Phil Watson's One-Man Show

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Brand new graduate Phil Watson spent his final year at Duke immersed in his senior distinction project. A theater studies and classics double major, he chose to perform An Iliad by Lisa Peterson & Denis O'Hare, a one-man retelling of Homer’s Iliad, in Phil’s words, “the first and greatest war story.”

He described the play to a writer at The Chronicle back in the winter when he was deep in the rehearsal process:

“There’s this character only referred to as the poet. He gets up to tell this story and he says, ‘Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s for the last time,’ because in the course of an hour and 30 minutes or so, this one guy plays approximately 16 different characters, and he goes from the very height of ecstasy to the darkest, most bloodthirsty rage places.

“A lot of ground gets covered in a short amount of time. It’s one of those things where this character just desperately has got to get this story out, and it’s not coming out the way he wants it to, and if he could just get it perfect, everybody would understand, and there’d be this glorious epiphany in this room. And so what the audience gets to see is his journey trying to get this story out, and the spectators see something happening in the poet. The audience is watching a struggle while the poet is telling the story of a struggle.”

After the production, Phil reflected on his distinction project experience (for which he was awarded highest honors) and Duke in general. Here are his thoughts.

The experience of preparing and performing a distinction project in physical acting, with an emphasis on movement and voice, was taxing. Projects like mine are explorations; they are adventures. I set out to understand more about my art and myself, and I blinked and found myself shuffling home after midnight day after day, exhausted both physically and emotionally, only to do it all over again the next day, but even more.

But the series of breakthroughs I made in those explorations made all that work worth it. Suddenly, my body and mind connected in a new way, and I began seeing things in a different light. I understood. 

That's what Duke is to me. Studying classics, or mechanical engineering, or anything, is a process of struggle and understanding, repeated over and over again. You work hard in the library or in the studio, and you learn. You grasp a little more, and then a little more, and then even more. You learn something about yourself and your abilities and about the world at large.

Distinction allowed me to see something that is quintessentially "Duke"—understanding will shake you to your core. You will go to places you never thought you could go. You may even be shattered and made new again. But understanding of this kind can only be gained through work, through fighting, through seeing your limits and raging against them (or being dragged kicking and screaming, as I was from time to time).

And that is Duke, and you look back over your time in this place and realize it was worth it. From the red days to the blue; from days with almost no light to those that threaten to blind you, make you burst at the seams with life and love; from the work to the play—it was worth it.