“Advice From The Players”
Commencement Address, May 2018
Nancy Nagel Gibbs ’71
Good morning, Class of 2018! Welcome Colorado College Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, parents, friends and family, fellow honorees and graduates.
Thank you, President Tiefenthaler, for offering me this amazing opportunity! I am not an academic, a politician, a government official, or a well-known personality, or any of the many typical graduation speakers I’m aware of, and I’ve certainly never done this before, nor do I expect to ever do it again. As a result this will be personal and short. I’m honored and thrilled to be here and pleased that I will finally make it to a CC graduation ceremony. For my own graduation, I took advantage of the first year of the Block Plan. I student taught for the fall blocks, took my last required science (Psych 101 and the intermittent reinforcement of rats) and immediately left for Europe for three months on literally $5/day and a Eurail pass. The graduation speaker in 1971 was the president of the College Entrance Examination Board. I don’t regret choosing Europe!
Graduation speakers have a long tradition. Just last week I saw a revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” on Broadway. “Carousel” was written in 1956 and takes place in the 1880’s and the graduation speaker says, “It is the custom at these graduations to pick out some old duck like me to preach to the kids.” Well here I am!
I believe I am the 13th female speaker at CC Commencements out of about 130 (there were five years in the 1880’s when there is no information). The Gazette reported that this year two-thirds of the speakers at the Commencements at the 25 wealthiest colleges are women, but it is the most in several decades! So anecdotally, the odds are getting better for more diversity in graduation speakers, though we have much ground to make up.
Thanks to my CC education, I have done quite a bit of research on Commencement addresses. I am meant to inspire you as you go out into the world to make your way after your college experience. I am to give you advice as to how to move forward with your lives.
But as I think about it, we have had advice our whole lives: As children: stand up straight, speak up, eat your vegetables, get good grades, look both ways, color between the lines. As adults in physical activity: walk 10,000 steps a day, you can’t out-train your diet, as well as everything written on a Lululemon bag! Now you get advice everywhere from columnists, politicians, Facebook, LinkedIn, to whatever you can think of and Google. You can find suggestions from numerous people, alive and dead, all of whom would like to give you guidance on how to live your lives. It is truly overwhelming. So today I will stand up straight, I no longer need to speak up, as my voice is loud! I never color between the lines, in fact, I’m always trying to think outside the box and I do not worry about grades. The equivalent of grades in my world are awards. Those I have received (one Tony, two Lortels, emeritus status, and advisory board positions) all are quite amazing, but that’s NOT what has ever driven me to do what I do. In fact, most of the successful Broadway productions I have been involved with DID NOT win the best play or musical award: “Peter and the Starcatcher,” “Come From Away,” “Next to Normal,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and “Wicked!” None won the top award in their season, but all have a very long tail and will be seen and experienced by audiences for years to come.
I have also thought a lot about what has happened in the last 50 years (astonishing to me to that 50 years ago I was finishing my freshman year) and how different my life was then, from what yours is now. I grew up in the age of Sputnik, which meant we had experimental math in junior high school (SMSG Math — which we always said was some math, some garbage), and we had “duck and cover drills” so we would be prepared for that atomic attack that we never could quite understand. Now the children and teachers in school (as well as those in any public gathering place) deal in the world of “active shooters” — very real and very scary threats.
So what did I take away from my CC education? I had the amazing mentorship of William McMillen and his wife Jean (we called them Mr. and Mrs. Mac) who were the CC Drama Department. I learned from him that the show must go on. I dragged myself out of the infirmary to rehearse my one acting role in college. I also learned how important it is for the director to prepare in advance and devise the correct stage picture. Mac always held the bar just high enough for each student to stretch themselves beyond their self-imposed boundaries. From Mrs. Mac I learned to teach through creative dramatics which meant as a teacher you deal with process and taking each student from where they are to where they need to go. She oversaw the costume shop, where I learned how to “organize the eyes off a snake” so that we could meet the show deadlines in a timely way. This is one of the keys to all theatrical management. I recall their passion for their subjects and I think that is something they had in common with many of the professors I came in contact with during my time here!
I also became aware of diversity through the students I met at CC. The Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination occurred in the spring of 1968 and we grieved by having class outside and discussing race in America. I met students older than I, and also my future husband, as well as the friends who stood up for us at our wedding. Since I left Colorado shortly after my stint in graduate school, I have been in touch with only a few who were at CC with me. However, anyone you meet who went to The Colorado College will be someone you bond with, even if, like me, they are ancient and pre-Block Plan. Over 25 years ago, there were two other CC graduates working with me in the same theatrical management office. Eventually, one re-introduced theatre into the New York City public schools and is now the executive director of the Office of Special Projects for the city; and the other became my business partner and we’ve worked together for over 20 years. I’ve also met the head of the Theatre Department of Northwestern and the author of a musical, “Chasing Rainbows,” about the early life of Judy Garland, which I am currently working on. I know great and committed teachers from Montana, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Virginia of all levels of students. All CC graduates!
Not everything was positive. In the dorm, I learned to smoke cigarettes. And I never learned not to procrastinate. I gave up the former and still have to deal with procrastination which now, I call my pile of shame.
At CC I learned how to learn, how to analyze, how to commit to goals, to collaborate, to build community, and believe that I could make a difference and change the world. I was very active in Theatre Workshop. We did all our own productions and we did EVERYTHING, acted, directed, as well as all the technical aspects. We did new works, old works, whatever someone was inspired to initiate. This was probably my first management experience, though I don’t think I knew it at the time. I began to learn to deal with whatever came my way despite my experience or expectations. I found that in new situations, I could be versatile and flexible and take on new responsibilities in the unusual circumstances I found myself in.
What have I done that I was never trained to do? I learned to keep books for a photographer and a talent agency teaching myself double-entry accounting, I also designed and built costumes, but found I could not make bad actors good through their clothes. I have computerized a $4 million nonprofit, overseen theatre renovations, and without a single business class I learned to budget and do the in-house accounting for multi-million dollar productions, becoming the equivalent of the CFO of “Wicked,” as well as the other productions we have managed over the years. I have traveled all over the world to ensure that replica productions of “Wicked” are true to the prototype on Broadway. These productions have not only been in English, but also German, Dutch, Japanese, Mexican Spanish, Portuguese, and Korean.
I was at CC when I first heard the lyric Paul Simon wrote, “Is the theatre really dead?”
I don’t think I had a clue what that meant until I arrived in New York in the fall of ’77 to be a theatrical manager. I majored in fine arts with drama concentration as an undergrad. (There was no theatre major until 1980) and I took every theatre class there was, in addition to esthetics, art history, music, and dance. And I had a minor in English. I was a generalist — I did not know it at the time, but this was a great gift from CC. I expected to be an English teacher and hopefully teach drama at the high school level. When I came back from Europe I even had a job right here in Colorado Springs teaching high school. What more could I ask for? Well, that year was a disaster! The Board of Ed had a new “accountability” system and I had five observers who would turn up in my classes unannounced to observe how I taught class. I was teaching high school students with a second-grade reading level when I did not recall ever having a second-grade reading level. I would go home and weep many nights, so that when they asked me to leave so they wouldn’t have to fire me, at first I was devastated. I had never failed so profoundly!
I believe this was where I learned to deal with what the world would consider FAILURE — but what it taught me is that it was just time to go in another direction. Your path may not be what you expect. I am guessing that many of you are headed to graduate school so you believe you know exactly where you are going and what you expect to be your future. But attorneys become theatre managers, physicians become television writers and advisers, econ majors become scenic designers, and history majors become novelists and actors. I know all of these people and all graduated from CC!
However, once I thought about it, I realized this failure as a teacher was the opportunity I needed to go to graduate school … in THEATRE! I went to the University of Northern Colorado, where my master’s focused on two areas: creative dramatics and technical theatre (so even my graduate education was as a generalist.) I then taught for a year: theatre history, acting, and costuming! From there I went to my first commercial theatre, a non-union dinner theatre in Greeley, where I designed sets and lighting in addition to costumes, and was their first stage manager. Then a group of us went to San Francisco to do a show one of the directors had written. There I produced my first show, got my first box office job, and met my first company manager! I realized I could be good in math and be in the theatre. The manager who hired me said that if that was what I wanted to do, I would need to move to New York, which I did in 1977. I have been there ever since, graduating from company manager to general manager, and occasionally to producer. I also co-own my own business.
Edward Albee said, “Sometimes it’s necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly.” And in New York is where I found my calling.
What do I do? I make my living as a theatrical general manager. I do not manage talent. I do not mange theatre buildings. I manage Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. We are the business manager for each individual production. We deal with accountants, attorneys, 17 different unions, we hire and fire and we protect the artistic integrity of each show especially with the successful shows that are licensed all over the world. I first learned this when I was the original company manager of “Little Shop of Horrors” in the early ’80’s — a huge Off-Broadway hit — and I helped oversee productions in the U.S. and London. The show ran for five and a half years in New York, which was a phenomenon at the time. In fact, my partners and I have a history of working on long-running shows, which is a different skill set than opening and closing shows. And “Wicked” has taken me all over the world: Tokyo, Singapore, Sao Paulo, Seoul, London, and Australia as the show’s representative.
In the theatre, we also give advice, many shows give inspiring messages. Hamlet’s advice to the players is famous, but what we really remember from Hamlet is “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” which is delivered by a pompous windbag! Musicals in particular have advised us to: Climb Every Mountain, Do Your Own Thing, Let the Sun Shine In, and You’ll Never Walk Alone (also messages a bit more obscure: Don’t Feed the Plants, Hold your Batboy, Everybody’s a Little Bit Racist).
I found this quote from Maya Angelou. It is the most inspiring one I came across in my research.
“I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights. I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life. I’ve learned that making a “living” is not the same thing as making a “life.” I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance. I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision. I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back. I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn. I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” She was not only a poet, but also a screenwriter and composer and understood that it is the human connection that is important in the theatrical arts.
In the theatre today, we are thriving in a world where other media is instantly on demand and one can see most movies or television shows whenever and wherever you want, but live theatre is about the human interaction on stage in front of a live audience. Every performance is an event and I’m pleased to say that Broadway has never been healthier. There are more shows than theatres can accommodate and we are continuing to develop new audiences.
I can assure you the theatre is NOT dead and continues to give guidelines to rule our lives. I have been very fortunate to make a life in the theatre working on shows that will affect generations to come and give them a message of mostly positive advice.
So today I am going to give you direction from what I see to be the most important parts of my life and the messages of the theatre productions I have worked on through my career.
You now may be the youngest, but one day you will wake up and find you are the oldest. When that happens, remember how you want to be treated now. Most all of you will need to manage co-workers or employees. Remember to manage up! Embrace change and filter it through the skills you have learned here. I commend you to do the following: Follow your heart and find your passion; travel widely and experience the people and places of the world; stay active; give generously of your time, your resources, and yourself; invest, not only your finances, but in people; and love unconditionally. Be brave and be bold and make your mark on the world. Take risks, learn to work without a net. You can always change directions.
So the final charges — the advice from the players of some of the productions I’ve worked on: Even if you were Picked Last in Gym, or sometimes if you think you are “not that smart” you can still find where you can succeed, Dream the Impossible Dream, Defy Gravity, but Remember No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. To have faith is to have Wings, and sometimes “It has to hurt; that’s how you know it meant something.” And do not be concerned if you are Next to Normal. In your time here at CC, I believe that you as I, have been “Changed for Good.”