On November 4, composer Jeanine Tesori was the keynote speaker at the fourth annual “Stage The Change: Theatre as a Social Voice” event, co-sponsored by the Tilles Center at Long Island University and the Happauge Public Schools. Below are some selections from Tesori’s talk and demonstration, inevitably with the musical sections removed, and with sections condensed and edited for clarity. This represents only a portion her presentation to well over 500 area high school students. What was most striking was how much she spoke not about what she has done and achieved, but how the students in attendance can approach their lives, what they can do, and what they can achieve.
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There is no difference between the world and what we bring onto the stage. Therefore, if you are in theatre, if you are in the arts, you are a citizen of the world. Your job is to reveal the thing. You are agents, and not so secret, about what the message is.
We are more alike than we are unalike. On a cellular level, if you look at the earth as a giant cell, it always wants to divide – always, always, always. That’s how cells get to be two cells – you learned it in biology, mitosis. It pulls apart and it divides. The world is going to want you to divide, however you divide it up, that is what it’s going to want you to do. Your job as a citizen, as an artist, as a filmmaker, as playmaker, as an activist, as an actor, is to unite. Press against the thing that divides us.
You are here as artists to ask how, why, when, where. Your job is about how you listen to something and find out the why. We are storytellers.
We wait to spend time with people so that they can bring their authentic self to the stage. What are the stories that we tell about other people before we wait for them to sing, or speak? What are the stories that other people think about us based on a silhouette – large, tall, small, a color, green, blue white. Immigrant, emigrant. What are the stories that we’re telling each other?
Let’s challenge ourselves as storytellers to be authentic about the stories we’re telling, the stories that we’re telling ourselves about other people. That’s one lesson about how we learn. Part of the learning is to confront a part of ourselves that we’re not so proud of. That’s the way through it.
How do we divide, how do we unite? How do we listen, how do we learn? There’s a way that we can unite, and the way is often really surprising.
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Theatre will never die because stories will never die. You can have film – and I love film, film is amazing – but it does not require your presence in order to be. Theatre requires participation.
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Poems for me aren’t lyrics. There’s a difference between a poem and a lyric. I think it’s because a poem exists on its own, it doesn’t need anything. A lyric is helped by music.
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When I get a script, I try to understand why do I have to write it. Those things we were talking about are the questions I ask myself. Why do I want to spend five years? It’s why it’s really good to look at your life, be the author and the authority in your life, because you’re writing it. You self-assign everything that you do, you do for yourself in the way that your teachers [do], you end up teaching yourself. That’s what’s going to end up happening. That started happening with me. I started diagnosing things and asking myself first, why should I write it, what’s in me to write it, and why should I spend five years of my life on it?
Time is the only thing we run out of, and I’m really aware of it now, just because of my age I’m super-aware of it. So I want to be aware when I look at a story and I think, why am I writing it, why should I write it, what do I have to give to it? What is the metaphor?
The metaphor is the thing that makes us more alike than different. It’s what I call the mom clause – it’s why my mom would care. When I write a show I hope my mom will come and be moved by it. Why would she find it funny? My mom is not in theatre, she doesn’t understand, she still asks me what I’m directing. That’s what I really use. I use that idea of why would a really large group of people, why would they want to come see this?
That’s what I would ask you to ask yourselves: what is interesting about this article, what does this article make me feel, what do I have to say about this article that reveals who I am, because you know what? You are unlike anyone else. I know that sounds so ‘poster in a ninth grade classroom’ but it’s really true. No one else is going to write that piece like you’re going to write it. You’re going to write it in a certain way. So that’s really the question: what do I think? What makes me me? I know that all of this sounds so cornball.
Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, look up some of his quotes, he had the most amazing quotes. He said don’t be the best, be the only person who does what you do. So it’s not about competing or comparing what you’re doing to that other person. It’s about taking what it is, that whoever you believe in, the divine spark I call it, you can call it something, bring it all to that essay, to everything that you do. The answers will be surprising then.
Make it yours, that’s the first thing. The second thing is: write bad ideas down. Don’t not write the bad ideas. The bad ideas are the gateway drug to the good idea.
Photos of Jeanine Tesori © Howard Sherman