“You as artists are such important participants in bringing the best of the human experience to the inhabitants of this bruised and troubled planet,” Joseph W. Polisi, Juilliard’s president, told the school’s 266 graduates. “America and the world need new leadership to literally fight to bring the arts back into our schools, our communities, our souls.” He was speaking at the school’s 112th commencement, which took place May 19 in Alice Tully Hall. (See the commencement highlights video.)
The commencement address was given by Stephen McKinley Henderson, who exhorted the soon-to-be grads to embrace “revolutionary optimism” as they go out into “conflicted, polarizing times.” Henderson was one of two Juilliard alums—the other was Carla Maxwell—to receive honorary degrees, which were also bestowed on Thomas Adès, Dick Hyman, Frayda Lindemann, and Martina Arroyo. Here’s an edited excerpt of his speech.
Hail to thee, Juilliard School graduates of the Class of 2017. I am honored and humbled by the invitation to address you today. Honored, because this great conservatory is among the most prestigious nurturers of performance artists in the world. And, humbled, frankly, because it has taken me 49 years to get a degree from [here]. Even for an honorary doctorate that has to be some kind of record. For those of you who have achieved your credentials in a more traditional time frame, I salute you. You are joining an honorable body of alumni who welcome you for what you have endured, absorbed, and mastered.
I’ll begin with a unifying memory. Did you know students have to audition to be accepted here? It is like trying a case before the Supreme Court without the benefit of having gone to law school. Not only are the impartial judges intimidating; the teachers, family, and friends who believed in you are now a burden. Disappointing everyone is suddenly a frightening possibility. You manage to get through the audition without completely embarrassing yourself—and then the interminable wait to see if you were deemed worthy of further study. Whether this is a matter of weeks, days, or hours there is a life sentence looming over your head. Then finally, the phone call or official letter that changes the trajectory of your little life.
It is fitting you recall that validation today. The ecstatic exhilaration shared with everyone who believes in you back then is back again. That successful audition was the inciting incident that helped power you through the countless crisis moments of your Juilliard years. The exacting rigor of your performance training was no doubt nerve-wracking and entirely unpredictable. But you loved it, I know you did. I know I did. I enjoy acting now but in 1968, I loved to act, I loved every class and every teacher’s challenge, loved the building. And I’m not talking about the current edifice or before the last renovation, or the historic old stone building where the subway comes out of the ground on Broadway at the mouth of Harlem.
But before I stroll down memory lane about that, I’ll confide in you why I am proud to place an imprimatur on this day. The first goal of the current Juilliard mission reads: Juilliard will identify and attract the most talented young performing artists from around the world and will strive to ensure that financial considerations are not a deterrent to their enrollment. The entire mission statement and all seven goals are cogent and laudatory, but this first tenet was hard-earned. It demands continued dedication throughout our nation’s changing political and economic forecasts.
Back to 1968. The drama division was a temporary resident of the International House uptown on Claremont Avenue, and my dear friend Mike Darden and I had the job of setting up the chairs before classes each day. Any work-study job was worth it to be part of that inaugural class. Nevertheless, no amount of work-study could augment the drop in financial support for the Division as the second year students were accepted. A number of talented students were cut at the end of the first year and midway through the second year. Cuts due to poor evaluations existed in the other disciplines of course but financial need plagued each subsequent drama group. [But now, because of the Drama Division’s most recent director, James Houghton], President Polisi, and ongoing contributors, that first goal of the mission statement is now a possibility for all.
When an institution welcomes a diverse population of gifted artists, inevitably, socioeconomic and cultural experiences surface in challenging ways. But the benefits to our arts community and to our national identity justifies all the awkwardness as we stumble forward. This is where you come to expand and elevate your gift; to deepen and enrich it. And in the process your humanity is enriched as well. These young artists encounter great compositions, choreography and dramatic literature and are opened by it. They are opened to an international, multicultural, interdenominational, and ultra-gendered cacophony. Even with all those vibrant, noisy differences there are moments when the corridors are silent. There’s a reverence at the core of the verve. These students with innate ability struggle arduously with challenging techniques and approaches. Eventually, victoriously, those skills become second nature for them. Instructors here have the great joy of encouraging those born for flight to soar. You’ve been prepared to soar.
Your post-Juilliard life commences today but the training goes on through adventures you cannot fathom or predict. Amazing women and men who have preceded you on this path are contributing to the cultural life of our world. Juilliard’s excellence is visible from Cleveland to London, from Denver to Dublin. As professors and performers, your fellow alumni are giving service to the world in the arts. Whatever the venue, their standard is excellence. If you have a different way of working on Broadway than in Boise, you do not deserve to work either place. I recall working Purdue Summer Theatre in Indiana following my graduate work there. I had worked many seasons there while in school and thought those days were over, but it was welcome employment when work in regional theater was a little thin. Of the four plays offered that summer one was a musical in which I was to change the scenery and sing, or appear to be singing, in the chorus. This show had a strange little fantasy play within a play involving a dragon, and I was the hind part of the dragon encased within a very heavy costume with my head firmly up against the actual hind part of an actor named George Novotny. After a Saturday matinee, the cast went for a meal. I didn’t notice when George ordered a chili dog with an added side of chili. And he ate it all. Who does that? That evening show during the dragon’s big dance number, well, first it was a soundless, almost harmless release. However, as our synchronized four-legged choreography continued an explosion occurred inside that hermetically sealed costume. The more I held my breath the more hellish was the next inhalation. When the segment concluded, we removed the costume and bowed.
While I was inside that horror chamber, I had quite a revelation. I had fallen far below the promise of the Juilliard years. Here I was back in the Midwest doing summer stock on an Equity waiver contract. It was time to look for a real job.
At the end of the night as I made my way past the audience members fawning over the ingénues, an attractive older woman called to me, “Mr. Henderson?” I stopped. “My husband [would] like to speak to you if you don’t mind.” Her husband was a surgeon who had been a fan of my dramatic work when I was in grad school. His wife begged him to come to the theater with her that evening to get his mind off the patient he’d lost that day. The doctor said his mind was miles away while he was watching the show until, he said, “There was something about the expression on your face when you came out of that dragon costume that made me laugh.” He and his wife thanked me for that laugh then drove away.
Mark Twain wrote, “The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.” You have only one birthday but if you are fortunate, there are character-defining events throughout your journey that validate your struggles. Poet/playwright/polemist Amiri Baraka told me in 2011 that he had arrived at Revolutionary Optimism. In times such as these, optimism is a revolutionary act. All the arts are as essential as oxygen. The only reason the 1960s are associated with love and peace” is because musicians were crying out for it. There was actually less love and less peace than at any time in our nation’s history other than our Revolution or the Civil War.
I suggest that in these conflicted polarizing times we require performing artists with fearless revolutionary optimism. More than ever you must be freed by technique to discover and innovate, balancing precision and passion. Don’t get it right, get it true. Support the arts and encourage other artists. Encourage everyone in the earnest pursuit of his or her dreams, even lawyers. Remember that reviews and fan mail are not must reading.
Finally, I will take a leaf from the page of one of my most cherished mentors. He taught here in the Drama Division briefly in his retirement from Yale University after making a legendary contribution to the American theater. In his final years of teaching when the semester ended, on the final day of class Lloyd Richards would say, “Well, friends of culture, the time has come to gather your belongings. Pack what you can, put the rest in your heart, and go. The world is waiting for you.”