North Carolina School of the Arts with Logo
School of Dance School of Design and Production School of Dance School of Filmmaking School of Music Visual Arts Academic Programs Student Life Vistors' Center apply search NCSA Home
About NCSAMaps and DirectionsAbout UNC and Winston-SalemContact Us
Quick Links Navigation
 Visitors' Center

UNIVERSITY COMMENCEMENT 2014

 

ADDRESS OF JORDAN KERNER

 

Interim Chancellor Dr. James Moeser, Rob King chair of the Board of Trustees, Lynn Eisenberg Chair of the Board of Visitors, Mr. Tom Kenan, Provost David Nelson, COO George Burnett, My Brother and Sister Deans who shoulder so much, the illustrious and wise Faculty, the remarkable Staff, relieved and proud parents, Grandparents, siblings, and those we have come to honor…the incomparable graduating class of 2014. Bravo and Brava. Please join me in giving them the loudest round of applause of their still young lives!!!

 

As a parent of three daughters myself, I want to recognize all of the breathlessness and heart thumping which is going on in the audience at this very moment. Many of your Dads and Moms are lost in a revelry of remembrance. They are recalling the moment of your birth; your first words; they are remembering the 1st book you read; or any of your previous graduations from pre-school, primary school, middle school or high school. Moms and Dads, I know how proud you are of your daughters and sons, how proud they have made you every day leading up to this one----weren’t they toddlers just yesterday? Isn’t the road from diapers to diplomas unreasonably short? And because you love them, more than they could ever know, and that you will always have a hand at their respective backs, I think that they and we need to give you, Dads and Moms a heartfelt round of applause.

Before I reach the obligatory words of wisdom and the thoughts intended for you graduates to take forth into your respective futures, I have a few words to say about your faculty…and the staff who support them. I would like to honor all of the hard work of every person who gives so passionately to those who seek knowledge and the perfection of performance. Tom Friedman, noted author and columnist for the New York Times once recounted a particularly relevant story based on a poem entitled “What Teachers Make” written by the slam poet Taylor Mali, …that’s right I know what Slam Poetry is!...and it goes something like this:

"The dinner guests were sitting around the table discussing life. One man, a CEO, decided to “Explain the problem with education.” He argued this way. 'What's a kid going to learn from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher? You know, it's true what they say about teachers: 'Those who can do, do; those who can't do, teach.' To corroborate his statement he said to another guest, 'Hey, Susan, you're a teacher. Be honest, what do you make?

"Susan, who had a reputation for honesty and frankness, replied, 'you want to know what I make? I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could and I can make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall in absolute silence. I can make a C-plus feel like the Congressional Medal of Honor and an A feel like a slap in the face if the student didn't do his or her very best.' Susan continued, 'I can make parents tremble when I call home or feel almost like they won the lottery when I tell them how well their child is progressing.' Gaining speed, she went on: 'you want to know what I make? I make kids wonder, I make them question, I make them criticize, I make them apologize and mean it, I make them write and I make them read, read, read. I make them show all their work in math and hide it all on their final drafts in English.' Susan then stopped and cleared her throat. 'I make them understand that if you have the brains, then follow your heart. And if someone ever tries to judge you by what you make in money, you pay them no attention.' Susan then paused. 'You want to know what I make?' she said. 'I make a difference. What about you?'"

Can we have a third round of applause for the extraordinary faculty and staff who have given so much to you.

It is so gratifying to be here this day. I bring with me a perspective based on years as an executive at CBS Television, Universal Pictures, ABC Entertainment, producing over 40 films, serving as the Dean of one of the finest Schools of Filmmaking in the nation, and now returning as a producer once again. It is an honor to be here at UNCSA, itself at a crossroads on a new path with its brilliant and clear thinking new leader, Chancellor M. Lindsay Bierman, who will soon share, with future classes, a vast array of experience in the Arts and a vision for this remarkable University. It was President John Kennedy who noted that: “I admire the splendid beauty of the university, because it is a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see.”

Ladies and gentlemen of the graduating class seated to my left in this wonderful Stevens Center, now is the time for me to speak to you. After four years in Dance, Drama, Design & Production, Filmmaking, and Music, it is your accumulated knowledge, your persistence, and your achievement we have come here to celebrate today.

 

To quote James Baldwin: “Your Crown has been paid for, so put it on your head and wear it.”

You are among the luckiest graduating artists in the nation. You have received a very rigorous education from one of the most highly regarded art schools in the world. Over the last decade each UNCSA School has risen to the top tier of our nations art school rankings. A diploma in your chosen endeavor means more now than at any time in this school’s history.

You will be part of a new generation of artists, who test our nations cultural architecture with the ideas behind the plays you write, the musical notes you play, the modern dance moves you make, the theatrical worlds you paint and the films you create. As a producer in the Motion Picture and Television business it is common for many in our industry to note that film or art “it is not brain surgery.” For much of my life I chuckled in agreement and moved on with my desire to create art and make carefully integrated social/cultural commentary within the stories and characters of my films. However, even if those purveyors of a cynical perspective are technically right, I want to paraphrase Sting as he considered the mystery of music and art:  “Do any of us know what Music is? Is it merely physics? Mathematics? The stuff of Romance? Commerce? What is its essence? When we create music and art we are doing something that can heal souls, as well as something that can mend us when our spirits are broken.”

So it may not be brain surgery, but with this assertion lets us consider that art has a far greater power literally and physiologically than we ever anticipated. This notion is bourn out in the research. The February 2010 issue of the Journal of Public Health has a detailed article regarding “The Connection Between Art, Healing and Public Health, revealing the positive effects on the body of music, dance, visual art and engaging stories of all kinds. All forms of elevating art promote the decrease of negative emotions, reductions in stress and anxiety, and increase the strength of the immune system.  Now that is a big thought and a big responsibility. I always believed that laughter, music, performance, and tears had the potential to be a tonic, but perhaps as Sting observed, they can, even more importantly help to heal our spirits or our souls.

Today is the Big Day. Parties, crazy elements in your graduation attire, and a sea of loving faces trying to catch your eye in what will end up as an out of focus snapshot. This is your hour. Giddy and ready to run out for photographs on 4th Street. But remember, you are moving forward with your life. You are not going forth from this commencement in the company of your colleagues, you may have a partner or two, but as you set out on your grand creative journey, for the most part, it is just you, a singular artist, who walks out of those doors today. I am not at all surprised if you are feeling a little fearful. Honestly, we expect that of you. We have all felt it; plus we live in uncertain times. Who would expect you to find immediately a path with sure footing? One of my favorite musicians, Bono, once observed: “You know, I used to think the future was solid or fixed, something you inherited like an old building that you move into when the previous generation moves out or gets chased out. The future is not fixed. It is fluid.”

All of us who have worked in the arts know this. You have to find your own unique path. Yes, there are apprenticeships. Yes, many of you will discover and secure an entry-level position, and may you shine, but often it will not be that clear. You will need to commit and put every ounce of your training and heart into an endeavor. You will be judged on your hard work and on your hard won success. Even then, you are only as good as the last set you designed or the quality of your most recent execution of a piece of impossible choreography. So in each moment you must put everything into the undertaking. Don’t be afraid of the fear. Never let it stop you. Break your craft down into essential parts. Find a way to make it fascinating for you. Take a deep breath, or two or three. Have faith in your training; remember the encouragement of your teachers; and be re-invigorated by the support you relished from your classmates. Remember how it felt to go out on the limb. The graphic novelist, author of children’s books and screenplay writer Neil Gaiman noted: “The moment that you feel, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.” And it was Tom Hanks who said: “Fear is whispered in our ears and shouted in our faces. Faith must be fostered; by the man or woman you see every day in the mirror. The former forever snaps at our heels and delays our course. The latter can spur our boot heels to be wandering, stimulate our creativity and drive us forward.” Do not succumb to fear. The Editor of Harper’s Magazine, Lewis Lapham urged: “Truth is about the courage to trust one’s own thought and observation, to possess one’s own history, and to speak in one’s own voice.” You came to UNCSA with a voice and it has been minted into a more deeply nuanced one. As you move and grow past today, this summer and next fall, fear and inertia should have a smaller and smaller place in your lives or quests. Success and/or failure in an audition or interview are a tiny moment in time. More than anything else it is the bias of the person or persons meeting with you, it is their predisposition for what is needed, what success looks like to them in this moment. It is not about you, until it is, and the calm and insanely cogent manner in which you have presented yourself or the character in question, which by sheer coincidence, is exactly what they were so desperately seeking. The questions are did I do my best? Did I dig deeper than I knew possible? Did I practice over and over? Did I write a story and rewrite and rewrite, then put it away forever in a closet, then finally months later take it out and reread it. And then, you have a spark of real imagination, and you go back and perfect it a number of times again. Creativity is hard work. Raw talent is not enough; it is not creativity by definition. You need to hone it and shape it and feed it with all your heart. That will come from loving what you do and constantly putting in the discipline to continue learning. Continue to read, and observe and listen. Fear will eventually be replaced by the discipline with which you pursue your art and your path.

More than a decade ago, there was a brilliant scientist at NASA; his name was Director Daniel S. Goldin, a visionary, who conceived the Origins Program aimed at determining whether life exists beyond earth. However, his wisdom regarding the dream of deep space travel is applicable to our own more earthbound endeavors: “ Not experiencing any failure in life is rarely a sign of perfection, rather it is a sign that your goals aren’t bold enough.” Please remember to fail. Without failure there is no growth.

As you are moments away from leaving this beautiful hall, a graduate of UNCSA, the second piece of advice I would like you to consider is that learning for those of us in the arts must be a life long quest. The fuel you take into every performance or into every piece you construct is ignited and given depth the more you have read and the more plentiful your life experiences. I was traveling in Italy last summer with my family and my wife Nicola arranged for us to visit the Museo Galileo in Florence. As I walked it with my family I was struck by the enormity of this one man’s discoveries. From his handmade telescope with which he discovered the 4 moons of Jupiter, and aptly named them for his patrons the Medici’s, there was also a huge array of astronomical instruments and globes to study the laws of motion; and he conducted early experiments in Chemistry, electricity, thermodynamics, and the intricacies and difficulties of Childbirth. Galileo is awe inspiring in that his entire life was devoted to learning, curiosity and profound experiences. Of course, the inquisition labeled him a heretic and sentenced him to life imprisonment for his views…but I’m almost certain  that won’t happen to any of you. His quest for knowledge and his search for understanding built on one another. Your quest should as well. Please be open to new ways of thinking, new ways of combining ideas, new ways of approaching the very things you think you know so well. Whether those ideas or biases are contained in your creative endeavors, or in your approach to life, or your view of the world or how you relate to your family and friends, challenge them every time and see if you can learn a better, more evolved method of determining what you believe or feel. It is too easy to fall back on what we were taught in our past, or on how we approached it before. Learn anew. Learn something every day. Be Original. Seek what is authentic. OK, one last thought on learning. We are in a world where everyday people and their leaders are often brazen and indifferent to the hopes, aspirations and feelings of others around them. As artists, and one of the key custodians of culture, we must provide our audiences with a frame through which to see and seek the truth. One of the most profound writers today is Elie Wiesel. He forces us to see that: “Learning is the best antidote to and against ignorance and fanaticism and hatred. How is it that all racists are so stupid? To believe that because one has a different color of skin, or comes from a different ethnic origin, or belongs to a different religious group, that one is superior or inferior, is stupid….Intolerance is the enemy of learning, and it is the enemy of humanity. Now what is the opposite of intolerance? Not tolerance…The opposite of intolerance is respect. We must respect one another, not in spite of our differences, but because of them. Learning is an antidote because when we learn, no matter who we are and where we come from, we are still marveling at the beauty of a sentence or the cadence by Shakespeare, or an idea by Plato.” As artists we must continue to learn, continue to challenge the status quo, and force people around the world, through our art, to ponder the underlying questions posed in our plays, our harmonized voices, or our films.

As a third piece of advice, I want you to love what you do. If you love it, you will always be challenged to reveal your very best thinking and performance. My friend the writer/director of The Hunger Games, Gary Ross stated: “It’s not to be successful or famous or rich even though that may happen. It’s not to end up a star. People who want to be a star get their teeth capped. People who want to be an actor get to work. The answer is quite simple and clear. You did it because you love it.” When I impart advice to my daughters I always ask them if it looks like I love my work. This invariably evokes a big smile. “Yes, you do Daddy, you really love your work.” Often they have paid the price of this professional happiness. Loving something means that hours fly bye and one often operates in a cocoon of sorts. But let me tell you, that 38 years later, I look back with no regrets. OK maybe I wanted to direct a particular film in 2001, but life brings unexpected changes, and I had to make real life decisions. I made them with joy and without ever looking back.

In this next century the public will need every form of entertainment especially live performance and their connection to the artists. So many of you have trained in just such art forms. Trust me there will be jobs. The brilliant columnist and futurist Tom Friedman sees: “ … repetitive jobs are going to be automated or outsourced.  The good jobs that will remain will be those that cannot be automated or outsourced; they will be the jobs that demand or encourage some uniquely human creative flair, passion and imagination. In other words, jobs that can only be done by people who love what they do. …So who will be the Untouchables? Well, first they are people who are really special, such as Michael Jackson or Barbara Streisand. Their talents can never be automated or outsourced. There is a much better chance that you will make yourself special, a much better chance that you will bring that something extra, a sense of curiosity, aesthetics and joyfulness to your work, if you do what you love and love what you do.” Before he died, Steve Jobs in a famous Commencement Address told the graduates that day: “I am convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did…Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

One more thought about this, please remember to take a moment to assess and truly feel what it is to succeed in your chosen art form. Too many of us wallow in the moments of our failures. Early in many of our careers, we lived in a world of insecurity and second guessing our work. Curiously, we do not allow ourselves to feel enough of the successes, no matter how large or small. ---How utterly foreign that seemed to me early in my career. Again it was Neil Gaiman, himself afraid of the “fraud police” when he lamented: “ I didn’t stop and look around and go, this is really fun.  I wish I enjoyed it more. It’s been an amazing ride. But there were parts of the ride I missed, because I was too worried about things going wrong, about what came next, to enjoy the bit I was on.” So please think about these ideas. Love what you do. It will make you and your work remarkable. Take the time to ponder how much fun your work is, and give yourself a moment to let it sink in!

In nearing the end, and I promise you I am, I would be remiss, as someone who cares passionately about our responsibility as artists to the world, if I didn’t challenge each and every one of you, as symphonic player, actor, designer, dancer or filmmaker, to become a citizen of this nation and our world. What are you trying to say to the world with every breath you take in your performance, with every pixel of your motion picture cameras in the films you make? In my 5 years as Dean of the School of Filmmaking I would often say to my students, no matter what you think or believe your film will sit somewhere on a spectrum between denigration and elevation. I do not see a valid choice here, not in this volatile world.  I am a believer that we must all compel our nation and the world to look carefully at their choices and their indifference. Use your artistry and your artistic work to this end. Please know that your work has effect, great effect culturally, morally and politically in every corner of the globe in which it plays. You need to risk much in your journey to find your voice. Do not leave any of yourself in a safe place, put every fiber you have into this quest to discover the foundations of your core beliefs. What you’ll discover will be yourself.

It is often difficult to see through the bog of the pundits’ competing voices and politicians deafening us with their self-righteous harangues as well as their call to arms, no matter how unfounded or un-researched their causes are. A two time Pulitzer Prize winner, columnist and political satirist Russell Baker mused 25 years ago:  ”I have never seen a time when there were so many Americans so angry or so mean-spirited or so sour about the country as there are today…Anger has become a national habit…America is angry at Washington, angry at the press, angry at immigrants, angry at television, angry at traffic, angry at people who are well off and angry at people who are poor, angry at blacks, angry at browns, angry at whites… People whine about being overtaxed, yet in the 1950’s, under President Eisenhower, the top income tax rate was 91%, universal military service was the law of the land, and racial segregation was legally enforced in large parts of the country. So what explains the fury? I suspect it’s the famous American ignorance of history. People flourish by sowing discontent. They triumph by churning discontent into anger.”

I believe this condition of pervasive anger is a complete waste of time in our complex world, our country and in our Congress. We have big issues to solve. Climate change. A newly aggressive Russia. Our shockingly weak educational system. The purchasing of election outcomes sanctioned by the Supreme Court. Syria. Our decaying national infrastructure. A nuclear Iran. And yes the anger and distrust that exists on a molecular level in Congress, a Congress that has a historically low 9% favorable rating. That is lower than Brussel Sprouts, Cockroaches, traffic jams and Genghis Khan. You all need to act. You need to create plays, songs and movies which can show us a clearer and much more effective path in the years to come. The great historical documentarian Ken Burns challenges us to put the present condition in context: “Somehow we have today replaced our usual and healthy doubt with an arrogance and belligerence that resembles more the ancient and now fallen empires of our history books than a modern compassionate democracy; we’ve begun to start wars instead of finishing them; begun to depend on censorship and intimidation and to infringe on the most basic liberties that have heroically defined and described our trajectory as a nation of free people; begun to reduce the complexity of modern life into facile judgments of good and evil; and now find ourselves brought up short when we see that we have, in moments, become what we despise.” What is Mr. Burns’ answer to this? “Replace cynicism with its antidote good old fashioned skepticism…Don’t confuse success with excellence…Insist on heroes and become one…Insist that we fight the right wars…Insist that we support science and the arts, especially the arts. They have nothing to do with the actual defense of our county—they just make our country worth defending.”

On the world’s stage, the former President of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel beseeched us to see that: “In our era, it would seem that one part of the human brain, the rational part which has made many morally neutral discoveries (such as splitting the atom, discovering DNA, and the computer), has undergone exceptional development, while the other part, which should be alert to ensure that these discoveries really serve humanity and will not destroy it, has lagged behind catastrophically.” What does Mr. Havel propose to counteract this? “The main task in the coming era is a radical renewal of our sense of responsibility. Our conscience must catch up to our reason, and we must conduct ourselves as if we were going to live on this earth forever and to be held answerable for its condition one day, otherwise we are lost.”

So Baker, Burns and Havel challenge us to break through the useless white noise of anger, to not reduce our complex national issues and solutions by denuding them into the overly facile judgments of whether they are good or evil, and to take responsibility for our planet as if we were going to live on it forever. These are issues that you can shine a bright Stage or HMI light on. We will all benefit from your illumination of what we must see clearly; what we must solve; and ultimately what we must commit ourselves, our nation and our world to addressing. You are the citizen artists who can play a large role in this. It is a role you all must embrace, for our future depends upon it.

A decade ago, Bono told a similar group: “I know idealism is not playing well on the radio right now; you don’t see it on TV; irony is on heavy rotation, the knowingness, the smirk, the tired joke. I’ve tried them all out but I’ll tell you this, idealism is under siege beset by materialism, narcissism and all the other isms of indifference…I read the Declaration of Independence and I’ve read the Constitution of the United States…America is not just a country, it’s an idea. You see my country, Ireland, is a great country, but it is not an idea. America is an idea, but it’s an idea that brings with it some baggage, like power brings responsibility. It’s an idea that brings with it equality, even though it’s the highest calling, it is the hardest to reach. Then there’s the idea that anything is possible, that’s one of the reasons why I’m a fan of America. It’s like hey, look, there’s a moon up there, let’s take a walk on it, and bring back a piece of it. That’s the kind of America that I’m a fan of.” ----Mr. Bono, with the help of this graduating class that is the America we can be again. A country of problem solvers, a country of people who are not afraid to think and compromise, a country that revers ideas and nonpartisan solutions over angry hollow rhetoric, a country still in its prime ready to lead the rest of the world in what we collectively believe is of value and worth.

Well graduates, this is it. Remember not to succumb to fear. Take risks. Dare to be bad, give yourself permission to sing, play, say or write anything. Do it every single day, as that is how you will grow in your profession. Keep learning, reading and testing your ideas. Do this until the day you die. It will keep you questioning, fresh and impressionable. Love what you do, love what you do and give yourself permission to feel it. Love your collaborators, and as Alex Haley often reminded me, “See the Good and Praise it.” Be a Citizen of the world. Be informed. Vote every time you can. Have a point of view. Have high expectations of those who represent you. They must reflect you and your beliefs for a better future, if not, work to defeat them. Remember that their only job is to solve the hard issues of the day. If they do not focus on that, as their primary mission, work to kick them out, they do not deserve one more day of salary taking your money. Create art that challenges what clogs our collective minds and our paths to solutions. Break through the useless politics of anger. Do not let pundits reduce important ideas, capable of solving complex issues, with a label of good or evil. Take responsibility. Make your audiences feel the same sense of personal responsibility after one of your plays or films.

Oh, and when you get out to 4th Street, after receiving your diploma in a moment, thank all of your faculty and staff who are here today. Look each in the eye and think of one important moment when you learned something indelible from them, something that you will take on your life’s journey. And please give each of them a warm smile acknowledging how much they have given to you.

Don’t be too cool to hug and kiss your parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers and friends as the photos are being taken. They have all provided a great deal to you for so long. This is their day as well. Help them to understand that, show them gratitude, and thank them from the bottom of your heart.

Thank you.