…what can they say about the world through a sustained career if they’ve not also honed the tools of discovering and analyzing the world?
I came to Princeton because I knew I wanted a life in the theater, but I also knew I wasn’t done with my academic work. My fear was that if I went to a school with a big theater major and I wasn’t a major, I’d be number 256 on the list and wouldn’t be able to participate at all.
So I purposefully backed myself into a corner. Four years with lots of opportunities to make theater but no vocational major. I was free to choose an academic discipline for no other reason than it fascinated me. And I chose philosophy.
Well, I thought it wasn’t vocational, but as it turned out, I use it everyday. The training is how to analyze a text, how to create an argument, how to unpack a question. Everyday, lifelong skills. But beyond the skills, to study philosophy is to formulate how you see the world, what is right and wrong, how you want to live, who you want to be.
And that is the core of an artist. To me, art begins because an artist has something to say about the world. Then there’s technique. But without that point of view, technique is hollow.
I’m not a fan of undergraduate conservatory for this reason. Seventeen-year-olds focused exclusively on technique, on the sound of the voice, on the shape of the body. But what can they say about the world through a sustained career if they’ve not also honed the tools of discovering and analyzing the world?
So to me, the liberal arts education is the foundation of the artist. All of the different academic disciplines offer us slightly different ways into the same basic question: What can you know of the world? How do you see it? And from there, the artist wants to say something about what she sees, what he sees.
At school, my time in theater was not just about what I learned of the world, but also what I learned of myself. And isn’t that the other tenet of the liberal arts education?
My first show was in the fall of my sophomore year at 185 Nassau Street, a theatrically adventurous production of the epic play Danton’s Death. We all played multiple roles, and one of mine was a French mistress. As I had always felt, the things that made me wrong in the world—the sound of my voice, the way I held my body—made me right on stage.
A few months later, I came out.
That spring I was cast in the Theatre Intime production of The Maids, Jean Genet’s transgressive, provocative account of two maids play-acting at being and murdering their employer. Written for men to play these women, it was all about artifice, performance, role play. Full makeup, full gowns, full feminine. What made me wrong made me righter than I had ever been.
A few years and many plays later, still at school, another realization/exploration. I wasn’t an actor. Didn’t want to be. Didn’t need to be. As I became more and more comfortable with who I was, I became less and less interested in being someone else. As I claimed my voice as my own, as I claimed my body as my own, trying to change them to play a role started to feel like a burden rather than a safe harbor.
To find who you are not, as a way into finding who you are. To find out what you believe and how you want to express it. I found my way because of the constant artistic exploration on stage and the constant academic exploration offstage that is Princeton.