The following is a transcript of a speech given by Simon Phillips at the graduation ceremony for Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music students on May 24th, 2012. Simon Phillips was also presented with the degree of Doctor of Visual & Performing Arts (honoris causa) at this time.
First of all, may I say how thrilled I am to be receiving my honorary doctorate tonight, not least of all because no one ever asks, ‘Is there a director in the house?’ The most you’re likely to get is, ‘Who directed this crap?’
So I look forward to being able to step, uselessly but proudly, up to the mark next time someone at one of my performances has a cardiac arrest.
However, I have to confess that when the initial thrill of being offered a doctorate had passed, I had a pang of disappointment that my doctorate wasn’t in quantum physics, or neuroplasty or advanced electromagnetic dechlorinization or something useful. After all, it’s honorary, which makes it more or less a present, a token of the University’s appreciation, the kind of bottle of wine or box of chocs that only a University can give. So why couldn’t they go the Grange rather than the Bin 28? Doctor of Visual and Performing Arts—it just doesn’t sound serious.
At which point I realised of course, that I had fallen victim to current social and political thinking. So it seems appropriate to use this speech to have a rant on something about which I’m as passionate as I’m no doubt under-informed. And sorry, unlike REAL doctors, I haven’t had time to do proper research.
As humankind makes such stratospheric and thrilling advances in science and technology it’s plain for all to see that many people are being left behind in the slipstream. We may know more about how the human brain works than we ever have, but we’re neglecting some of the forces that keep it healthy. Or if not healthy, coping. In simplistic parlance, as the left side of the brain develops exponentially the right side is being allowed to shrink.
To me, in our rush to conquer the tangible frontiers, we’re in danger of neglecting the more intangible—and the forces of society at large, and education as well, are in danger of neglecting the human capacity for empathy. Empathy is a vital force in civilization—‘do unto others’ is the wisest and most useful commandment—and I’ve always believed that teaching empathy is central to parenthood and all levels of education. Why are books burned by the fascist and fearful? Not just because knowledge is threatening to the ignorant and empowering to the informed, but because in enlarging the horizons of what it is to be human, literature opens the human soul to understanding and empathy. We all know military domination is dependent on dehumanising the enemy.
I did what I guess would now be considered a useless degree in literature and languages. As it turned out the degree did prove useful to my career—when I began directing plays I had a solid grounding in the history of drama and its literary context and when I started directing opera I was well versed enough in French, German and Italian to find my way through the librettos.
But my point is that even had my degree ended up not being remotely useful to me fiscally, the experience of my education was an invaluable richness to me. The event of it, the interaction, the exchange of ideas, the inspiration of my teachers, all thickened my blood as a human being. And I feel saddened by reports of decreased contact hours with lecturers and tutors, since my lecturers’ methods of imparting the knowledge was often as invigorating as the knowledge itself. I vividly remember one venerable professor spending an entire lecture reading aloud the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, in full. I don’t think he’d forgotten to prepare his lecture. I think he knew that the poem had to be experienced, not read.
It’s this act of experiential education that I’ve embraced in my career. It may seem presumptuous to call much of what I do educative. You’re scraping to find spiritual or ethical instruction in some plays, based as they are on diverting people for a couple of hours. However during my tenure at the MTC I noted that it was often the flimsiest of distractions that proved most popular with the more erudite Melbourne Uni members of my board. So that’s earned me the right to be portentous about the value of the performing arts. And indeed even a French farce can be construed as an elaborately choreographed treatise on the themes of deception and fear.
History tells us what people have done, perhaps predominately what leaders and politicians have done. I’m sure I’d be offending historians to suggest it’s merely about events—of course its patterns tell us an immense amount about human nature.
BUT, literature tells us how people have behaved. And how people wish they had behaved. Literature also tends to concentrate on domestic agonies and motivations, that the sweep of history doesn’t record. Story telling, whether via the novel or the stage, creates fables of human behaviour and endeavour and these observations in turn inform and assist those who experience them. It tells of the aspirations of humankind.
We who work in the performing arts feel very strongly about the social value of our art form. Our profession is governed by passion. But therein lies a rub. A passion for cellular biology doesn’t seem somehow as innately fun as a passion for performing. However, the fact that we love it doesn’t mean that it isn’t a discipline that requires dedicated application and rigorous work. My wife has a charming habit when I’m in the midst of 18 hour days of technical or emotional mayhem, of saying ‘But you love it, don’t you.’
I believe the recent conflict over the VCA was partially informed by this idea. The performing arts weren’t considered serious enough to warrant the kind of funding they required to be taught properly. Moreover, it is often argued, (and not wishing to depress those graduating here today) only a small percentage of those graduating end up working full-time in the profession for which they have been trained.
But this is only a relevant observation if we consider education to have only one function—to prepare the recipient for their professional life. Education, surely, has a much broader function that that. A student graduating from the College of the Arts or the Conservatorium may end up teaching, or running a community service, or going back to University to study medicine, or becoming a full-time parent, but their education won’t have been wasted because the nature of their study has taught them team-work, co-operation, heightened levels of concentration and application, an understanding of human nature and above all, it has increased their capacity to empathise.
I’ve chosen to focus my career on the spoken (or occasionally sung) word. Music picks up where words run dry. It speaks a more or less universal language of intuitive emotional knowledge. Moreover, its palliative qualities are well documented and its capacity to lubricate the brain for other learning has now been proven. Cliché has it that laughter is the best medicine. If that’s the case music comes a close second. So you should really all be graduating as doctors. (In fact when my production of Priscilla Queen of Desert was running in Sydney, one audience member notably cancelled her psychiatrist and used the money she saved to buy a ticket to the show every week.)
So I want to put in a plug for the humanities. I love the term. It seems to me to be at the heart of a true education. What it is to be human. In this era where everything seems to be measured by its economic value we have to keep reminding ourselves of what is truly valuable—in fact what’s priceless. All our scientific research will go for nothing without it. I think the LESS likely an academic course is to get you a highly paid job at the end of it the MORE funding it should receive. I think a paper in philosophy should be mandatory in every degree. I think crusty old men and women with immense brains and a fascination for middle English poetry should be kept on vast salaries in wood-panelled halls and all engineering students should be FORCED to visit them for an hour a week. Perhaps the famous scene from Clockwork Orange had it right after all: all nuclear physicists should have their eyes pinned open and be forced to listen to Beethoven or watch a play at the MTC.
I any case, I’m proud today to be in the company of humanists. I’d like to thank you for your services to humankind.
© Simon Phillips