I have found myself listening avidly to a radio program on NPR called On Being, moderated by Krista Tippett. The show consists of 50 minute interviews with leaders from religious and spiritual disciplines but also artists, scientists, philosophers and so on. The way it’s described on the On Being website is as follows: “On Being opens up the animating questions at the center of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?”
A number of the programs I’ve enjoyed most are with civil rights leaders, most especially, Grace Lee Boggs, John Lewis and Vincent Harding. I find myself deeply inspired by these programs and, more to the point, by the civil rights movement itself. One of the things that impresses me about the three people I mentioned is that they speak about the movement, not as a thing of the past, but as an ongoing struggle. Grace Lee Boggs, still alive at the age of 99, talks unabashedly of the revolution. She talks about “revolution as evolution”. She and the others live in close proximity within themselves and in their communities to atrocity, injustice, oppression and perhaps particularly in the case of Grace Lee Boggs, to a keen awareness of environmental injustice and impending disaster. While they live so closely to these negative forces in society they are not by any means negative people. On the contrary they are supremely positive; one might say radically hopeful people. They are fighters for justice; one might say spiritual warriors of peace and reconciliation.
One of the most lived questions of my life is: what does it mean to be the Stella Adler Studio today? Another way to put this is what anchors the Stella Adler Center for the Arts as an institution in the world? What is our foundational, fundamental truth? To what are we rooted? What are our deepest convictions without which we wouldn’t be ourselves? Or, in actor terms, what is our super objective?
The answer is always something about life, about existence, about humanity. Institutions aren’t about themselves but about big life issues beyond themselves. Stella stated this with respect to actors: “You serve the playwright, who serves God, who serves the Universe, who tells these babies out there what’s wrong with the world.”
I find the means for a response to the question “what does it mean to be the Stella Adler Studio today?” in the civil rights movement as I’ve come to understand it particularly in the work and words of Grace Lee Boggs. Boggs is, as I mentioned, a 99 year old, Chinese-American, teacher, philosopher, writer and primarily a political activist.
Listen to Grace Lee Boggs: “Historians of the black experience have a crucial role to play in helping blacks and everyone in this country develop a common understanding of the important role that the black struggle for human rights has played through the years not only to advance blacks but to humanize this country”. The word humanize is defined as “to make humane, kind, or gentle” and humane as “characterized by tenderness, compassion, and sympathy for people and animals, especially for the suffering or distressed”.
The civil rights movement, then, is a model not only for fairness, equality, and justice, but is also a model for deepening our humanity. The issue of creating an environment that values humanity is at the core of our work at the studio. For me, exploring the civil rights movement has been very helpful in finding a deeper expression of our mission, of our value of humanity and how it is expressed through the great and ancient arts of acting and theater.
In educational terms, what I’ve learned of the study of the civil rights movement and its continuing echoes today is that chief among the oppressive forces of the world today is corporate greed and commercialism. Our students live between two competing phenomenon: the theater, in its depth, perhaps the oldest art form, with an objective to elevate and uplift, to activate and engage humanity and its commercial expression, the industry, Hollywood. I would like to suggest that we have to prepare them to make a living but we have to train and educate them to make a life. Making a living is merely one element of making a life.
I hope as an exercise, you might be encouraged to think with me about how these ideals might help us realize our work as actors, how it might help us realize the studio’s mission and how it might help us serve our whole community and our audiences better, more holistically, with greater understanding and passion.
If you’d like to hear Grace Lee Boggs on On Being click here: http://www.onbeing.org/program/becoming-detroit/feature/re-imagining-education-by-grace-lee-boggs/1409
I’d love to hear your thoughts…