Last Updated June 20, 2008

Spring 2001 Commencement

American University
College of Arts and Sciences Commencement Address
Molly Smith

Good afternoon Trustees, President Ladner, Provost Kerwin, Dean Mussell, Graduates, Family, Friends and especially mothers including my own mother. I am delighted to be here today.

As I look out on your faces, I can feel the pure pleasure and exhilaration of this moment . . . finally . . . graduating! . . . an incredible possession . . . a degree from this excellent University will open doors for you throughout the rest of your life. This is an accomplishment many would like to have.

And, you have something else that many people would like to possess . . . a fire in the belly. This fire in the belly is about your passion . . . your chosen field of work . . . your world view. I’m here to tell you that you need to protect it, fuel it, feed it with ideas and goals—because many would like to take it away from you. Oh, you know the signs, the people who throw water on an idea before it’s had a chance to grow, the ones who would rather give destructive rather than constructive criticism because then they can try to steal a piece of your fire. But it’s up to you to protect the fire from all comers, to hold it in your belly—because the dreams you have today are what will get you out of bed every morning, the dreams you have today will fuel your life’s work, the dreams you have today will take you through the difficult days.

I had dreams when I graduated from AU twenty-five years ago. I wanted to start a theater in Alaska—most people thought I was crazy, but I nurtured that dream and protected if from naysayers for many years. I wouldn’t allow anyone to throw water on my fire. A year after I graduated from AU, I hauled 50 used theater seats back to Alaska to start Perseverance Theater. I thought it would take 5 years, but in five months the theater was born. That fire in my belly grew in other bellies for the 19 years that I ran the theater. I am happy to say that Perseverance Theater is healthy and strong today with the new artistic leadership even after I left three years ago to become Artistic Director of Arena Stage, one of the most important theaters in the country. Now I have new dreams at Arena—to provide a home for American voices in the theater, a place to hear the diverse, vibrant voices who tell the stories of our country.

There is something else I had in college that I have carried with me—deep friendships. Look around you today—who are the friends you want to carry with you through life? Who are the ones who have loved you when you felt unlovable, the ones who listened when you needed to talk . . . Your college friends can be your greatest source of support and nourish you for decades to come. Let me tell you about two of my friends . . .

The first I met while an undergraduate, a transfer student at Catholic University. I found a kindred soul—we drank cheap wine into the night, brainstormed on a musical about Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President at the turn of the century and talked about the revolution of theater as an art form. Later after college, we produced her plays at Perseverance Theater in Alaska at a time when other theaters were afraid to produce her work. Not anymore. Her name is Paula Vogel and two years ago she won the Pulitzer Prize for her breakthrough play, How I Learned to Drive.

The second friend is one I met here at AU when I studied for my master’s degree. I learned about acting and directing from this woman, we wrote our master’s theses in two different rooms of her house on our separate typewriters cheering each other on as I wrote about Susan Glaspell and she, the Chinese Opera—Her name is Joy Zinoman, and she started a wonderful theater here in Washington . . . The Studio Theatre.

By the way, the same year I graduated from AU, another founder—Bart Whiteman created Source Theatre, another excellent theater, which continues to thrive 20 years later and, of course, AU’s own Director of Theater and Musical Theater, Gail Humphries. We were the first graduating class with a Master’s Degree in Theater.

These friendships with Paula and Joy have sustained and nourished me, these are friends that know me well, have supported me. Today, I urge you to look around at your friends—care for them and protect them—because they are vitally important—like that fire in the belly.

Dreamers here at American University have envisioned a tremendous future for the fine arts that is now part of your collective vision . . . to build the Katzen Arts Center here at AU. Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen have ignited the dream with their fiery love for the arts. The Trustees and President Benjamin Ladner will stoke the flames . . . and America University will welcome a state of the art facility on Massachusetts Avenue that ill enhance all that is already strong about the School of the Arts at American University.

I can only imagine how complex this world looks to you right now. I feel a deep sense of mourning in your generation as the Dot-coms are crashing all around us—because indeed this was your revolution in the same way that mine was the Vietnam War. But from this loss will come other ideas, other quiet or loud revolutions—because each of you have the fire, the intensity and the passion to make it happen. These revolutions can be personal . . . caring for those closest to you in your neighborhoods and homes . . . or they can be global, as you examine the needs of the world and our very special place in it.

Whatever your fire may be . . . big or small . . . bold or quiet . . . hold it close. This fire in your belly—is ANYTHING that is important to you. Your fire might be running for U.S. President, starting a theater company r ensuring that you see your grandmother every day.

As Mary Oliver—much admired, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet of Provincetown, Massachusetts writes in her poem:

The Journey
From Dream Work

One day you finally knew
what you had to do and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations—
though their melancholy
was terrible. It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world, determined to do
the only thing you could do—determined to save
the only life you could save.

American University Graduates . . . I am delighted to be among the first to welcome you to your new world as a graduate—to a world which is wonderful, frustrating, exhilarating, painful, beautiful, ridiculous, ordered, insane, fantastic . . . and most of all, unpredictably thrilling. This is our human condition. There is no getting around it . . . we are in control of very little in our lives . . . but the one thing we can control is keeping our dreams alive.

Quoting Mary Oliver again . . . she asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” As the first America University graduating class of the 21st Century, I have a wish for each one of your wild and precious lives . . . an abundance of FIRE. Thank you!