The love of your life

Editor's note: The following Founders' Day address was delivered by James Michael Playwright-in-Residence and Assistant Professor of Drama Wendy MacLeod '81 on Thursday, October 31, at Rosse Hall.

As some of you know, I have long-held opinions about many things, and giving a speech presents an irresistible opportunity to express these long-held opinions. Although these opinions are mostly about art and entertainment, you have my word that my thoughts will apply to you whether you are pursuing the arts or something more sensible. And you have my word that I will stick to the subject and at least try not to rant.

The subject is Founders' Day and, by implication, foundations. Thinking about foundations led me to think about ladies' foundations, which as you may know refers to lingerie--but lingerie of substance--girdles, brassieres, that sort of thing. A few years ago I met a man who had made his fortune in ladies' foundations, after the war when nylon and rubber were again readily available. I visited his house in the north of England, where he had built an entire golf course for his pleasure. He was in his eighties at this point and no longer golfed, but many people were still employed to keep the greens green. In his old age he felt the cold, and his house was kept so warm that it felt like a hothouse. There he sat, watching the occasional sweaty visitor watching his golf course. This reminded me of what the esteemed literary critic George Steiner said to last year's graduating class, that the making of money is the saddest ambition on this Earth.

But you live in a world that values money, a world where a man betrays his wife and his employer and is rewarded with a $2.5-million book contract because that book will sell. And you live in a world that values physical beauty and celebrity. And there is no distinction made between fame for having actually accomplished something and infamy_they all fall under the same celebrity rubric, and suddenly Dick Morris has earned the right to lunch with the gifted writer Henry Louis Gates Jr. under the aegis of The New Yorker.

When I lived in the East Village, I did my writing in my neighborhood's public library, which was across the street from Tompkins Square Park. At that time there was a Hooverville in the park, a cluster of tents where the homeless camped out. Many of the homeless spent their days in the library to keep warm, and I befriended one man who spent his days reading People magazine. Now he was worried sick about Jane Fonda and everything that she was going through--what with her divorce from Tom Hayden and all. Seven years later, we know that Jane landed on her feet. I wish I could believe that my homeless friend did too.

So in this inverted world, the homeless are more concerned about Hollywood than Hollywood is about the homeless, and young people who used to want to write the Great American Novel now want to make movies. And I am not saying that one is art and the other is entertainment. Movies can be art, and I'm all for entertainment, but bad art is not art and it's not entertaining.

Hollywood lies to us in many ways, including casting impossibly beautiful and often surgically altered people to represent us. They lie to us by underrepresenting minority experience, including that of gays and lesbians. Hollywood demeans us by eliminating the complexities of our lives.

I was working on a play called Machines Cry Wolf, about parents with a sick baby in a neonatal intensive-care unit, when I discovered there was a television movie of a memoir called Born Too Soon, about a child born prematurely. I was curious and anxious to see how the movie was tackling a subject similar to my play's.

In this television movie, the nurses and doctors were unfailingly solicitous and upbeat, the other parents supportive. The movie was full of dramatic incidents. From experience, I can tell you that the nurses and doctors are impossibly busy, and, in order to function, they have to detach themselves from your pain, and they can't be too hopeful because they're afraid of lawsuits. The other parents can barely say hello to you because they have nothing left to give, every ounce of their strength having gone towards caring for their own child. And hospital stays are not dramatic. They are filled with long bouts of anxiety-ridden tedium, with trips to Au Bon Pain for coffee alternating with sobbing in the bathroom.

The movie makers did one brave thing: they allowed the child to die as he did in real life. But in the movie the parents learn something, they are better people for it, and--don't worry--they went on to have more children. The truth is that sometimes you don't learn anything from tragedy, you just ache, and the fact that they went on to have more children means something, but not everything, because children cannot be replaced like so much broken china.

All right, that was a little bit of a rant, but sometimes we define ourselves against what we hate. So please don't go to Hollywood to make money and become famous, but go there to make art that at least tries to tell the truth. And only go to Hollywood if that is your calling, if you have an authentic love of the movies, because I'm here to tell you the thing that will give your life meaning will be work that you love. The best advice I ever got was from a Greek restaurant owner who said, "Do what you love and the money will come." I will add that if the money doesn't come at least you'll be doing work that you love.

It is one of the great privileges of education that you can aspire to work that you love. Most people have jobs, not work, and some of your parents slaved at jobs they hated in the hope that you would one day find work that you love.

How can you tell what work you love? I remember as a child briefly flirting with a career in the foreign service, mostly because I wanted to travel, until I stumbled across a library book entitled So You Want to Be a Foreign Service Officer? Inside it was a list of questions: Do you read the national news daily from cover to cover? No. I read the comics. Are you tactful? Yeah, right. Do you like meeting new people and attending frequent social events? My God, what a nightmare! I was clearly not cut out to be a foreign-service officer.

I have a couple of questions for you. Do you love the process of what you're doing, or do you merely love the results? My happiest moments are in the rehearsal room. When my play actually opens, I am miserable, and my palms are damp. I watch the performance, waiting for certain catastrophe. I monitor the faces of the audience, convinced they hate it, and if people tell me they like it I'm convinced they're lying, and if they say "congratulations" I know they despised it. But writing the play, rehearsing the play, is pure joy.

What are you good at? It will make your life ten times easier to follow your natural bent, and anyway, if you're good at something, we need you. Everyone knows there are eighty million people who want to be actors, for example, but there are not eighty million good actors, and when I go to cast a play I am hard-pressed to find four or five. The playwright Robert Anderson said, "You can't make a living in the theater, but you can make a life," and a life is something to hope for, a life in balance, with time for your work, your family, your community.

All right, that's your future, but what can I tell you about these next four years? Since I've just told you how important it is to tell the truth, I will tell you that my first semester at Kenyon was a decidedly mixed bag. I was lucky enough to have landed a single, but it was a single in Norton. Having graduated from a public alternative school where nobody shaved their legs or armpits, I suddenly came ashore in the "Land of Nair." This was before J. Crew, in the time of L.L. Bean, and with my amateur interest in fashion, I couldn't imagine how I would spend four years dressing like my neighbors in Fair Isle sweaters, chinos, down jackets, and duck boots.

Mealtimes involved great gaggles of girls heading over to Gund together. I was not comfortable in these estrogen clumps, but I was not comfortable sitting alone either. There was a more alternative group of girls on the first floor, but they scared me. They took drugs that mutated chromosomes, and I was pretty sure I wanted children down the road. There was a girl in the single across the staircase from me in Norton, but she was from Vermont and still a hippie long after it was okay to be a hippie. She smoked cigarette after cigarette and would then set the butts upright on the floor and allow them to burn out. There she left them, the floor of her room looking like an enormous cribbage board until she finally withdrew from school.

My love life careened wildly. I first went out with a Deke pledge solely because he told me that he had written a play about Hedda Gabler and Lady MacBeth meeting on a park bench. When that play never materialized, I went on to date a guy who played the flute at night in the freshman quad and--this is true--drove a hearse. You can imagine my relief when a professor told me, "These are not the best years of your life."

What saved me from this freshman misery? I will tell you. This same professor, Harlene Marley, had the great wisdom to cast me in the first show of the season, The Crucible. And in a Green Room full of teenaged Puritans, I not only found my life's work, I found my tribe. I wish I could tell you we talked about art, but we whiled away the time between cues playing inane Kenyon games. Ours was to take the most cutting edge music we knew and imagine how the songs would be used to sell things twenty-five years hence. Like the B-52 song "Rock Lobster" would become the theme song of the Red Lobster chain of restaurants. And the Ramones song, which went "Twenty twenty twenty four hours a day, I want to be sedated," would be co-opted by Maidenform, which would change the lyrics to "Twenty twenty twenty four hours a day I want to be supported." Which brings us cleverly back to foundations.

The foundation for my career in theater was my family and Kenyon. When my parents discovered my interest in plays, they got a subscription to Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. I think I was the only nine-year-old in the audience for A Death of a Salesman. When Biff discovered his father in a hotel room with a woman in a slip, I wasn't entirely clear on what was going on. But even then I knew that lingerie spelled trouble.

At Kenyon my professors, who are your professors, Harlene Marley and Tom Turgeon, taught me how to read a play, make a play, and, more recently, how to teach a play. At some point before or after foreign-service officer, I had entertained the idea of being a homicide detective--this was in the time of "Columbo"--and I soon discovered how much detective work was involved in reading Pinter, for example. A careful reading of a stage direction on page 10 will let you know how to do page 86. And by studying the history of the theater, I discovered historical precedents that were there for the taking. I've often tried to create a spark by rubbing together contemporary subject matter with old forms--writing a suburban Jacobean play or a contemporary morality play.

To this day, when I walk down the hill to the theater, I still remember the morning after auditions when I tried to walk casually down that hill, disguising how badly every fiber of my being wanted to be, say, Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire. And I still remember the elation of seeing my name on that bulletin board, getting that role, rehearsing that role, and performing that role. And I have long since forgiven The Kenyon Collegian for saying that as Stella I was "fetching, if not beautiful." Mind you, there are other roles I wanted and didn't get, and that prepared me for a life in the theater, too.

You will find happiness at Kenyon, but I'm happy to say that these will not be the best years of your life; those are still ahead of you. There will be many Friday nights when, after going in search of the love of your life, you will return to your dorm room alone, regretfully nauseous from grain alcohol, feeling you are not thin enough, not buff enough, not popular enough--because if you were you would certainly be having a better time here, and in your sadness you may not realize that the entire culture is conspiring to make you feel this way. But one day it will dawn on you that you are secretly happier reading Yeats in the library or working in the lab or smelling that turpentine smell at Bexley than you are at the parties, and on that day you will have discovered the truth. You will have just found the love of your life.

Wendy MacLeod is the author of several successful plays, among them The House of Yes, The My House Play, and Sin: A Contemporary Morality Play. She lives in Gambier with her husband, K. Read Baldwin '83, and thier sons, Foss and Avery.

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