Last Updated June 20, 2008

2006 Commencement

American University
College of Arts and Sciences
Commencement Address
Michael Kahn, Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company
May 14, 2006
[as delivered]

Thank you, Provost Broder, President Kerwin, Chairman Abramson, Dean Mussell and Matt Klaus for inviting me and congratulations to you, the graduating class of 2006.

Before I say my remarks I have to confess to one thing, that this is my first graduation, and I’ve told you so it’s fair. I wanted to be a director in the theatre since I was five years old, when I was just a bossy kid. But, I was so involved in the theatre that when I went to Columbia University; I was a pretty good student, but I kept leaving to do plays. So by the seventh year of still being an undergraduate, they finally called me up and said, ‘we could graduate you Mr. Kahn, but you still have a half of year of gym left.’ I said, ‘I’m going to kill myself, and if I don’t kill myself you’re going to have to name a school after me, so they graduated me.’ So, I’m pleased to be at my graduating along with yours.

I am honored to receive this degree, along with all the other people that have received this degree over the years. And, I really feel privileged to speak to you on such an important day in your lives.

If you are anything like I was, and I just told you, so I hope you’re nothing like I was. I know you are very excited to be through with this, no matter how lovely and wonderful it was and eager to get on with the beginning of, you know… “that” – which actually happens to be the rest of your life.

You are understandably anxious, and I think you should be anxious in many different ways. Not only for the excitement of the future, but really for how difficult the world that we live in today.

If you are not; as we are the rest of us eager to do something about it, we’re in trouble because we actually need you.

And I hope that you realize that your goal should be not only to find and keep an exciting job, not only to earn the money you need for a good life and probably pay off your student loans, to meet that particular person with whom you will want to share that life. I hope your goal will also be to make the world a really better place. We need you. The rest of the world may not always know that know, but we do.

I stand up here today and think how lucky you are—you are on the very threshold of the rest of your life but, I also think it is an exciting and troubling and important time.

Now, I know that you probably asked me here because you have heard all about my theatre credits. And, I’m very pleased to be at this university where you just opened a new arts center which actually has proved its commitment to the arts as central to our lives. But, I thought, maybe, I’d like to talk, just a little bit, about a few thoughts on how I believe art itself can play a crucial part in helping you achieve the goal of changing the world; how the experience of art and the lessons it teaches us can help us live artistically, which I believe is one of the most valuable ways in which we can react, act and interact with in this world.

What are some of the lessons of art? What are the skills it gives us? For instance when we look at a painting, we may immediately think it is beautiful or ugly, we may quickly accept it or reject it based on familiarity or taste, and yet art will not let us do that, it will not let us off so easily. To experience it – to experience it fully – we must look at it again, and again, and look at it again. We get close to it, we move away from it to get another perspective. Close up, what may have seemed bulking, unyielding, is really composed of hundreds of small brush strokes, hundreds of decisions representing choice, feeling, proportion, taste, skill and individualism—the very hidden personality of the artist. What might have seem to be one color, is composed of many hues and many shades. And, when we step back again, what seemed us to be a large mass, now has lightness and texture; humanity, subtlety, width and intention.

The same with music. Upon hearing a song or a symphony– especially if we are doing several other things at the same time – we may like or dislike it and let it go in one ear and out the other. But if you turn off the computer, or get off the exercise machine or pull the car over, take the keys out and really listen; and listen again and listen again, not only will you hear the melody, but also the countermelody. You’ll hear the chord changes that give us something new and move us, that surprises us, that makes us feel something, that we didn’t hear before and give us delight; changing what we thought we knew and heard into something richer and different. And finally see that the conflict between the traditional and the modern can come together and concur and make something new and beautiful.

When we see a film or a play, are we not asked to participate in a reality often foreign to us – to experience in the present the thoughts, feelings concerns – and experience with empathy – the lives of people and situations often very unlike our own.

These are some of the lessons art teaches us – if we let it. It takes practice, it takes discipline, it takes will, it takes patience, and it takes time. And, time is something in our busy world, we find very hard to take. But we have to do it.

And as I said earlier, that I believe you could make this world a better place if you were willing to learn to live “artistically,” I don’t mean you need to become an actor or playwright or a musician or a dancer, although if any of you want to be one, I encourage you, it’s a wonderful life. But, to take the lessons and the skills gained from the experience of art and bring them into our daily lives, into our action, reaction and interaction with the people around us, and the societies in which they live. Let us not be satisfied with simple acceptance or rejection based on our inclination or familiarity or unfamiliarity. Let us step closer and see, understand, admire and celebrate the complexity before us. Let us step back and see how this complexity creates the whole. Let us look for and be sensitive to nuance, to what is not stated obviously, to the play and struggle between the traditional and the new and see how in life and in art something unimagined and breathtaking can emerge from this encounter. You will be better colleagues, you’ll be better lovers, you’ll be better parents, you’ll be better citizens—you could change the world one person at a time starting with yourself.

Now, if I may, for just a minute because I know that there are some arts administrators here. I know it’s a wonderful school; we’ve had some interns at the theatre from here. I I would like to speak a little about how art can transform where we live and work – and how it has changed so much of Washington, D.C.

Almost 40 years ago, parts of this city was decimated by violence and riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Whole neighborhoods were destroyed; people deserted the center of the city for the suburbs and whole communities fell into neglect and disrepair, into chaos and crime, most especially downtown Washington.

But you, the class of 2006, wouldn’t know this, for today downtown is thriving, bustling, busy and filled day and night with people, restaurants, shops and clubs. And, even more miraculously thousands of occupied apartments. And this civic rejuvenation is due largely to the presence of art.

For instance, when twelve years ago the Shakespeare Theatre moved to its present home, the Lansburgh on 7 th Street, named for a large deserted department store that had been deserted, people thought we were crazy; that no one would come; that it wasn’t safe; that we were headed for disaster. Yet, we went ahead and by bringing over 400 people right to downtown to see art very soon the fear abated and other art groups, art galleries, craft exhibitions joined us. Other businesses decided to set up shop alongside the arts organizations and the next thing you know, the entire downtown area was transformed into a bustling, thriving culture. When we went to the City Council to seek help in building our new theatre, the Harman Center for the Arts, across from the Verizon Center on F Street, our appeal was supported by all the entrepreneurs around us who said they had moved to downtown because of us and that more than 20 percent of the business came from our patrons and the city itself recognized the enormous economic impact the arts had on D.C. The same thing has happened on 14 th Street when several theatres: Source, Wooly Mammoth, and Studio Theatre all started converting abandoned storefronts to arts spaces and a street that was once populated by pushers and pimps is now one of the most desirable neighborhoods in town.

The quality of life in the city, in any city, is defined by its arts community and by the residents who value art. President Kennedy understood this relationship between civic life and the art civic life when he said, “There is a connection, hard to explain logically, but easy to feel between achievement in public life and progress in the arts. The age of Pericles was also the age of Phidias. The age of Lorenzo de Medici was also the age of Leonardo da Vinci. The age of Elizabeth was also the age of Shakespeare.”

These words are etched onto the walk outside the Terrace Theatre at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. So, while art can define a culture and art institutions can define a city, the way we each experience art and allow it to teach and inspire us can help define our own lives and therefore the way we live individually can see and shape and change the world around us. For art is the oldest way we have to try to understand and tell the truth about who we and others are.

So, my advice to you, the class of 2006, is discover the truth within yourselves, and thus the truth of others. And as you move forward remember to step back and see the whole; as you encounter another go beyond the superficial assessment based on tradition or comfort and see the complexity and the structure, the humanity and the patterns underneath. Think how the world would be if we all lived like that.

Life is short and what we do matters. But I also want you to see life itself as art; with it light and darkness, its harmony and dissonance, its familiarity and its strangeness and its capacity to continually surprise and educate us and embrace it as you are embracing and celebrating your future—not just today and next month, but every day for the rest of your lives and find ways to be artists yourselves by finding out and speaking out in your own unique voice. Speak out about the things that matter most to you. And make them matter to others.

And, finally make art matter in any and every part of your life. It will help you and you will help the rest of us.

Thank you and congratulations.