honour of doing some teaching and directing under Jane Harrison’s enlightened auspices here in the Acting Department at Arts Ed.

Right now - plug plug - I’ve got a production on at the Peacock Theatre in Holborn - it’s a new production of an opera by Benjamin Britten called Albert Herring - for a company of young opera singers called British Youth Opera - and when I leave here this afternoon I’ll be going off to give a talk to some patrons before that production has its final performance.

I’ve had some amazing times and some horrible experiences in my professional life - there have been days when I’ve wanted to give it all up - and other days where I couldn’t imagine myself being more in love with my work. But I believe those extremes of happiness and unhappiness, that professional turbulence, comes from the simple fact that I’ve been doing what you are doing - what you’ve shown you can do in completing your studies here - you’ve been leading what the playwright David Mamet calls your ‘Epic Lives’.

What does he mean by this? Well, perhaps he means that as professional actors and directors and performers and theatre-makers we’ve ended up doing something we love, rather than settling for something that might be a safer option - because we have an undeniable passion for our work, and an irresistible appetite for getting on and doing it. None of you would be here today if you hadn’t displayed, probably from a very early age, a passion for this craft of yours, this vocation, this calling to be a performer.

And, on this important day, when most of you are reaching the end of your formal studies, I want you to take a moment to get back touch with whatever it was that made you fall in love with performing in the first place - whatever it was that gave you that sense of vocation - whatever it was that made you realise you just had to take that bold step to embrace your destiny, because that’s really what it is, and pursue your career as an actor.

And I’d like you, just to take a moment, to banish whatever those critical voices are that come and try to sabotage this special dream you are living. Whatever, or whoever, it is that brings you down, that collapses your ambition, that robs you of good energy and fills you with toxic thoughts, jealousy or despondency - whatever the demons are who tell you you’ll never be as good as so-and-so, or that tell you’ll never make it… wherever those negative voices are coming from, I want you to just take the decision, in this moment, to push them away.

Because, look at us, right now, my goodness - we’re actually alive. In a hundred years time we’ll all be dust, but right now we’re alive - we’re thriving. And you are all in such a special position - because, right now, you are standing at the edge of the aircraft door - your parachute, your skill, your training, your ambition - that parachute is firmly fixed and you’re ready to jump.

Don’t forget that for every one of you here, there are many, many others, who didn’t have your courage, your tenacity, your talent, your stamina. There are hundreds of hopefuls who came to audition here, and who didn’t get chosen. They didn’t get the places that were offered to you. There are many who will have picked up the Arts Ed Prospectus, and thought about applying, but who, when push came to shove, didn’t have your bravery or your audacity - to stand up and pursue their dreams.

To reach graduation today, you’ve all shown that you are dedicated and committed to honouring this gift you’ve been given - this in-born talent. And all of you, to reach this special day, will have had to battle against fatigue and criticism and self-doubt and probably horrendous debts…

But, you’ve done it. Well done!

I’m delighted to be asked here to speak on this important day - because it really is a defining moment in your lives. It’s the end of something - the culmination of your rigorous training here at Arts Ed, and it’s a hell of an exacting course here - but it’s the beginning of the next phase of your exciting lives.

So, I’ve come here to say congratulations.

And to say well done.

And to say you must be mad. You are - you’re all quite mad.

Mad to think that of all the many hundreds of drama school graduates, that you, personally, are going to be among the lucky ones who make successful careers out of their acting - mad to have the audacity to get up on stage at all and perform, when most of the world is stuck in sensible work doing jobs which pay a regular income, taking very few risks, serving their time, for years on end, going to the same work-place every day, waiting for pay-day or or annual leave or the Office Party, or the security of pension and slippers.

Do you know how many people do jobs they don’t even like, just to maintain a material lifestyle they’ve got used to? Have you any idea what percentage of the population longs for the weekend and dreads going back to work on a Monday morning? Have you any idea how many people push their passions into their limited spare time, or even sadder, how many people don’t have much in the way of passion at all?

But you, you inveterate Maddoes, have chosen to do something different with your lives, you’ve chosen to seize the day and live your dreams and live your Epic Lives. You, with your spirit of play and child-like talent for invention - You are the grown-ups who haven’t forgotten how to skip.

You Mad People. You Crazy Dreamers.

But do you know what? This messed-up world needs dreamers today as much, if not more, than it has ever done. It needs people like you, performers who are prepared to entertain, to invigorate, to tell a gripping story, to investigate issues, to cajole, to teach, to provoke: to bring audiences together and to transcend the mundane and the normal and the sensible and the secure and the earth-bound.

Today, just for today, and one day at a time from tomorrow, try not to let anyone limit your dreams. In this world where so often the Cynic is King, see if you can find kindred spirits who can help you realise your imaginative goals. Look out for other Maddoes, those real collaborators and true friends - and, as Shakespeare says ‘grapple them to your soul with hoops of steel’.

There’ll be rejection and heartache and turbulence. But there’s no turbulence on an aircraft when it’s stuck on the runway - only when it’s up in the air and flying. Going places.

Around you are kindred spirits, who, until today, were your fellow students. Here are the visionary tutors and inspirational mentors, all the colleagues who you’ll hook up with many times in your professional careers, because every actor lives many lives in the space of his or her professional life. And you just never know where or when the creative seeds you plant along the way are going to germinate and bear fruit.

Don’t forget that if acting is a craft, there’ll never be another actor exactly like you - your gift is as individual as your fingerprint or your DNA. The more you practice your craft, the more your expertise will grow. So use those skills you’ve been equipped with here at Arts Ed, and seek out other skills, watch other actors working, not in a spirit of envy, but with the professional interest of a fellow craftsman. What are they up to? How does it work? Sharpen your observations of everyday life around you, so that you can ‘hold a mirror up to nature’, keep your tools in good repair - feed your gifts.
Relish your talent. Burn brightly. We wish you all the luck in the world.

I want to finish with the words of one brave man. You may have noticed that in the upstairs corridor - just along from the Acting Department Office, there’s a framed quotation on the wall.

Here’s a brief extract, and don’t worry about the God stuff - if you're not religious just substitute Thespis, the first actor, and the classical god of theatre, who everyone here believes in, for the word God used in the this text:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God (or Thespis). Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God (or Thespis)...that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Those words are attributed to Nelson Mandela. And I found them hanging on the wall in a corridor here at Arts Ed. How very apt. How very Arts Ed.

Graduates, on Graduation Day - we Salute You!

We salute you.


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