Tell your parents that you want to pursue a career in theatre, and they might question the wisdom of your choice. What about career stability? Financial security? And what will you fall back on if (or when) the theatre doesn’t work out. Yes, it’s a tough path to pursue, but for those who are passionate about theatre and truly committed to creating it, the rewards are greater than a standing ovation.

Plus, you can learn some life lessons along the way. That’s what Oscar-winning film, stage, and television actress Kathy Bates told college graduates in a commencement address in 2002 at Southern Methodist University. Bates is an alum of Thespian Troupe 1581 at White Station High School in Tennessee. Following is an excerpt from her speech.

BEFORE LAST SEPTEMBER 11, I led a pretty self-involved existence. I spent 90 percent of my time impersonating other people. My main goal in life was to make myself a blank slate and then transform myself completely into my characters. I’m fortunate to make a comfortable living doing what I love to do. But at times it can seem like a pretty self-aggrandizing profession on the surface. So when I asked myself, “Does it have any relevance?” I had to dig deep to find an answer.

Kathy Bates

Kathy Bates

What I’ve discovered is that in bringing all those characters to life as whole human beings, I’ve had the opportunity to duplicate life from inside many different skins — to empathize with various ways of approaching life. In trying to humanize the characters I played, I had to have compassion for them whether they were heroes or villains — to walk in their shoes. In fact, one of the first things we’re taught as young actors is to rehearse in our character’s shoes so we can learn from the very beginning how it feels — how it changes us.

When we take part in a great play or a film as an audience member or as an actor, we have the chance to experience what it’s like to grow up in an environment or a society that may be far different from our own. Sometimes very special performances draw us in, and we find ourselves empathizing with every emotion the characters are feeling until finally the secret walls we’ve built inside to conceal our pain from ourselves and from the world come crashing down. Our hearts open in profound understanding — what the Greeks called catharsis — and in this empathic state of grace we forgive and are forgiven. We leave the theatre with more compassion for humankind and that is priceless.

The world we knew is gone forever. Realizing that is teaching me on a daily basis where my humanity is and where I’ve fallen short. I’m trying hard now to turn my eyes outward and to delve more deeply into understanding other cultures. Not to take things at face value, but rather to think for myself and look at life with greater insight. Whether it’s the person in the car in front of me who’s driving me crazy in traffic or an argument between two actors on a movie set or the war in the Middle East, I want to try to put myself in their shoes so I can understand them and how they perceive their predicament. I want to act out of curiosity and compassion instead of anger and fear. …

Once we start living with compassionate hearts, empathizing with others, and realizing how they feel, it’s easy to see how taking responsibility for our own actions is a given — a sort of natural law. And in the process of becoming honest and accountable, we are given a gift. We discover our true selves, our authentic selves.

This story appeared in the September 2002 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

  • Like What You Just Read? Share It!

  • Other Related Articles You May Enjoy

    Jennifer Ashley Tepper Upgrades <em>Be More Chill</em>

    Jennifer Ashley Tepper Upgrades Be More Chill

    Broadway historian makes Broadway history

    Feb 04, 2019

    Max Posner

    Max Posner

    Exploring the stage between tradition and experimentation

    Dec 26, 2018

    Hello, Gavin!

    Hello, Gavin!

    Thespian alum Gavin Creel on finding your tribe

    Jun 01, 2018