Advice to the Graduates: John Waters and Robert DeNiro

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DeNiro at Tisch

We’re reaching the end of the season of commencement speeches, when universities bring in successful elders to tell the assembled young people that they now have a responsibility to go out and “change the world!” As if we haven’t spent years teaching them to be compliant, fit in, follow the rules in order to “succeed” in the world exactly as it is! Why in the hell should I change it, the students think, when I just learned how it works? Well, never mind – it’s time to throw my cap in the air! Huzzah!

Pink Floyd's The Wall
Pink Floyd’s The Wall

This trope has particular irony when it comes to commencement speeches at theatre conservatories and MFA programs, where compliance is enforced with an iron fist that makes the teachers in Pink Floyd’s The Wall look like Mr. Chips. Instead of bringing out what is most unique and vital in the students, these programs spend years whittling them into cogs that will fit most easily into the theatrical machinery.

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It baffles me that theatre degrees have such a bad rap. In reality, the lessons we imbue most strongly in the young theatre person would be applauded in any boardroom in the world. Maybe we should create a brochure, entitled What I Learned in the Theatre Department, that students could include with their resumes when they apply for corporate jobs. The brochure would include everything I wrote about in Another Brick in the Theatrical Wall back in 2013. 

John Waters, speaking to the assembled graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design, put another wrinkle on this theme. The ultimate outsider, Waters made a surprising recommendation: work on the inside. “Today may be the end of your juvenile delinquency,” Waters said,

but it should also be the first day of your new adult disobedience. These days everyone wants to be an outsider. Politically correct to a fault. That’s good. I hope you are working to end racism, sexism, agism, fat-ism — but is that enough? Isn’t being an outsider so 2014? . . . Maybe it’s time to throw caution to the wind and really shake things up and reinvent yourself as a new version of your most dreaded enemy: the insider. Like I am!

He went on:

You need to prepare sneak attacks on society. “Hairspray” is the only really devious movie I ever made. The musical based on it is now being performed in practically every high school in America – and nobody seems to notice it’s a show with two men singing a love song to each other that also encourages white teen girls to date black guys. “Pink Flamingos” was preaching to the converted. But “Hairspray” is a Trojan horse: It snuck into Middle America and never got caught. You can do the same thing.

This advice has a pedigree reaching back at least to the Fabian Society of the early 20th century, when playwright George Bernard Shaw, among others, recommended a policy of “permeation” to, in effect, infiltrate other organizations and subtly persuade them to unknowingly support Fabian goals. Waters has a similar subversive orientation:

Go out in the world and fuck it up beautifully. Design clothes so hideous they can’t be worn ironically. Horrify us with new ideas. Outrage outdated critics. Use technology for transgression not lazy social living. Make me nervous. . . . It’s time to get busy. It’s your turn to cause trouble. But this time in the real world, and this time from the inside.

This is somewhat unnerving advice (one would expect no less from Waters), in that it blesses careerism and revolt at the same time. Suddenly, all those RISD graduates striving for mainstream success become ticking time bombs sneaked into the offices of mainstream fashion, film, and theatre (actually, Waters doesn’t mention theatre, probably because he knows theatre is too irrelevant to fuck up anything). Of course, the danger is that, in the process of getting inside, people will become too enamored of the trappings of power to actually detonate. Nevertheless, Waters is giving advice worth considering.

Not so Robert DeNiro.

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Last month, DeNiro delivered a commencement speech at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, which received considerable attention in the media. People Magazine even covered it, calling it “blunt, funny, inspiring.” FOXnews tsked about the fact that he “cursed.” Entertainment Weekly called it “incredible.” US called it “hilarious and blunt.” No doubt if DeNiro could add a few songs, he might have a Broadway hit on his hands.

What did he say that was so fabulous? After thanking everybody for the invitation, DeNiro turned to the assembly and said, “Tisch graduates: you made it.” The students applauded weakly. Then he followed it with, “And . . . you’re fucked.” And the crowd went wild! The students cheered as if DeNiro had just offered them each starring roles in his next picture, and the assembled faculty seated behind him chortled with avuncular glee – hey, they’ve already cashed the checks, right? DeNiro held for the laugh, and then said, “Think about that.”

Indeed, let’s think about that.

DeNiro listed all the other graduates across the NYU campus who were each set up for a job (except the English grads, har har har). He devoted particular time to the accountants who, he avers, might have chosen their career out of passion for accounting, but most likely they used “reason and logic and common sense to reach for a career that could give them the expectation of success and stability.” He pauses – set up: “Reason, logic, common sense at the Tisch School of Arts? Are you kidding me?”

And then, as I imagine an orchestral version of “The Impossible Dream” swelling behind him, DeNiro starts waxing poetic, slinging the usual bullshit that people in the arts regularly are told as a way of valorizing a failure to think for themselves: “But you didn’t have that choice, did you? You discovered a talent, developed an ambition and recognized your passion. When you feel that, you can’t fight it — you just go with it. When it comes to the arts, passion should always trump common sense. You aren’t just following dreams, you’re reaching for your destiny….”

It’s love, dammit! You have to go into it with your eyes closed tightly, believing with all your heart in the Tinkerbell of your talent. Sure theatre treats you bad sometimes – that’s to be expected. That’s because theatre loves you, really, but sometimes you just need to be knocked down a few times to make the eventual rewards that much sweeter. As long as you believe, as long as you have faith, as long as you keep getting up when you’re knocked down, then it’s all good. If that sounds eerily similar to justifications for domestic abuse, you’re not far from the truth. As they say in Carousel:

Oh, what’s the use of wond’ring

If he’s good or if he’s bad?

He’s your feller and you love him,

That’s all there is to that.

Common sense may tell you

That the ending will be sad,

And now’s the time to break and run away.

But what’s the use of wond’ring

If the ending will be sad?

He’s your feller and you love him,

There’s nothing more to say.

DeNiro even rubs salt in the wound. “You made it through Tisch – that’s a big deal. Or to put it another way: you made it through Tisch — big deal.” More wild cheers from the crowd, more laughs from the faculty. Sure, the Dean of the School, seated directly behind DeNiro, is starting to flip through his notebook in an uncomfortable manner, and several parents who shelled out the money for the outrageous NYU tuition started writing an email on their phone to see whether they can stop payment on that last check. But the students? They loved it.

DeNiro at Tisch
DeNiro at Tisch

I’m sorry, but I think this is nuts. It’s like standing on a cliff as hundreds of lemmings rush toward edge, telling them that they can fly if they just flap their arms hard enough and really, really believe in themselves. It’s not funny, it’s tragic.

At what point do we, as adults who recognize that the system is dysfunctional – no, worse than dysfunctional; abusive and corrupt – stop chortling about sending another generation of creative young people out of the foxhole into a spray of machine gun bullets? When do we stop trying to further our own careers and instead spend our time and energy trying to do something to make a creative life more possible for the next generation? Are we really so committed to the American Idol model that throws away thousands of talented people in a quest for the one-and-only-one “winner”? Do we really think that such an approach serves the art form, serves the culture, serves the society? Why do we think that the arts flourish if we set it up like The Hunger Games?

When I am in my Episcopalian congregation when a Rite of Baptism is performed, I am not only an observer, but I am asked to shoulder responsibility for the child. The priest turns to the congregation as a whole and asks, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” And we answer, “We will.” I take on the responsibility to help that child.

Similarly, at a commencement, instead of placing the burden of changing the world on the shoulders of the graduates, speakers ought to ask the assembled elders to pledge to support the students and create a world that will give them a better chance to succeed. That would shift the responsibility where it would do the most good. But that’s not nearly as funny as telling young people that they’re “fucked.”

Take my advice, young people: if you have to succeed, succeed like Waters tells you to. I’ll eagerly anticipate the explosion.