A message from Torry Bend and Jeff Storer, Chairs Theater Studies
Some Thoughts on Commencement from Neal Bell, Professor, Theater Studies
The word commencement often evokes mixed feelings because it seems to mean two very different things. Literally, it means to commence or to begin a new endeavor. But traditionally, it also signals the end of some very significant part of our lives: the conclusion of 12 years of primary school—or four exciting, challenging, yet sometimes nerve-wracking, years of college.
This year, that sense of both ending and beginning has been truncated. Seniors left for Spring Break expecting to come back to Duke a week later for one last push that would end, after LDOC and final exams, with the long-awaited, celebratory event of graduation. Instead, the spring mainstage show was canceled and we’ve all ended up under stay-at-home orders while finishing courses online—and with an official commencement postponed until some time in the future. We aren’t moving forward or backward, right now. It’s like we’ve been suspended in time and are waiting for the moment when the world resumes its course. And when it finally does, we know the world will be a very different place.
For all of us, this has been (and will continue to be) an historic moment and a fundamental change in the way we look at things. As science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson writes in a recent New Yorker, “What felt impossible has become thinkable.” In a sense, our imaginations are finally catching up with things that have always been possible. Historians, for example, have always been aware of the deadly Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, but that an event of that magnitude could happen again is a reality we haven’t wanted to imagine. Now we have no choice–we’re living in the midst of it.
Robinson talks about what we can do as a society: “flattening the curve,” for example, so hospitals won’t be overwhelmed. “It’s something all of us can help to do. When we do it– if we do it–it will be a civilizational achievement: a new thing that our scientific, educated, high-tech species is capable of doing. Knowing that we can act in concert when necessary is another thing that will change us.”
This ability to “act in concert,” to collaborate, is fundamental to the art of theater. To truly listen to others, to empathize, to make a whole work of art that’s greater than the sum of each individual’s effort–these are all skills we hope will benefit you, the Class of 2020’s graduating Theater majors and minors, as you begin to negotiate a difficult and brave new world.