Scene4-Internal Magazine of Arts and Culture
Nathan Thomas-Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas


Thank you, Dean Smithers, for your kind introduction.

Graduates, parents, friends, faculty, staff, administration, and members of the orchestra – I believe that takes in most of us here today – the inevitability of today only makes sense in hindsight.  Were we to go back in time and work to predict that all of us would be here in this time and this place, we would be hard-pressed to do so accurately.

It is the nature of nature to deal in improbabilities.

We use words like ‘magic’ and ‘fate’ to try to give voice to the improbabilities of our lives.  But these words do nothing more than provide convenient labels for the ancient mysteries of human life.

Many of us are improbable from our very beginning. How is it that two strangers met and decided to dance the ancient dance that led to cells combining at just the right time to produce a child?  My mid-western parents met in a big city on the East Coast.  Some of you, your parents were high-school sweethearts. Some of you, the chance of your parents’ meeting was even more improbable than mine.  And yet met they did.

Love.  Romance. These elements often swirl with no results.  I have had crushes, romances, and loves that burned bright in their fervency, but ultimately live only in recesses of memory.  The passions of a life lived in a mix of hope and desire.  The same might be said of many people – good country music would dissolve without the old story of love gone awry.

And yet in my parents’ case – and yours – we got here.  A first improbability followed by strings and strings of one improbability after another.  The time you fell out of the tree and didn’t break your back, the time you dove into the deep end that wasn’t nearly as deep as you thought, the time you wanted to see what it might be like to drive with your teeth – all of the crazy things that your parents warned you about but did anyway – and you’re here.

And then to study in the arts.  Hoooh boy, you gassed up the list of improbabilities there. 

Perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones with incredibly supportive parents and friends, which is improbable in itself.  Even then, perhaps like me you’ve gotten, “You’re smart, why would you waste yourself in theatre?”  Or, “You could do anything you want, why throw it all away by working in the theatre?”

When I was a small boy, I started learning things about myself.  I learned that I wanted to spend my life working in a world of imagination.  The “real” world, whatever that is, wasn’t nearly as interesting as the world I could imagine.  I learned that I had a pretty good voice.  I learned that I liked working with groups of people.  I learned I had a knack for narrative story-telling.  I kept learning.  And I wanted to keep learning.

Could I have gone into business?  Or, could I have gone into genetics? Possibly.  But as I went through school, I learned about myself that those paths were more improbable than the path I was on.

I don’t know how you came to be on the path you’re on that has led you here.  But in this time and this place they converge so that improbably we have this moment to share together.

First, congratulations on your accomplishments! As you’ve worked through your classes the past few years, getting to this moment sometimes seemed impossible, not improbable.  Yet you got through the obstacle.  Somehow you got what needed done done.  Perhaps it wasn’t always pretty or elegant in retrospect, but it was done. 

Remember that about yourself.  Often we forget the simple fact of our own ability for agency. We can do things.  We can accomplish them.  When you were up until 2 a.m. working on a set, or working to memorize that scene; it seemed impossible at the time.  But you got it done.  Remember that.

Or, if you’re lucky, you had some cheap failures. What is a cheap failure?  You didn’t get it done, and you learned the important lesson of what it takes to get it done in the future.  And the cost of failure was low – particularly compared to the education that failure provided.

Second, do your art.  Often in the performing arts we have unsustainable expectations of ourselves and our work.  A major league baseball player knows he won’t bat a thousand.  But in the performing arts, we mostly expect that of ourselves – every “at bat” will hit it out of the park.  Knowing that batting a thousand is impossible doesn’t keep our mythical ball player from going up to the plate and keeping his eye on the ball.

In the theatre, we rarely work on the same play more than once.  Occasionally a designer gets to design the same play for different directors and different productions, but it’s seldom the practice.  And actors seldom have the opportunity to play the same character in different productions of a play.  Generally we have to move on.  So, pay attention to your process, your work. 

Finally, never stop learning.  Don’t look as today as an end-point, rather look forward to more things to learn and figure out.  As time passes, I realize there’s much more that I need to pack into my old brains.  And my heart. Find good people who know something you don’t, and listen to them.  Watch their work.  Grow.

Now, it’s probably true that speeches like this do no good.  In the great scheme of things, with the approach of summer you will be called on to accomplish outdoor cooking.  Knowing how to properly grill food is a genuinely useful skill that will feed you for years to come.  If I wanted to really help, I’d give you the keys to understanding the arcane mysteries of the smoker, the grill, and the barbecue.  Or, how to be investment bankers.  But most improbably, I tried to impart the secrets of our art in a few short notes.

Well, we live in a world where the improbable is as likely as not.  Take courage from that fact and make the improbable exist.  I look forward to seeing what you come up with.

Thank you.

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2017 Nathan Thomas
©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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