Hank Stratton, head of acting and musical theatre at the School of Theatre, Film & Television, gave the keynote address at the 2022 College of Fine Arts Fall Graduation Convocation at Crowder Hall on Dec. 15.
Stratton has taught at Arizona for nearly six years and served as artistic director of the Arizona Repertory Theatre since May 2019. This fall he received the Gerald J. Swanson Prize for Teaching Excellence from the University of Arizona. This award recognizes excellence in undergraduate teaching.
Hank Stratton: ‘The arts saved my life’
Thank you, Dean Schulz (Andy), and thank you to the graduates and your families for welcoming me. It’s an honor to be with you today as you mark this incredible milestone.
During the last several weeks, I have been combing through my experience, in a desperate search for succinct messages of wisdom that would suit this short format. I am afraid you are about to witness me failing miserably both in content and brevity. That’s not true, I will do my best to keep these remarks brief, but as Julia Roberts said to the conductor at the top in her 2001 Oscar acceptance speech, in an effort to preempt the ‘play off music,’ “Why don’t you sit, I may never be here again.”
So as a stand-in for sage counsel, instead I’d like to share with you a bit of my own journey as an artist—in hopes of framing the two guiding forces I’ve relied on the most: intuition and community.
The arts saved my life.
I was a very shy kid. Painfully shy. I can hear my colleagues’ eyes rolling back into their heads at this assertion, but I assure you it’s true. I hung in the back, was reluctant to put my hand up. I spent most recess periods wandering to the extreme edges of the playground where I would lose myself in thought and the occasional song I would compose – on the spot – about those daydreams. I was good at math, science, English, and history, but a disaster at games and sports. When I was in the fifth grade, my mother went back to work which meant that I had to enroll in an afterschool program that would occupy the time between the end of the school day and pick-up. My choices were competitive dodgeball which meant a daily infliction of pain and ridicule, or the drama club, which meant participation in the fall play. Both options looked very grim to my fifth-grade self, but at least if I tried out for the play my agony would be exclusively internal as opposed to the daily bruising and bloody nose I was sure to get from the Gallagher twins who served as co-captains of the dodgeball team as well as resident mob bosses at Mark Twain Elementary. Intuition told me to audition for the play.
The fall play selection was a 10 page, double-spaced, edition of The Scottish Play by William Shakespeare (theatrical superstition prevents me from saying the title). Essentially it featured the title character, the murder of King Duncan, and the death of the title character, all bookended by the three witches who were always angling for more stage time than was scripted. My intuition told me that if I had to be in this play, then I was going to go all in. And so I auditioned for the lead, the character who seemed to survive the edits the best. What did I have to lose? Well, I got it. We rehearsed for several weeks, which mostly meant plotting a series of grand gestures and faces while enjoying snacks provided by the PTA. The afternoon of the performance brought with it the requisite opening night nerves and excitement –and something unknown at the time that I would later come to identify as self-assurance—and a sense of belonging. The audience responded with genuine gasps when Malcolm took his revenge on me with a broad sword made of particle board. This reaction was so delightful that I resurrected my character no fewer than five times creating a seven-minute death scene, culminating in a spontaneous standing ovation. And while the Witches, who never got back on stage as we were at “time,” never spoke to me again, my invisibility at the school instantly evaporated as I found myself surrounded by peers congratulating me on my performance, including the Gallagher twins who thought my death scene was “epic.” I had suddenly found community.
While I continued to act and perform throughout high school, my college plans were focused exclusively on literature and science for I was constantly reminded that a degree in the arts would lead to a dead end, that my “hobby” had no real-world application. However, on the suggestion of a visiting professional in a local theatre program, and behind my parents back, I auditioned for several acting conservatories including two schools in London. “What do you have to lose?” he challenged me. Thinking back to my 5th grade experience, I knew he was right, even if nothing came of it. Much to my surprise I received acceptance letters from all of those programs. And suddenly the practical plans that had been made based on rational thought, the shoulds and shouldn’ts of any decision, were at the whim of somatic markers, my emotions, a “gut instinct” that was telling me to pursue a career in acting. So I spent the next four years finishing an Acting degree with a minor in pub crawling. I found a way of working, but more importantly I found a community that would lead me to a career on Broadway, in film, and on television. My friends and fellow artists provided the bricks and mortar of my professional life and my survival.
When the last television series I was on was cancelled, an opportunity to teach and direct at the University of Michigan presented itself, and while I was terrified of “breaking the students,” I followed my intuition and accepted the job. It felt like the right move. That opportunity caught the attention of the University of Arizona which led me to my current appointment, perhaps the most rewarding and satisfying work of my professional career. Because every day I have the privilege of mentoring young artists and guiding them to a place of discovery. Every day I am offered a glimpse of my 5th grade self as my students attempt to enact their own unearned seven-minute death scene. Every day I witness them relying on their intuition, turning to one another as members of an ensemble, collaborating, creating, and building community.
In closing I want to say a word about community, borrowing an excerpt from Hanya Yanagihara’s breathtaking novel, “A Little Life.” In it she writes the following about friendship:
“You won’t understand what I mean now, but someday you will: the only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are – not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving – and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad – or good – it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.”
A day rarely passes when I don’t think of that quote, reminding myself to take root in those kinds of friendships and collaborations. I urge you all to seek the hard counsel of others, to learn from their compassion–and to trust them. Look for that in all of your friendships and professional partnerships. Put those kinds of people at the heart of your community. And, in turn, aspire to be that kind of friend and collaborator yourself. For I promise you, someone is looking to you to be their better. If you take a quick look around you, you will see just that.
Congratulations on this momentous day and thank you for letting me be a part of it.
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