Commencement 2007 Address: Anthony DiNicola ‘07

Story posted May 26, 2007

Playing the Ideal Role
by Anthony DiNicola ‘07
May 26, 2007

I want to start off by thanking the Academy, the Hollywood Foreign Press, and whoever gives out the Tony Awards for this huge honor. Huge! Thank you. Just kidding!

I do want to thank my friends, my teachers and my entire family who you just heard. I don't think I would have arrived at this day without their love, support and guidance. Allow me to set the scene. As a child, I spent most hours of the day in front of the television. I ate most of my dinner meals in high-definition, wide-screen, primetime, completed my homework assignments while listening to world news and memorized dialogue and monologues to humor my classmates the next morning. I distinctly remember watching the award shows with my mother. We would curl up together on the couch, make a huge bowl of popcorn, and place bets on who we thought would win the awards. In fact, my memories of television and film never faded. I am proud to say that I am graduating today with a major in theater and English. Yet, my journey is not that straightforward. You see, When I came to Bowdoin, I had set my sights on becoming a doctor. Imagine that!

I grew up in a town called Malden, a working class area just outside of Boston. My mother, her parents and I lived in a modest two-family house. My father lived a few towns over, so most of my childhood was spent in a car, either riding between my two houses or going to school. I was the first to arrive at school because my parents were always rushing off to work. I don't think I will ever be able to ever grasp their sacrifice or the amount of hours they put in at the office so they could send me to private schools. They put my needs before their own so that I could receive the educational opportunities that they didn't have while growing up. I just hope that I'm able to know that kind of love someday.

By the time I reached high-school, two academic streams were running side by side. As I was acting in plays and gaining a reputation as a thespian, I was also excelling in science classes. Somehow, Darwin's theory of evolution, the breakdown of chemical molecules, and the kinetic equations came easily to me. I attended a very small high school just outside of downtown Boston. My graduating class included a total of 27 students, about the size of the first two rows of seniors sitting in front of me. The school provided the perfect environment for students to discover their passions and develop skills that would allow them to succeed in these fields. Now that I look back, I realize that I wanted to become a doctor at the exact time my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Up to that point, my mother was my best friend. She had the same sense of adventure and love of life as a teenager. As the cancer began to spread and her energy diminished, I became more devoted to the sciences. Even though I knew it was a stretch, I was set on finding the cure for cancer.

Throughout high school, my passion for theater never faltered. It became my sole activity outside of the classroom. I was given the chance to shine in dramatic and comic roles, stealing the show (if I may toot my own horn) on several occasions. I was a big fish in a small pond; or more like a big fish in a really small cup of water. My friends were convinced that I would move to Los Angeles and become a professional, unemployed actor, but I knew otherwise. I was going to be a doctor! Luckily my mother's cancer went into remission by the time I was applying to colleges, nonetheless, I still looked at schools with strong pre-med programs. I sought the type of small community that I had grown accustomed to during high school, and I wanted a school with a dedication to the arts, particularly theater. I found this school out in Maine that was completely different from the other schools I visited. There were real people on this campus. People who did a lot. People who worked hard, and still had time to try something outside of their major and minor. People who gave back to the community just as much as they got from it. Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. You ever hear of it? I am just kidding! When I first saw Bowdoin, it looked like this gem of the Maine coast, and it had it all in my eyes: a science department that was stellar with facilities beyond compare, a gorgeous campus — all set in this charming, comfortable coastal town. I felt at home and my connection to this community has only blossomed over time.

I maintained my status as a pre-med student for my first two years here at Bowdoin. I worked hard memorizing theories, equations and performing the lab exercises to a tee. At the same time, I auditioned for school plays, slept in the theater during late-night rehearsals, and created a family around me with my fellow actors. During a school break in my sophomore year, I came back home to recuperate. While my mother and I were riding in the car, she asked me, out of the blue, “Will medicine make you happy?” I instantly replied, “Of course.” In fact, I took her question as an offense, how could she doubt my dedication? Yet her question lingered and left a bitter taste in my mouth. I was pursuing medicine because, somehow, I believed I was satisfying my parents and my family more than if I became an actor. It was true. Medicine, for me, did not provide the same self-fulfillment that acting did.

I don't wish to compare the values of an education of medicine over acting. Rather, I would like to explain what I have learned from my study of theater & English at Bowdoin. The most basic tenet that I hope to apply to all my work in the future is that acting is to care for the world honestly, not to escape from it. I have learned that acting shows a person's desire to become other people as a means of becoming more oneself. This desire must be present from the moment I get a script in my hands, through all the rehearsals, up until the final performance. Whenever I prepare a character, I do as much research as possible. I read the history of the time period, I collect source materials that will enhance my understanding and I work with the director and other actors on gestures, nuances and vocal delivery that will help the audience believe that I am the character and that the character is me. Yet, I still have to leave room for spontaneity. I believe that an actor still has to be willing to be surprised, even if he or she has every scene, every line, and every look down pat. Why else would Broadway actors perform a single character night after night for an entire year? I have to know everything, and, at the same time, I have to look for the unexpected.

I have observed that great actors are able to tread this line between preparation and spontaneity. The best example comes from a scene in Elia Kazan's film On the Waterfront. Marlon Brando walks with Eva Marie Saint in a park. Brando is interested in her, and therefore tries to appear confident. But in truth, he is just as shy as she is. While filming the scene, Saint accidentally dropped her glove. Brando picked it up, went on talking, and tried to put the glove on his larger hand as if it were second nature. A different actor might have ignored the glove or halted the scene all together. But, we see here that Brando welcomes the unexpected. When Brando tries to put the glove on his hand, we understand how the character perceives himself as a child and the connection between the two actors. The scene has become famous and has been taught in film and theater classes around the world as an example of improvised creativity. In that one scene, Brando makes his character more complex, elevates the work as a whole and raises the level of what an actor can actually do.

The more a role truly affects us, the more we come into our own. I have learned this over the course of my four years and continue to discover its applicability in the real world. I have to admit that actors, like other artists, bury themselves in their work to avoid the problems of the real world. But I have realized that an actor hurts himself by avoiding the real world and real people. We must make our work believable, universal and ultimately inspiring. I value my study of the sciences. Even though I don't use the organic science as motivation for a character, I apply the same type of discipline and dedication to the truth that I did in medicine as I do with acting. I may not be earning the same paycheck in the future, unfortunately, but I will always value my study of medicine. The combination of science and theater has influenced the person that stands before you today. I am proud of who I have become and I think at this stage of my life, no pun intended, that is a very big accomplishment.

I began to act when I was eight years old, but I didn't know why I wanted to be an actor until I came to Bowdoin. The irony is that I had to become other people in order to become myself. My college education has unlocked a level of compassion, empathy and skill in me I have never known. I recently completed my final production at Bowdoin. After the performance, the cast and crew collected around a large table for dinner. As I shared food and conversed with friends, it suddenly began to make sense. It was a transient moment of epiphany, those times in your life when you realize that I'm in good hands and that everything is going to turn out right. I realized I was surrounded by a family. I could feel a connection with everyone in the room, and I was immediately reminded of Bowdoin's mission. I know this is a convenient way to tie in The Offer of the College, but it was true. The meaning behind each of those statements had suddenly revealed itself to me. My favorite line has always been, "To lose yourself in generous enthusiasm." It felt that everybody at the dinner — professors, teachers, actors, dancers, engineers, historians, artists, students — all were lost in the generous enthusiasm of the room. Bowdoin had brought together this unique group of people, and we were all trying to better ourselves by learning about each other. I may forget about the poor test scores and bad papers I have handed in during my time at Bowdoin, but I don't think that education is about that, it is about the connection between people, how that changes us, how that improves us.

If I could impart one nugget of knowledge that I have gained in my four years here it would be: to share. To share as much as possible. Share everything while you are on campus, when you are abroad, and once you are ready to move forth into the world outside of these walls. Do not keep anything locked away from those around you, but be open and generous with others. I have learned that to be a good actor, one must be willing to bare one's soul to their fellow actors, and the audience as well. On stage I have given myself over, and I have been loved, hated, hurt, kissed, killed, ridiculed and admired — all for the entertainment of an audience. This is the greatest gift I could be given. This is my form of fulfilling the Common Good here at Bowdoin. I could not get paid enough to match the feeling I get when I know I have entertained or changed someone's life on stage. Bowdoin has prepared us with the right skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in the world. We cannot simply do our jobs well, but we must instead be willing to share with the world what we know, what we feel, what we think and what we care about. If we can do this, then we are fulfilling the Offer of this College, and we are doing the Common Good. I thank you for this opportunity to share a bit of myself with you: my professors, my peers, and my family. Now, go forth, my classmates, and as the theater term says, "Break a Leg!"

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