Below is the commencement address given by Ellen McLaughlin to graduating students of the Harvard/A.R.T. Program

I’m honored to be asked to honor you because I had one of the great times of my life with you. We made a play together, Ajax in Iraq. I wrote it with your help and on your bodies. You weren’t just my fellow actors, you were and are my fellow artists. You have been my collaborators and conspirators and I know that you are capable of generosity and shocking clarity and honesty. You put yourselves on the line and worked hard and tapped at the high window of the truth again and again. So if you ever feel diminished and beaten up and misjudged by the business--and this can happen--you can call on any of your classmates, your teachers, and me and we will straighten you out because we were there. We were privileged to see it, sometimes in the privacy of classrooms and sometimes in the public light of full production. You did something remarkable.

Don’t forget that when you’re feeling flattened and thinking why oh why did I choose this ridiculous, humiliating profession? Remember what you’re really part of when you’re engaged in a life in the theater. Times like that, you might find it heartening to think about the Greeks, because they basically came up with the profession you’re entering into, and while they were at it they came up with, well, Western civilization. And they did it at about the same time, in the same city and with the same hammer and nails. Theater seems to have come first, but not by all that much. The city of Athens birthed two extraordinary local creations: democracy and theater. And essentially she gave birth to them as twins. Coincidence? Probably not, as anyone who has ever worked in the theater can attest. Theater, like democracy, by definition can only be done in collaboration. Both must be responsive to the needs of the moment, and they happen in the present tense. Both are done on the breath, in public; both are dependent on speech and the mysterious human grace of empathy. They must happen right now, in front of us, and we all share the same air.

            The Greeks didn’t come up with the rudiments of theater: ritual and storytelling. Remnants of early Greek civilizations show us what we see everywhere

in the beginnings of human societies: people

dancing and singing, often in groups, telling

stories and talking about gods and heroes. The

innovation happened when one particular singer or

speaker--tradition has named him Thespis--became

what we must call the first theater artist when he

turned from the people watching him and spoke to

another person on the stage, who could then respond

in kind. Something momentous and essential to

theater was created in that moment: dialogue.

Greeks called that splitting of voice in dialogue

or debate the agon, and once they’d invented it,

they fell head over heels in love with it.

Ultimately, they would use the agon for everything

and everywhere, from classrooms to courtrooms to

halls of government, but its first home was the

theater, and there it defined the form. Without

agon or dialogue, what’s happening on the stage may

be many things, but it’s not theater. It’s ritual,

it’s storytelling, it’s one voice speaking one

authoritative truth to a passive audience. It’s a

useful form, and we need it. (I need it right now.)

But it ain’t theater. Because when dialogue enters

the world, something profound changes in the

dynamic with the audience. I like to think that

when Thespis broke all the rules and spoke to

another actor, everyone watching sat forward for

the first time, and they’ve been sitting forward

ever since. Because suddenly they had a job to do.

Much would be asked of them. Theater, like

democracy, makes demands. We, as an audience, have

to do more than show up and get our orders. Theater

turns an audience into citizens instead of just

spectators. With the advent of dialogue, the truth

no longer belongs to any single speaker. The truth

must be found in the exchange. An audience has to

follow the agon, the debate, enter into a

sympathetic understanding with one speaker and then

another, try out each position in order to discover

what’s really going on. It’s confusing. There are

times when everyone seems to be right, just as

there are times when no one in the forest of voices

is saying what needs to be said and it’s everything

we the audience can do not to warn the actors on

the stage or comfort them or just yell at them for

being so blind to the truth that would be apparent

to them if they were only sitting outside it as we

are, listening to the agon and watching the mess


            This is what theater looks like, but it’s also

what democracy looks like. The theater teaches us

that the validity of ethical principles, beliefs,

and laws must be debated in full view of everyone

concerned, in the open air of the public space.

Theater teaches us that the struggle to make sense

of things is what we are here to do. And we must do

it together if we are to do it well. It is our

work. And we do it in public.

            There is a kind of brilliance to the light in

Greece that you don’t find elsewhere. Something

about the angle of the sun. Things are simply more

visible there than they are anywhere else. So it’s

not surprising that Greek thought is filled with

notions of visibility and hiddenness.

            Ajax himself, not exactly an introvert, has a

speech about how it is inevitable that all things

will come to light eventually. For the Greeks this

was not just an unavoidable truth, it was something

of an injunction. “Know thyself” was the singular

command and warning of the Delphic oracle, after

all. Whether we will or not, the truth insists

itself. It wants to be known.

            Our natures are mysterious and terrifying. We

all know this. There is a personal darkness we are

familiar with inside us, even if we have never had

to stare it in the face. We can shut it deep within

us, but we’ve heard it thumping around in there on

quiet nights when we are alone with the worst of

ourselves. We all need help with that. The Greeks

had this rather outlandish notion that if we could

see ourselves from the length of an auditorium,

look at ourselves outside ourselves, as played by

actors, doing the awful things that we, human

beings, know we are capable of doing, and suffering

the worst that we can imagine, we might be purged

of our own darkness by the terror and pity such

experiences in the theater provoke in us. It’s not

surprising that theater festivals were frankly

religious events for the Greeks. That ancient

notion that there is a spiritual component to what

happens in theaters won’t strike this crowd as odd,

I trust; there’s a reason so many here have chosen

this profession. We’ve all felt it, onstage and

off, that transformative thing that can happen as

we watch actors, those intimate, necessary

strangers, acting for us and as us out there in the

merciless light.

            What are actors after all? You are the

spelunkers. The rest of us are standing in the open

air above the ground, trying to guess at what’s

beneath our feet—all that scary unfathomed darkness

and intricacy and danger. Playwrights come up with

maps of what we can make out of the hidden terrain

beneath, but we give them over to the actors

because actors are the ones who will strap on the

headlights and throw the coiled ropes over their

shoulders and go down into the deeps for us and

thread their way through that blackness to find out

what’s really there. We call them actors because

they act for us. They venture into other selves and

show us what they find.

            Of all the things the Greeks teach us, perhaps

the most essential for our purposes today is that

there are worse things than failure. If I could

give you only one piece of advice today it would be

to live by their example and risk failure. Just

look at those plays. Look at the size of what they

are grappling with—they’re sounding the depths of

what it is to be human; time and again, the

dilemmas they pose just seem impossible to contend

with, yet they take them on. These are plays of

astonishing ambition and they never cease to humble

me and inspire me to reach farther and risk more as

an artist. Why not try to address the hardest

things? The alternative is to make nice, neat plays

that offend no one and do nothing much because they

don’t attempt anything much. Why not risk failure

and try to make, well, art? What is at stake other

than the size of my soul?

            Finally, I want to talk about empathy. The

Greeks didn’t invent it, but with the creation of

dialogue, they came up with a form that demands it

and makes a home for it.

            With the invention of dialogue, an audience can

move freely from one mind to another on the stage,

entering different perspectives and judging their

validity by holding them one by one against our own

hearts. We must empathize in order to make sense. I

have to put myself in her shoes, then his, then

hers, and through that radical spiritual exercise I

arrive at a new understanding of the world that I

simply can’t reach when such demands are never put

upon me. And the Greeks don’t make it easy for you.

Often the characters who at first glance seem to be

obviously in the right, or out of it, become

figures of ambiguity or disturbing familiarity and

pathos when we bring the force of empathy to bear

upon them. Hundreds of years of use and scholarly

analysis of these plays and still they defy

reduction. They work an audience hard and wrack our

hearts as we feel through them, searching for

ethical balance as we struggle to find it in our

own lives.

            But that’s what civilization asks of people. It

asks them to work. Civilization doesn’t let us get

away with waiting passively to be told what to

think. We have to engage with dialogue and connect

with one embodied truth and then another and

another. With the invention of dialogue, I realize

that your pain is my pain because I am free at last

to feel it. And as a participant in the world, as a

citizen in this civilization, it is my right and my

duty to feel it.

            It is the act of empathy that teaches us how to

be civilized. It is the act of empathy, which the

invention of theater taught the people of ancient

Greece, that makes civilization possible because it

makes democracy possible. If you can learn, through

the theater, what it is to leap empathetically out

of the tiny circle of your own needs and concerns

and enter into the souls of those apparently

different from you, then you realize that the

sufferings and desires of others are like your own.

In theaters, we feel through the human dilemma

together, in collaboration and breathing the same

air. Here and now, we learn to make it up as we go

along with this new knowledge of the connection

between us.

            It’s a strange profession you’ve chosen and no

mistake, this alchemical business of what happens

when one actor on a stage turns to another. So

remember that when you engage in making theater,

you are engaging in the business that began it all.

You are making civilization.

            Speaking for your friends and family and your

faculty, and speaking for the profession itself if

I may, I just want to say that we are not here just

for the contact high today, although it’s nice, we

are also here to hurry you out into the profession.

We are propping open that heavy door and shooing

you into the outside air because, let’s face it, we

need your help.

            This is the point at which I’m supposed to say

something about just how daunting it is out there,

as if you didn’t know. Lately, there have been a

number of articles--all of which I’ve read with

some anxiety--about how tough commencement speakers

have it at the moment, pointing out the dismal

challenge we face of finding platitudes sufficient

to meet the times. But I have to say, I just don’t

feel that way. For one thing, you don’t need me to

tell you that it’s tough out there. You’re all wide

awake to what a mess we’re in and you’re hardly

naïve about the difficulties of the profession

you’ve chosen. That’s part of the reason you’ve

gone to the trouble of training yourself and

mastering the skills you will need as you move into

that life. Sure, it’s hard. But has it ever been

easy for theater artists? Euripides spent his

entire professional life making art in the midst of

what was essentially a world war. The Peloponnesian

War lasted until after his death and destroyed the

civilization he had tried to save. Shakespeare

lived in a world where you could still be burned at

the stake for heresy and he saw the heads of men

deemed traitors on pikes along London bridges. For

that matter, I have only to think of the world I

graduated into myself. Not long after I got out of

college, I remember riding an uptown bus to work on

the morning after the election of Ronald Reagan.

Blocks went by in grim silence until at last

someone said, “Oh man, we are sooo screwed!” A

whole motley busload of New Yorkers moaned as one

in acknowledgment along with the bus driver himself

as he drove his wretched cargo up Third Avenue and

into the new era. It’s been a long ride. In fact,

there is a way in which I didn’t get off that bus

until just a few months ago, when I stood with the

thousands on thousands in the cold, watching our

president take his oath of office as the tears of

astonishment and relief froze on my face. I know

some of you were there, but some of you weren’t, so

let me tell you about what it was like in that cold

city that day. I grew up in DC and I’ve returned

many times since to protest, oh, it’s been a long

list. I’ve been part of some enormous crowds over

the years. We’d rabble-rouse and put our voices out

there. It was nice. There was fellow feeling and

teeming and roiling and a bit of singing, but this,

well, this was a whole ‘nother matter. For one

thing, we were welcome. All those policemen were

smiling! They were there to protect us! But the

most amazing thing was what happened when you

arrived at the center of the city by subway, as

virtually everyone who wasn’t in the car with the

Obamas had to do. When the escalators up from the

metro neared street level and the blast of winter

air literally took your breath away at the top, you

could see that there were these lines of people in

orange vests standing in the station, a sight that

initially filled me with the old dread—orange

vests, generally not a good thing in that

context—but when you got a little closer, you saw

that they were grinning and waving—very

disconcerting—and they were saying “Welcome!”

“Thanks for coming!” “Welcome to Inauguration Day!”

“If you have any questions, let us try to help!”

Who were these people? Did we care? That people in

orange vests were there to make our lives easier

and help us navigate the new world and celebrate

this extraordinary day—what could be more

improbable after all the long bitterness of the

years we had just been through? And we were such a

polyglot bunch! People of all races and creeds and

styles of arctic clothing milling around, dazed

with happiness and cold. We couldn’t stop smiling.

I’ve never known anything like it and I’ll never

get over it. Never. I still can’t stop smiling. I

mean, I know, I know, the world is coming to an end

and all, but I can’t stop smiling. All I’m saying

is: It’s a different landscape now. Civilization,

discourse, agon, there’s plenty to do. You’re in a

world where the fundamentals of the form you have

been trained in are valued. You’re theater artists.

You’re ideally suited to be citizens in such a

world. You are masters of empathy—you’ve got

degrees in it, for god’s sake. You’re part of the

greatest tradition going. Help us make sense of

things, keep us honest, don’t let us get lazy,

inspire us to find the truth in the forest of

voices. You’re the people we’ve been waiting for.

It just makes me want to put on an orange vest and

stand here in front of you as you rise up into the

cold—‘cause it’s a cold world, there’s no denying

that, maybe not today, maybe not literally, but

it’s chilly out and no mistake—and I want to open

my arms and say to you graduates “Welcome! Welcome!

If I can help you, just ask! But thank you for

coming! Thank you! Join us!”