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Keynote Address, March 28, 2011, Cohen New Works Festival, University of Texas at Austin

When my play And Then They Came for Me was translated into German, I was on the internet trying to find out details about the publication launch. I found a website about my play—but it was in German, which I don't speak. Luckily they had one of those instant English translation things which then translated “James Still” to “James Quiet.”

And you have asked me to give the keynote address.

So here we are.

What I love about festivals is that surprise and variety are part of the promise. “Surprise” is one of the reasons I fell in love with theater. I look out at you, mostly strangers, and I wonder what made you fall in love with the theater, I wonder where you are right now in that love affair. I wonder if you know.

New work is like new love—it makes me feel...optimistic.

The Greeks had big new works festivals too. They drank a lot of alcohol during those festivals, and I imagine that before the world premiers of Antigone, The Frogs, and Elektra, when Sophocles or Aeschylus was giving the keynote address, everyone was already very, very drunk. It must have made the keynote easier for everybody.

It is my fate now with all of you so beautifully, painfully sober to sound like a simplistic bumpkin even though I will be talking about things that are genuinely profound to me. I have to risk believing that you will give a damn about anything I have to say even though you don't know who the hell I am and probably haven't seen any of my plays. So three quick facts that have shaped my writing in surprising ways. Please don't consider this exposition—this is part of my story.

  1. When I was a little boy I drank oven cleaner and had an esophagus transplant. The surgeon was thirty-three years old and had only read about this new procedure in a book. What I learned from that is that dying young is overrated. That event taught me about high stakes, about suspense, about mystery, and metaphor. And for the record I don't believe I outsmarted death. Every day I write to save my life.
  2. For most of his career, my dad was a small town high school basketball coach. Growing up a coach's son taught me about tension, drama, strategy, heartbreak, the art of practice, and that it's probably a little harder being gay if your dad is the high school basketball coach. That taught me about secrets. And subtext.
  3. I am the only one in the family I grew up in that has a passport. Travel has taught me about curiosity, time, vulnerability, and empathy.

Okay. Now you know me.

This happened a few years ago: a new play of mine had just opened in Los Angeles. This play called A Long Bridge Over Deep Waters had been more than four years in the making and involved ten communities of faith. Ten. The world premiere had a cast of fifty-seven actors performed in a 1,200-seat outdoor amphitheater in the Hollywood Hills. It was commissioned and produced by the Cornerstone Theater Company as the culminating project in their Faith-based Theater Cycle and had opened to great controversy and great celebration. With my big ambitious play and big ambitious heart both finally open, I get in a cab headed for the airport—and trust me: the last thing I wanted to think about was religion. Within five minutes my cab driver had told me that he was sixty-eight years old, born Hindu in India, educated in London, converted to become Methodist and is a life-long student of the Kabalah. He asked me what I do for a living and I told him I work in the theater. He looked at me in the rear-view mirror with the kindest eyes and said knowingly, "Ahhhh! Theater is a place where you can see God."

Let's be real about creativity: everybody wants some. I don't care what anybody says, everybody wishes they could be creative. Everybody wants to be you. Why is that? What do you have that so many others want? I'm on airplanes a lot and sometimes I actually talk to the person sitting next to me. One of those times I remember chatting with a guy who was the CEO of a very big company and after I had grilled him about whether or not he loved his job, he asked me what I do and I told him that I write and direct plays. He looked at me with awe. I'm not kidding—with awe—and said, “Oh man, I could never do what you do.” I said “Why?” And he said, this CEO of a very big fancy company—“Because—I would be too scared.”  “Of what?” I asked. “I'd be too scared of failing.” So one thing you have that others want is a kind of mad courage. Think about it: you start with absolutely nothing, a blank page, a bare stage, whatever—and you dare to have the guts and courage to make something. “Playwright”—the “wright” in that word doesn't mean “write” as in “she will write it all down.” “W-r-i-g-h-t” comes from the Latin root that means “to make something.”

CREATIVITY: what is it, how do we define it?  One way I have come to think about it is as a life-saving response, as an intolerance for vertigo— vertigo being a state caused by being out of balance in relation to your environment. And so it follows that the act of creating is a desire to make some kind of sense out of the senseless, to make some kind of  harmony out of chaos, to give voice to the voiceless. As artists we attempt that in hundreds of personal and unique ways, embracing process in search of that sweet spot that in yoga we describe as the edge between effort and ease.

I'm interested in how we've explained creativity to ourselves through the ages. The Greeks and later the Romans had a very interesting and useful relationship to creativity because they didn't believe that creativity came from within but that it was an outside mystical force or spirit that merely visited and took up temporary residence—gifting certain human beings with its company. The Romans called that creative force “genius.” But not as in “ah, he's such a genius”—but rather “oh, he has a genius.” So genius was something that kept an artist company, not something you were born with. Then the Renaissance came along and it changed from a person having a genius to being a genius and, well, it's been downhill ever since.

Now flash ahead three hundred years from the Renaissance to the United States. I was stunned by this cultural observation when I was doing research for a new play I was writing about Abraham Lincoln that would eventually become my play The Heavens Are Hung In Black. By the time Lincoln was a young man in the 1830s, another shift had happened related to creativity. Before that time, if someone had a business that didn't succeed for whatever reason, they would say, “My business failed.” But as the entrepreneurial spirit evolved in this country, “My business failed” became “I failed.” Somehow, we became our work. Not just in the arts—but country lawyers and blacksmiths and shop owners too. “I failed.” We've internalized that for so long that we now live in a culture where often the first thing we're asked by strangers is “What do you do?” which is shorthand for “Who are you?” So one of the things I want to offer to the artists whose work is being featured this week is that you are not your work. You probably love your work, you probably have interchangeable DNA with your work—but truly, think about it: you are not your work. Your work is your work. This can come in handy when you're absorbing the deluge of responses from audiences. And critics.

I have two stories to share about critics and both of them happened to me when I was a child.

When I was about two minutes old, a nurse put me in my mother's twenty-one year old arms and she took one tired look at me and broke down sobbing. The doctor assumed they were tears of joy but my mother wailed, "He's so ugly!" I still love to tease my mom about that story that long ago became part of our family mythology. But I think I remember that story so often because I experience the same thing over and over with my plays. You have to learn how to love the ugly ones. With any luck (and a lot of rewrites) they'll grow up to be strangely beautiful.

My other formative brush with criticism took place in the first grade. One day my first grade teacher passed out a picture of a bird for all of us to color. She told us to outline the bird in dark blue and color the inside light blue. It wasn't that I didn't hear what she said, but I had a brilliant idea that I just knew she was going to think was brilliant too. I colored the bird the way I wanted, the way I saw birds, the way I wished other people could see birds too. Think a joyful mashup of Picasso and Warhol stoned on cupcakes and candy. The next day I couldn't wait to go to school to hear how much my teacher loved my bird. I go to school. On one wall of my classroom: twenty perfectly boring, perfectly colored blue birds. And on the other wall: my beautiful bird unselfconsciously flying his freak flag. I'm thinking, “It's special!” My teacher towers over us in front of the classroom and points to the wall with all the identical birds and says: “Good birds.”  Then she points to my suddenly lonely misunderstood brave gorgeous unique Picasso bird and says, “Bad bird!” My first grader teacher's name was "Miss Evy" spelled “E-V-Y”—which is hilariously close to being "Miss Envy." No doubt years later she would leave teaching to become a theater critic for the New York Times. I don't know why a kid doesn't just run toward the wall of good birds and pledge lifetime membership. But I didn't.

Maybe I was remembering my future, hearing that grumpy Santa Claus of theatrical gifts named Samuel Becket growl in my six-year-old ear: Ever tried, every failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Or maybe I was remembering a song I didn't know yet by the poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen whose lyrics go: There is a crack, a crack in everything: that's how the light gets in.

Anyway: critics. Some critics matter. Some are merely loud. Or cynical. Or wrong. Others are just difficult and tiresome. Many of them are terrible writers. And some of them really truly care about the theater and new work.

In our desire to please everyone, it's very easy to end up being invisible or mediocre.

The trick this week: you've mustered the ego to fearlessly create and now suddenly you have to have the good grace to let go of enough of that same ego so that you can be open to whatever it is you created and what other folks are making of it in the moment it's happening. It is no longer in your imagination, it is no longer a concept, theory or dream. It is, trust me, alive to the world—and you must be too.

But maybe the best way to get approval is not to need it. Maybe art is not in the eye of the beholder. Maybe it's in the soul of the artist. And maybe, sometimes, it's all the same thing.

There's a wonderful book from the late 1990s called, Painting by Numbers, written by two Russian emigre conceptual artists who decided to find out what America's best-loved painting would look like if you asked audiences what they thought they wanted. With help from polling experts, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid asked 1,001 Americans about their tastes in color, form, and style, and concluded that the most wanted painting in the country is a bluish landscape painting, populated by George Washington, a family of tourists, and a pair of frolicking deer. The canvas is the size of a dishwasher and looks like something that might adorn the walls of a third-rate motel. That, my fellow travelers, is art created by consensus.

One size fits all. That's not why I go to the theater.

There's another book—this one brand new—by Lewis Hyde called, Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership, and it's about the nature of ideas and how ideas improve with age. It turns out that anyone who produces a totally new idea, something completely out of thin air, is unlikely to be a productive artist and a lot more likely to be seen as a total loon. Every artist builds on what came before.

I am a better writer because I stand on the shoulders of Billy Shakespeare and Thornton Wilder and Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee and Caryl Churchill and Landford Wilson and Tony Kushner and Pina Bausch and Alice Munro and Sherry Kramer and Octavio Solis and Suzan Zeder and Steven Dietz. And you may not know it, but you are better writers because you're standing on the shoulders of James Still. We cannot escape the family tree.

A couple of years ago I was living in Italy—I know, it isn't fair for me to say that so casually—but I was. I had moved to a little town in Tuscany called Lucca to rewrite that big new play about Abraham Lincoln that was being produced six months later at Ford's Theatre in DC.

Lucca is one of the few places in the world that is still surrounded by a completely intact wall. Built originally to protect Lucca from its enemies, the forty-feet high by sixty-feet wide walls were artfully transformed into a public promenade. Chestnut trees were planted, and people run, walk and bike around the four and a half kilometers of wall at all times of the day and night. No cars allowed.

I literally ran circles around Lucca every morning at dawn. As I round a bend on the walls and am headed over Porta Elisa, I can look out across Lucca and see Torre Guinigi. It's a beautiful rectangular tower that juts above most of Lucca's tiled roofs. What distinguishes it from all others: trees grow out of the top of the tower. From a distance it looks like a puppet I made out of milk cartons in the sixth grade, its wild hair sprouting from the top of its square head. But in certain light, it also looks like something Magritte might have painted, incongruous and surreal. And perfectly at home.

One early evening we pay the three euros to climb the 230 steps to the top of Torre Guinigi and when you get to the top you suddenly emerge to spectacular 360 degree views of Lucca and its surroundings. Among the amazing things about it: no high railings, barbed wire, or fences. And most amazing of all, in the small square plot are the seven ilex trees that from a distance look enormous, but in fact they are surprisingly small and delicate. We sit under an ilex tree, looking out, heaven above heaven. There's something mesmerizing about looking down at all the clay-tiled roofs of Lucca. They dapple the view, slightly different colors made distinct only by age and weather, a patchwork of repairs and exuberance, a necessity that also manages to be art. On one of the roofs, I see words spray painted in what must be very large letters. It says, Where Is The Happyness? This cosmic message strikes me in the heart.

Napoleon had claimed Lucca as his own back in the late 18th century and made his sister, Elisa, the Princess of Lucca. A little more than fifty years later a guy named Giacomo Puccini was born and raised in Lucca and grew up to write some operas called La Boheme and Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Ever since, it seems Lucca is a city of music. There are free concerts almost every night of the summer in churches and public spaces. They also host a series of outdoor concerts in one of the town's beautiful piazzas, Piazza Napoleone. The last concert of the summer in Piazza Napoleone was given by the great poet/troubadour Leonard Cohen. I had never seen Mr. Cohen perform live and my boyfriend managed to score two of the best seats imaginable. Under a moonlit Italian sky, the concert was sublime. At the end of the first set, Leonard Cohen told us we would take a short break and then, instead of simply walking off stage—he skipped.

Seventy-four years old, Leonard Cohen skips!

At the end of the show and after three curtain calls, he finally said goodnight and then, instead of walking off stage—he made his exit, skipping again. Arms flying, skipping into the wings like a beautiful Picasso blue bird.

There was life lived in that skip, a man who loved what he was doing. I don't think you can fake a skip. There's no such thing as "insincere skipping." Watching Leonard Cohen skip was one of many answers to that cosmic question "Where is the Happyness?" Sometimes the right question opens you up to answers you never knew you were seeking.

On my runs around the walls at dawn, I see many of the same loyal fellow travelers every morning, and when I don't see one of them I worry that something has happened, when the truth is they've gone on holiday or got up even earlier than me to be beat the heat. Still, every morning, I see an old man who looks exactly like my great grandpa. I always say buongiorno as I run by and pretend it is my great grandpa, hoping he'll crack a smile and say, "How you doin', Jimmie Dean?" only in Italian: Come sta, Giacomo Dino? Maybe if you run around the walls of Lucca counter-clockwise at the same time every day you'll see everyone you ever loved again. That's another reason I write plays. So that I can remember as if it's happening for the first time—things that have happened and things I have imagined have happened, but especially things I wish would happen. And by wishing them, by writing them—they do.

Recently, scientists for the first time recorded individual brain cells in the act of summoning a spontaneous memory, revealing not only where a remembered experience is registered but also, in part, how the brain is able to recreate it.

These findings demonstrate that spontaneous memories reside in some of the very same neurons that fired most furiously when the recalled event was first experienced. Researchers had long theorized as much but until now had only indirect evidence. The new study, experts said, has all but closed the case: For the brain, remembering is a lot like doing. For me, writing is remembering the future.

So let's circle back to that highly entertaining and somewhat spookily gorgeous and intuitive cab driver I spoke of earlier: Theater is a place where sometimes you can see God.

The photographer Walker Evans wrote: Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.

In that small town in Kansas where I grew up, the principal was my poetry teacher, the French teacher also taught typing (back when there were these things called “typewriters”) and it wasn't uncommon for the same person to teach welding, biology, and direct the school play. I never heard the term “rehearsal”—we never called it rehearsal. We called it “play practice.”  Just like we called it basketball practice. But the operative word there is “practice.” I actually have gone back to calling it that. In yoga we don't rehearse, we practice. In my own writing, every day, it's a practice. And this week, we all get to practice being an audience, creating a community, showing up, all of us Peaceful Warriors.

In terms of process and the walls that sometimes separate us from work:  the walls of Lucca taught me that sometimes you can't go through walls or even over walls. Sometimes you find happyness by running on top of walls.

Finally, I'm reminded of an old Dick Tracy comic strip in which the character Pruneface asks Dick Tracy, “What's your secret?” And square-jawed Dick Tracy doesn't even have to think about it. He says simply, “I love my work.”

May you love your work this week.

May you love each other's work.

May you relish the spirit and responsibilities of being the audience.

May you be visited by genius, even temporarily. Or see it crouching in the corner of the theater, sitting between God and my great grandpa.

And may you also accept my gratitude for asking me to share this week with you.

James Quiet will now be quiet.

Sources
Elizabeth Gilbert on TED talks
Lincoln's Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk (2005)
Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times Magazine
Painting by Numbers by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid (1998)
Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership by Lewis Hyde (2010)
Seth Godin, blog and author of Linchpin (2010)
“Anthem” lyrics by Leonard Cohen
Worstward Ho by Samuel Beckett (1983)
James Still (life)