Every August I write a WELCOME BACK letter to the students I teach in CCM Drama in Cincinnati, Ohio where I have been Department Chair for the past twenty years. Two years ago I challenged my actors to think about ENGAGEMENT as they started a new year of studies.
“The theme for this year will be: ENGAGEMENT
It takes courage and hope and commitment to truly engage with others in this world. We can no longer give lip service to what it means to be engaged. As an artist, as an actor, your engagement with the world is of paramount importance. Your engagement with your education is in your control. With a high level of commitment to your education and to community engagement, CCM Drama can make a difference in your life and to others. What you gain in return when you truly engage with others is often unexpected, always life changing, and extremely valuable. It is natural to be disengaged, to not see, to not be aware, to miss what is right before our eyes. Let’s unplug from over-engagement with ourselves and plug in to open engagement with others.”
Last year in August of 2013 I wrote the following to inspire the students in CCM Drama for this year:
“The theme for this year will be: INCLUSION
Let’s deny OTHERNESS as a means of categorizing and defining those with whom we engage. It takes courage and effort to truly engage with those who are different from you. It is easier to engage with those who are like us. Otherness causes us to fear, to feel discomfort. As an artist, as an actor, your engagement with the world is of paramount importance. Your engagement must include contact with those who look, or think, or behave differently. Your sense of inclusion is in your control. With a high level of commitment to engaging with others not like yourself, your life will grow in wonderful ways. What you gain in return when you truly engage with others is often unexpected, always life changing, and extremely valuable. It is natural to judge others, to seek safety in sameness, to not see, to limit rather than include. Let’s unplug from over-engagement with ourselves and seek inclusion.
I encourage you to use your class-mates in 4 different ways this year. With inspiration from my friend Anne Bogart I challenge you with the following: Let them be your MIRROR, reflecting similarities despite the differences. Let them be your ENGINE, feeding you with fuel in the classroom, in rehearsal, and on stage. Let them offer RESISTANCE, appreciating the days they make you work harder and the times they make you question. Let them be your INSPIRATION, as you grow together in surprising and unexpected ways.
You will never be a good artist until you are a good person first. Appreciate those around you.”
I now realize that my two challenges to students were actually a challenge to myself, even though the first was written before I knew I would be a Fulbright Scholar in Kenya. You can’t pretend to engage and you can’t pretend to deny otherness. You can’t pretend to include others.
It is possible to fail to engage and to include.
In Kenya I arrived as a total stranger to Kenyatta University and every moment of every day has made me engage successfully or not engage. In Kenya I am always the other in every single moment and every single engagement. I am always white. I am mzungu. I am usually the oldest person around. I am always an American. I do not speak Kiswahili fluently. I have a job and a career that supports me and pays me well. I am the other in every moment in every way and I can never hide my otherness.
I have had to heed my own advice and I would be lying if I said it was always easy. But my, oh my, it has been a powerful and wonderful and life affirming experience to live this life.
I dare you; engage with others. Soon, they are not others. We are us.