There is almost no space on Princeton’s campus where I have not been surprised by flagrant acts of the imagination …

michael-2Some of you will know how dance impresario Sergei Diaghilev responded to the young and untested Jean Cocteau when the latter announced that he would like to work on a ballet: “Surprise me!” That’s what the imagination can do for us—surprise us out of our sense of what we think we know about ourselves, about art, and about the world around us. The surprise can come from anyone and happen anywhere.

There is almost no space on Princeton’s campus where I have not been surprised by flagrant acts of the imagination perpetrated by students, colleagues, and visiting professionals. We make art—and open ourselves to the art that others make—in the hope that the process will help us understand some aspect of life just a little bit better. Working and playing here have given me plenty such opportunities.   

When I came to Princeton in 1983, I wasn’t planning on this long a gig. I was initially overwhelmed by how much arts activity was on view. I had been aware of the Triangle Club before I came, of course, and I knew about the Program in Theater and Dance because it was headed up by my friend Alan Mokler MacVey. But every student I taught seemed to be involved in one art form or another, writing a novel with Joyce Carol Oates, playing in the University Orchestra, exhibiting paintings at 185 Nassau Street. I swear that one academic year six of my advisees were Tigertones who also acted in and directed plays and musicals. I’d work late in the office on the night of arch sings so that I could end my day on a gleeful high note. This no doubt explains why the ’Tones’s mid-’80s repertoire figures largely in my funeral arrangements!   

In 1993, I was named director of the Program in Theater and Dance. Collaborating with the indomitable dancer and choreographer Ze’eva Cohen and our savvy program manager Ruth Carden taught me a lot about how to get Princeton to think bigger when it came to the arts, how to get things for our students that would help them expand their imaginations and those of their audiences. Fortunately, President Harold Shapiro *64 and his team were open to new ideas: for example, when Roger Berlind ’52 enthusiastically spearheaded the plan to build a new theater to be shared by the program and McCarter Theatre, then as now in the capable hands of Artistic Director Emily Mann. When we cut the ribbon in 2003, I remember thinking, “Well, I’ve done my bit.”   

We make art—and open ourselves to the art that others make—in the hope that the process will help us understand some aspect of life just a little bit better.

Presidents Shirley Tilghman and Chris Eisgruber ’83 had and have other ideas, and it’s been surprise after surprise after surprise ever since—including being named the second chair of the Peter B. Lewis Center for the Arts. It was a special honor to take the role over from our inaugural chair, my friend, colleague, and co-conspirator Paul Muldoon, who coined the center’s informal but forceful motto: “Princeton in the service of the imagination.”   

Our current first-year students, the Class of 2018, will be the first to use the arts facilities we are building across from the Berlind Theatre—because of its proximity to Alexander Street, we refer to the area as Berlind Alexanderplatz!—to accommodate the growth of our arts curriculum. More space to imagine, more space to play, more space to surprise.  

Michael Cadden

Photographs by Kah Leong Poon

Five Questions with Professor Cadden

Read an interview with Michael Cadden on giving.princeton.edu on the importance of making art …

Credits

This article was originally published in 2015 by the Princeton University Office of Development Communications. It has been reprinted and adapted for the web with permission.

Photography by Kah Leong Poon

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