Hang on - this will only take a second - but I have to take your picture!
Hello my Name is Jo Ann Cimato and my favorite Movie is Finding Nemo. I am taking a huge risk by introducing myself to you here at the Rose Theatre in New York City. Thank you.
On behalf of Ms. Lacey, Mr. Streep and the entire Beacon faculty I am so honored to stand before you this morning and celebrate the Beacon Graduating class of 2012. I have been blessed and lucky to teach ¾ of this graduating class. I have traveled to Greece, Italy, New Hampshire and Nebraska with them. I have made plays and told stories and manufactured tiny theatrical miracles in their care. I have wept with them and laughed with them. Over the course of these four years we have learned together in an endless cycle of Socratic discourse and playful debate about images, music, art and society and the power of the chosen word. I personally thank you for bringing such remarkable young people into this world.
Now you. All of you. My beautiful cherubs.
Close your eyes. Seriously. Close them. Remember your very first day of school when you were a teeny tiny person who was even shorter than Ms. Cimato. Remember your too big backpack, your new shoes and your first teacher’s face. Your first friend.
And now open your eyes and look around this magnificent space. Who can you see from where you are? Your family? Your best friend? The people who interviewed you? The teacher that made you crazy? Or cut you the most slack? Can you see someone who helped you through a horrible situation? Someone that you helped? Someone that made you laugh to the point of tears? Or question everything you knew to the point that you could not help but know something else? Take stock of this moment. This sea of smiles. This wall of love. That swell in your chest. That racing heart. That palpable sweat on your palms. That is pride. And you’ve earned it. Congratulations.
Now if you are anything like the generations of American teenagers before you graduating high school is the right of passage that provides the gateway to the rest of your wonderfully impatient life. You spend twelve years of school counting down to this very moment.
But perhaps in all the hoopla it has dawned on you that even if next year is already planned – there is an inevitable cloud of “um… now what?” hanging over the glory of this day.
Most of you are 18, or nearly 18, and legally the ball of wax that is your life is finally in your own hands. Now ain’t that a scary little prospect? You counted down the days to this? You WANT to be in charge? You WANT to pay the bills?
Yes. You do. And you deserve the keys to the car of your own heart and I hope I can offer you a little parting advice to keep you from wrecking the chassis on your first road trip. You see- if you haven’t noticed I live a little close to the surface – or in layman’s terms I feel A LOT. I used to consider this fact a hardship, but then I realized that there was a career in my emotional availability and I help lots of other sloppy feelers make a business out of their natural responsiveness to the world. At least I try.
In her novel The Passion Jeannette Winterson slapped me upside the head with what would become the thesis of my life and career. She says, “You play, you win, you play, you lose. You play. It’s the playing that’s irresistible. Dicing from one year to the next with the things you love, what you risk reveals what you value.”
For me what I risk IS what I value. I value playfulness. Generosity. Love. Kindness. Colors. Textures. Paisleys. Clovers. Eye contact. Listening. My niece’s laughter. My father’s hands.
To me, acting is a craft not unlike carpentry. I really do believe you can learn to build a chair as easily as you can learn to perform Shakespeare. Yes. Actors work. It is not just luck, “talent” –whatever that means - or charisma. Actors wrestle with the human heart and psyche the way my father manipulates wood, steel and countless rows of 0s and 1s to create incredible things.
When I was a teenager, my father and I could not have been be more alien to each other, with the exception of our dimples. The engineer and the artist at constant odds. My emotional eruptions terrified him. When I asked him to explain long division he started a lesson on quantum mechanics.
In the musical The Light In the Piazza, by Adam Guettel, Fabrizzio’s little Italian mother, confides in the audience “Risk is everything/ Without risk there is no drama/ Without drama there is no "aiutami"/ Without asking for help/ No love! No love!”
Choosing a career in the arts was the ultimate risk for me. But being a theatre artist has proven to me that Risk IS everything. Because without risk there IS no story, no narrative. No help! And thus no human connection. And no reward.
Each one of you took a risk when you choose Beacon. You trembled through your interview because we were the rouge choice! The indecisive choice. Or maybe the back up choice? But we were the choice that would not force you into a major at 14 years old or cram you into a trajectory of ability-tracked course work. But we were also the choice without a real campus. The choice with out a whole lot of paper? But we were the choice with a heck of a lot of heart. What you risk is what you value.
When I came to Beacon I pretended to know what I was doing – but I had never directed a fully staged musical before, never mind design and build everything to go along with it. I desperately needed help so I swallowed my pride and called my dad. “Aiutami! Means help me in Italian. Aiutami! Aiutami!”
It started with a trap door, and then some swords and then a pay phone, a Lucite crown and a popgun. These are all props or set pieces my father built for B’DAT productions. But you have to understand, my father doesn’t do anything to meet expectations. He exceeds them. He is obsessive. Compulsive. My father could never just make a simple wood sword. He had to make two-toned, beveled edged, safety inspected sword with a hilt.
Nearing seventy, idle hands still terrify him in the same way they terrify me. In kindergarten I remember being separated from the class and seated at an “art table” in the back of the room. I was isolated because I was wiggly could not stop talking – heavy Brooklyn accent and all – or wondering around - while the “good kids” learned letters and numbers. But the art table was safe. I could listen to the lesson and busy my hands making things; paper dolls, paper frogs, giant hearts that I cut out for every kid in my class. Making things gave me purpose when my too restless little self could not find the will to focus.
Yes Beacon I still compulsively multi-task and wear my heart on my sleeve, and so do most of you. And true, the heart gets bumped and bruised and sometimes over-looked even by those who are staring right at its tough little shell. Especially between classes, where I have to been known to grab the backpack of the tallest kid I can find to practically escort me from one side of the building to the other.
Yes our school is overcrowded and yes the Freshman can be so oddly polite that they still line up outside their classrooms like middle-schoolers and yes the sophomores seem to be laying on every square inch of the hallways doing lord knows what – but most of the traffic is you. High fiving and kissing and hugging everyone you know on the way to class – or was it to the coffee cart?
This boundless love is a choice. Kindness is a choice. A choice to be vulnerable. A choice to be humble. A choice to care. A choice to be velveteen bunny real and clear blue sky sincere. I try to choose love every second of every day and it rocks.
So on the very first day of freshman drama Mr. Lally asked you to “stick your neck out” or I asked you to “make your debut”. Consider that what we both wanted for each of you – what every person in this room wants for you – is for you to trust your heart enough turn each risk you take into an opportunity to find love in abundant returns. And now that we are sharing this glorious day I assure you that you are armed with the right tools for the job.
You are highly intelligent, articulate and creative people. That is what brought you together. That is why we chose you. That is why you chose us. We are a community of black sheep. An eclectic collection of “other” that somehow manages to make sense. We are a complex jazz improvisation of modulations and complicated metaphors. We are a place where the status quo doesn’t really survive. Our limit does not exist… either.
Your most quirky faculty can only hope that we have provided for you portals to self-discovery an independent thought. That every PBA brought you closer to trusting your ability to be critical and articulate your valuable opinions. That each creative project offered access to points of view out side the boxes of a traditional education fraught with the traditional expectations of we teach you repeat.
Quite on the contrary at Beacon our expectations have demanded that you observe, assess and problem solve over and over again. We’ve demanded that you exceed expectations and you have. Mr. Elkins always says that the low hanging fruit on a tree might be easy to grab but the fruit on the top is worth the climb. It is sweeter, closer to the sun and worth the sweat and skinned knees. Besides, climbing the tree itself is kind of the fun part, no?
You now own the climb, the rhythm of inquiry is like the cycle of your own breathing and I challenge you thus to observe this big beautiful ugly world and assess what you see for all that you can. Problem-solve your path through the quagmire. Wear your New York like a badge of honor.
It fills me with such hope knowing that you have so much power to create change. You are empathetic and playful and grateful and ambitious. Hilarious and whimsical and generous. You are just so darn nice and I challenge you to choose authenticity over and over again as you steer you way through winding country roads and stall on five lane highways with nothing but red lights for miles.
For no matter what that tiny screen in your hand tells you, you cannot buy your life. There certainly is no app for that. No one is going to have the ability to speed up the traffic or find you a short cut. You have to take the wheel and try. You can’t wait. You simply have to take charge of this creative project that is your life on your own. To build. To cultivate. To curate. To make it work.
But what if the trying is not enough? So many times we try and try and try but nothing changes. Yet consider this- Imagine there is a wall between you and everything you've ever wanted. You can push on that wall for 30 years and it is still going to be a wall. If you need a door you're going to have to build yourself a door. Build it with music. Build it with words. Build it on film. Build it with science. Build it with advocacy. Build it with the family that raised you and the company you keep. Build it with a cheeky grin. Build it with your children. Build it with each other.
My poor father. While raising three daughters it was obvious that he so desperately wanted on of us to pursue engineering. He ended up with an Architect, a Statistician and me – the math-phobic theatre artist – loving a profession, which he forbade me to pursue for fear that I would not eat.
Yet his eyes twinkle when he asks for his next “assignment” before each play. At each performance he marvels at what Beacon students have built. The vast expanse between engineer and artist, father and child, mentor and student disappears and I see a young man’s eyes aflame with the wonder of “what if” and I see myself engineering rigging and special effects and design far beyond what I could even imagine my first day at Beacon eight years ago.
He is an artist. I am an engineer. There is just so little distinction really between the two worlds once so far apart. Nor are they different from a scholar, a doctor, a lawyer, a parent, a teacher, a scientist, a storyteller, an accountant, counselor, salesman, statesman, sailor, solder, tailor, spy. It isn’t what you do – it is why.
At Beacon we are all proof that if you spend your life doing what you love, it may never have to feel like work. Do you know how many times a year I laugh so hard at school that I simply cannot believe that NYC cuts me a check twice a month? Like right now! I’m at “work” right now. This is crazy to me.
We are amphibious creatures; musical historians, mathematical sportsmen, crafty linguists, lawyers who are as accomplished in the kitchen as they are in the classroom. Putting each other in boxes is just so horrible. I’m so grateful that we can agree to see beyond the limitations of convention and cultivate a school culture that celebrates difference as key component of excellence. When you collect over 1,000 hearts that beat to the rhythm of their own drum it makes such a crazy wonderful noise!
That said- I’m sure there will be moments when you feel yourself banging your little drum in a vapid expanse of solitude and it hardly makes a sound. You may wish for a hundred-piece marching band to magically come to your rescue and hear nothing but silence in reply. These are the moments that I hope you will remember this day. Remember where you came from. Remember this community take a deep breath and fill the void with the power of your own miraculous voice.
Honoring your creative spirit will hurdle you over life’s road bumps and constructing related detours. For this life may require a hardhat, safety goggles and power tools because often you have to tear through what is in the way before you can rearrange the parts and build something new. After all we are all artists after all, just experimenting with forms and hoping what we create is worthy of the inevitable judgment we’ll face.
Eleanor Roosevelt said it best when she commanded “Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you'll be criticized anyway. You'll be damned if you do and damned if you don't.”
So I challenge you to risk the judgment and create your life with a smile more powerful than your resume. The haters can go on and hate and hopefully you might not even notice. Perhaps you’ll change their minds. I challenge you to be the artist of your own image.Observe. Assess. Problem Solve. Experiment. Create. Engineer. Yourself.
You will find your way to your career, your future, your joy - by means of a million accolades and mistakes. My unique path of party quirks lead me to all of you. The little girl who laughed too much and sang too loud and cried and cried and cried can lasso an image with a wish and spin a story without a moment’s hesitation all because of you. Big beautiful scary you who teach me constantly. You inspire me to try harder. Believe more. Risk everything. Create joy. Build community. Help people grow.
My favorite playwright, Samuel Beckett wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Every time I fall flat on my face I remember his advice, dust myself off and try something else. So lastly I challenge you to fail better. In fact, I challenge you to sometimes let yourself fail gently and with great aplomb.
What will you risk? What will you value? And how can articulating the answer to both bring you one step closer to driving the chassis of your own beating heart?
Beacon class of 2012, I cannot help but ask you, what is your art?