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Nothing Hypothetical About Action

Dina Janis was the faculty speaker at Convocation 2019. She stressed the importance of preparation and action as necessary first steps to discovery and education.

"Regardless of how one finds oneself preparing for the act of creation, there is no substitute for time on your feet actually doing the thing, rather than thinking about doing it," said Janis. "There is nothing hypothetical about action." 

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Nothing Hypothetical About Action

Dina Janis addresses the College at Convocation 2019

How does one begin?  Where does one start?  Is this a moment for advice, reflection, or words of inspiration?  My journey to Bennington was not planned and yet, everything that had happened in my life beforehand somehow, in fact, had prepared me for finding myself here.  This is as true for those of you who join us here today for the first time, as it is for those of us who have called this place home for some time- in my case- 20 years.  Whatever path taken, whether this was your first choice, your last choice, or simply, an accident; whether you just showed up yesterday or have called this place home for decades,  regardless of how you have interpreted the path that led here up until this point- you are here now, in fact, we are all here now, in this moment, together. I have learned through my own life in the theatre, and frankly, my life as a woman, mother, daughter, sister, wife, teacher,  activist, human being - that being able to be present in the moment is essential- and so… here we all are.

A few years back, one of my students fondly and with great humor, put together a list of  some of the peculiar phrases I have been known to employ as a teacher over the years. This was of course, amusing and also, revealing to me in ways that I did not anticipate. 

First off, one of my classics:  Do the Do. Let me say that again: Do the Do.  The runner up to this is a phrase I have been known to shout out to folks unexpectedly in the middle of an acting exercise or in a rehearsal, sitting across from them in my office or randomly while walking down the hallways of Vapa:  Now, not 10 minutes from now, but now. 

Let’s break this down.  What the heck does it mean to Do the Do.  Firstly, doing the do is all about the doing, not about the result.  It requires a great leap of faith and a willingness to make a complete fool of oneself much of the time. The brilliant theatre director and teacher- Anne Bogart said in her wonderful book-A Director Prepares:

Embarrassment is a teacher. A good actor risks embarrassment in every moment. There is nothing more thrilling than to be in rehearsal with an actor who is willing to set foot into embarrassing territory. The uneasiness keeps the lines tight. If you try to avoid being embarrassed by what you do, nothing will happen because the territory remains safe and unexposed. Embarrassment engenders a glow and a presence and a dissolving of habit.

I would encourage you  to not be afraid to dissolve some of your habits, the ones you may have been holding onto for dear life, or have been told you needed.  The habits you have brought with you as a form of baggage, a method of self defense or a badge of survival. You may re-discover how necessary they are for you over time, but for now- question them, interrogate them, and let some of them dissolve. 

Doing the Do- is at its heart, an inquiry.  We long to find something out, to understand something that puzzles us- and here at Bennington, this inquiry is not simply theoretical or reflective, but active.  Don’t know how to do something? Try to do it- and you will begin to find out. This may sound irresponsible or somewhat arrogant on its own merits, but built into the practice of doing is the necessity of being prepared - and this means, one must strive to become good at research and develop a daily practice so that one is ready.  What is research? What is practice? I have found over the years that my students often look at me with blank stares when I talk to them of what being prepared means. It is as if I am reaching towards them with a large tablespoon of cod liver oil- unpleasant- but somehow necessary. I actually believe the opposite. Research and practice can and should be an intuitive as well as rigorous task.  Find your way in, and then apply yourself. Often, as an actor and a child of two jazz musicians, the way in for me has been through listening to music that somehow reflected the role I was playing… Miles Davis is my go to when doing Chekov, Mozart my go to for the plays of Tennessee Williams.  

Sometimes I might find music to listen to that reflects the period of the play I am working on … but most of the time, my choices are not that literal, they are non-linear,  they don’t necessarily make sense but instead come from an intuition that reflects the interior life of the play beginning to come to life within me. Not all research needs to be simply an intellectual exercise- but instead can actually be a form of embodiment.  The great actress and teacher-Stella Adler- a quintessential New Yorker- used to say, if you want to learn how to become an actor, go to the Met and look at the paintings, head down to the Village and take in some live jazz. Research and practice is a way of discovering  and then planting the seeds of your own imagination. Regardless of how one finds oneself preparing for the act of creation, there is no substitute for time on your feet actually doing the thing, rather than thinking about doing it. There is nothing hypothetical about action. 

Sometimes, being prepared for the doing will require you to sit down with a good book and actually read it.  Not the footnotes- not the on-line wikipedia summary, not the movie version, but the book itself- its actual pages.   One simple bit of Benningtonian advice I give you now: seek out Crossett Library. It is like the kitchen table of this place  where everyone has a seat.   

At Crossett, the process of research and preparation is far from a dead or dry practice, but one that is quite lively and intuitive and filled with amazing works of art, music, writing and community.  Years ago, one of my favorite students who has remained a friend had arrived straight from the streets of Bushwick on a special theatre scholarship, had found himself here in the Green Mountains of Vermont.  He was a brave, gifted young man who came here with much life experience and stunning survival chops but little in the way of academic preparation. It became clear to me in a very short time, that despite his enthusiasm, he was not doing any of the required reading for my class and in particular, readings that had been put on reserve at the library.  I had a feeling I understood the subtext of what was at play for him and so- one day, after our class, I asked him to follow me without explanation. I walked both of us over to Crossett Library and I went to the front desk. I did my best impersonation of a student asking for help in finding the reserve materials, finding the computer banks, the printers, study tables and comfortable reading nooks, the bathroom.  I did all the library things that many of us take for granted and feel entitled to. For some of you, knowing how to find the resources you will need here will not come easily or intuitively. Perhaps, like me, when I was your age and began studying at Conservatory, or like me when I began teaching here actually, you will feel out of place… or like an imposter.  

We come from many different places to arrive here together.  Some of us speak different languages, or come from far away lands, or grew up with no money for books, or a means of accessing a good library.  Some of us barely made it here and are going to have a heck of a time staying put. Not all of us arrive at this beginning with the same sense of confidence or entitlement.  To those of you in particular who may feel this way, I encourage you to not be afraid, but instead-to seek allies and insist upon support. This place is meant to be used, by you.  Studios are open all night long for a reason, rehearsal rooms are yours for the asking, the library closes late and opens early, those pianos in Jennings can be played at any hour.  You will find this place to be filled with people who are happy to walk the walk with you as others have done for them, and help you find your way. 

Doing the Do...Whether it is a simple movement in your torso that you have discovered in dance class, or a way of embodying a character as part of a dramatic scene, a particular beat you are mastering in a drumming class, an experiment you are designing in a laboratory, or words that become ink on the page for you, conveying your inner longings or intellectual musings as you write an essay, a poem, a play-  in so many ways during your time here-you will learn to do the do.   

Regardless of the form, creating is required and involves personal courage and a willingness to be vulnerable. By sharing something you have created, you engage the world.  This kind of engagement is not the same as the essay about the thing… or the power point about the thing… or the test quizzing you on your understanding of the thing… It is the sharing of the thing itself, in all of its rawness and aspiration.  It is hope in practice. And trust me, the community here will engage you. When I first became a member of the Actors Studio 40 plus years ago, and learned that all I had to do to get up and work in the Acting Unit was to sign myself up… no permission required- I did not hold back.  Despite my great fear, I signed myself up for that acting session every single week it seemed. If someone had to cancel- I was the first on the sub list to fill in for them at a moments notice. Paul Newman who was the president of the Studio for many years, once said that if you could survive working for the eccentric folks at the Actors Studio- you could survive anything. I am living proof of that fact.  Much of the time, particularly at the beginning, I was so wracked with fear that I could barely stand up straight. My voice on stage was a whisper. My heart raced continuously to the point in which I actually thought I was having a heart attack. If asked what my “action” was, my truthful answer might have been- To stay alive until the end of the scene.  

I was often torn to shreds, my work analyzed, deconstructed and in some cases, dismissed.  I kept coming back. Something in me got stronger. I learned to listen to my own voice.

Once I began to hear that voice, and trust it, I became able to actually communicate better.  I began sharing more of my ideas, my intellectual points of view, and more importantly, I became less afraid of asking questions.  I was able to not only “love the questions themselves” as the poet Rilke suggests, but find the words to communicate these questions out into the world, in my own voice- at first trembling but gradually stronger and more clear.  Many of us, particularly those of us who come from any marginalized population, often struggle with allowing ourselves to publicly not know; to have questions, ideas and differing opinions, and not be afraid to voice them. We may find ourselves sitting in a classroom, walking through a gallery, at a meeting or in the audience of a play or performance,  feeling a strong urge to question or challenge others in the room. In my experience as a woman in a world that remains so fundamentally patriarchal, I struggle with having the courage to honestly communicate to others. I have found it hard and continue to find it a challenge to know how to engage with this world at times without hesitation or fear of reprisal. 

I know I am not alone, and so I would like to take this moment to convey to all of you who are used to being “othered”, who are not treated equally in this society due to the color of your skin, your gender identification, your sexuality, your economic status, your background, your place of origin, that Bennington is far from perfect, but it is a place in which there is an authentic commitment to having the necessary conversations of our times. It is a place in which a commitment to equity matters.  Though this commitment is strong, I personally have had to bear witness at times to many folks here finding themselves in this physically beautiful place, yet dealing with the ugliness of daily micro-aggression, or in some cases, overt racism or bias. Certainly, these times we are living in right now have emboldened the most toxic elements living within communities everywhere- and Bennington’s location in Southern Vermont has a long history of denial over its own racism, pervasive whiteness, and bias. The land of Ben and Jerry's, Bernie Sanders and Civil Unions has much work to do and as the whitest state in the union- it has an opportunity to show leadership where this is concerned, as does Bennington College itself as a community that is both gifted and entitled in its position. The college is thankfully not a bubble on the hill, gated from the community it calls home.  

It is a part of that community and a product of that community.  Seek out allies if and when you need them, and be good allies for others whenever you see the need and are asked.  

Bennington can be intense. It is an Eat your Wheaties kind of place actually- which by the way,  is another one of my strange expressions that made it onto that infamous list. What I mean by this expression is - fortify yourself-or as my grandmother used to say- eat 3 squares a day and don’t forget to get some sleep.  At Bennington you will be asked to go the extra distance, improve your focus of concentration, develop patience, and roll up your shirt sleeves and get to work. Many of us can waste a lot of time talking about the work we are hoping to do- rather than actually doing it.  I remember a semester when the Drama faculty had a guest playwriting teacher, Samuel Hunter, who won the MacCarthur Genius Award for playwriting. Sam was a gifted writer, a mentee of the brilliant- Sherry Kramer who teaches playwriting here. Sam had offered to fill in for Sherry during one of her sabbaticals.  I remember one of his students that term in particular; a bright, provocative, and passionate young woman who was also one of my advisees. She would come and visit Sam often during office hours and talk to him about the plays she was planning on writing.  

Somewhere around the middle of the semester, midterm grades were handed out, and she came into my office confused, angered and in tears.  She had received a poor to mediocre mid-term review. I encouraged her to talk to Sam and find out why. When she did so he explained that despite her enthusiasm, there was no substitute for the work itself.  She was stuck in a vicious cycle of preparing for the moment when she would be ready to actually do the thing… to actually write the play… to actually take the plunge. His gift to her in giving her an honest review was letting her know that one must ultimately- do the do rather than merely talking about it. 

Kim Stanley, my greatest acting teacher once said- I have always thought about talent a lot, just as I've thought about faith a lot. I used to think that both talent and faith were things you had or you didn't. That was that. But as I got older and went through a lot of things, I came to see or to feel that we all have the capacity for talent and for faith, but these seeds, if you will, need to be found and developed--a demand needs to be made upon them.

So, this brings me to the other catchphrase that I mentioned earlier when I began this speech- Now, not 10 minutes from now, but now.  What I am trying to get at here is basically- pretty simple: make a demand upon yourself- and don’t wait until you are “ready” to do so- but instead- do it now. Start now.  It took me a long time to understand that my racing heart was not only fear, but also- excitement. Nothing of value ever comes without risk and all things are fleeting. Bennington can be both terrifying as well as a sanctuary.  Trust that you will find your unique way through and make it your own somehow. Throw out the alarm clock on the results- but don’t wait for the right time to begin.  

The philosopher Martin Buber once stated:

I do not accept any absolute formulas for living. No preconceived code can see ahead to everything that can happen in a person’s life. As we live, we grow and our beliefs change. They must change. So I think we should live with this constant discovery. We should be open to this adventure in heightened awareness of living. We should stake our whole existence on our willingness to explore and experience.” 

Or as I would say with much less brilliance certainly;

Do the Do... Now- Not 10 minutes from Now- but Now. 

I am excited to see the contributions you will make over these next few years, and on behalf of all of the faculty here at the college- extend a welcome and a thank you for joining us.