Ann Dowd ’74 Commencement Speech


Introduction by Head of School Robert W. Hill III

Ann Dowd’s Emmy acceptance speech for A Handmaid’s Tale went viral. You may have seen it. And it went viral because it was an incredibly authentic moment, and I subsequently watched in on her interview with Stephen Colbert on The Late Show (that happens to be where I get all my news) and she tells a great story about how it was she decided to study acting in college. And the most memorable line (and I hope this is not a spoiler alert) was kind of counterintuitive: “Just because you said you were going to do something, does not mean you have to do it.” Sort of the opposite of what parents tell you your whole life.

Ann Dowd has done a lot of acting since graduating from Williston and then going on to Holy Cross before receiving her MFA from DePaul University’s Goodman School of Drama. She has appeared in some thirty films and forty television shows, winning awards and nominations as Best Supporting Actress too numerous for me to list. But as she tells it, her inspiration for her life’s work traces back to here, to Williston. And sitting in the audience today are retired faculty members, Mr. and Mrs. Ellis Baker, and they came here to see her give this address, and I want you seniors to think about that as you think about the teachers you’re saying goodbye to, someday they may have that same desire to return to see you give such an address down the road in the future. So please join me in offering a warm Williston welcome to class of 1974 alum Ann Dowd.

Ann Dowd

Thank you, where is Ellie by the way? Where are you darling? Thank you. Thank you so much. Good morning. Good morning to you. It is a tremendous pleasure and privilege to be here amongst you on this very very special day and this very significant day in your lives. How ya doin’? Are you okay? Happy, excited, scared, deeply sad? So many feelings, I remember. Oh, look how beautiful you are. I graduated from Williston 45 years ago. I actually had to check the math because I thought that cannot be so. It is, in fact, true, which could make me very very old compared to you. I thought: “How can I serve them today; what can I say that will be of meaning, what will resonate.” I do believe there are fundamental principles that stood the test of time, and they hold across generations, so shall we begin, you and I? Feel free to join in. Feel free to have an opinion. It is your day.

I came to Williston as a junior. I can tell you without equivocation that my two years at Williston were the finest years of my education. That includes four years of college and three years of an MFA program as an actor. The why of that fact is the point of my story today. It is a cautionary tale. Listen and take in what makes sense to you. I believe it has a happy ending.

Prior to Williston, I was educated at a Catholic school, and when we hit junior high and school got tough, I just checked out. I thought “I don’t know if I can do this.” and for whatever reason, I decided to try to be popular and get in trouble and be rude to adults and skip class and all the things that make life successful (not). And suddenly the school closed, and we had to find a new place to go. And I stepped foot on this campus and said: “This is it. This is where my life will begin again, and I will start over and no one will know of my checkered past.” I sat in on some classes. And I couldn’t believe first of all they were so small, and the students were smart and independent and the teachers were interested in alternative ideas, and you could say what you wanted and have a new idea of your own and I thought “Okay I’m in. I want this.”

There are three things that happened here that changed my life forever. The first thing is I realized “I want to learn. I don’t want to be afraid of it, I want to step up to the challenge.” And I thought you know, I hadn’t studied in about four years, let’s give it a shot, see what happens. I’m not kidding. My goal was to be a surgeon. I wanted to go to medical school, and I said: “So, missy, you’d better get your act together.”

And the second thing that happened here was that I fell completely in love with acting, and with the theater. And that is in large part because of two people; one is Ellis Baker, who is here today, and his beautiful wife Barbara. I wish you had had the privilege of being taught by them. Because he is astonishing as a teacher, director, head of the theater. He was a wonderful human being; he had kindness and he took time. And because the school is what it is here, I got to know his children, Lisa and Cary, and Adam and Ben. Mr. Baker had a tremendous effect on me, and I was invited into a place that was about freedom and make-believe and change and nerves and straight out fun. The days of rehearsal here, the performances sitting outside Williston Theatre were like a ticket to heaven. I thought “How is this possible, this is life?” It did not occur to me that you could choose what you love as your course of study.

The third thing that happened to me, well, I came running home in my senior year. I had gotten the role of Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. I was beside myself. Mr. Gregory, also a phenomenal teacher here, came and found me hiding in the women’s bathroom. I was afraid to get the news of whether I had it or I didn’t and he found me in there; wasn’t that nice? And he told me I had the role, so I went flying home and I burst into the living room and my mother was crying. My mother, my beautiful mother is here. Thank you, Mama. I love her so much. And she was crying, and she doesn’t cry often and my sister was crying, I said: “What is it?” And she said: “Well, your father has two to five years to live.” I went upstairs and I cried and I got a rose. I went and bought one. I collected myself and I went into his office, and we had fought all through high school, and you know the reason why: fresh, bold, skipped classes, rude to authority. So that’s what he dealt with in my high school years. And so I went in and I said: “Can I speak to you for a moment?” So he said: “Sure.” Wondering, “Do I need protection?” I said: “You know, I’m going to go to the Holy Cross.” He had wanted me to go there. It was his alma mater, and my grandfather’s, my whole family. And for that reason, I said: “You know, I’m not going there. That’s your path, not mine.” I mean, thank god I’ve come out of that scary place. And I went there that day and I said: “You know, Dad, I’m going to Holy Cross. I don’t know what I was thinking. I want to go to Holy Cross.” He said: “Are you sure?” “I do, I really do. I don’t know why I was being so…” And then I said: “and I’m not going to summer theater at Williston.” I wanted to go so badly, but he said: “I don’t want you away from the family. I don’t want it. I want us together in New Hampshire.” And I said: “Well, I’m not going, I don’t know what I was thinking of.” So we walked. And then I said: “And the last thing is I got the part in the play.” And he was overjoyed and we walked together to the travel agency where he picked up his tickets to go on vacation with my mother, where he died six weeks later.

Okay. Not gonna cry. Yes, I am.

Now. Grief. What do we do? I shoved it away because I thought: “What am I going to do? I’ve got to go to school. I’ve got to get it together. I’ve got to prove to him that I meant what I said, that I’m going to be a surgeon, that I’m pre-med. I promise you.” Okay, not to scare you; I’m sure there are some pre-med students? Very good. I’ll give you my phone number, we can chat any time you want. Let me say this: It’s not for the faint of heart. The first class they say: “Look around you, because in a couple of weeks, six weeks’ time, there will be a third of you gone.” You know: “Thank you!” “Welcome!” And then they said that at the end of the semester half of you will be gone. I should mention that the first thing I did was sign up for an acting class, which should have been a tip. Okay, so, first chemistry test. Scared to death. I’m getting ready to go and I lose my contact lens. And I panic, and I literally run to the teacher, and the whole class is there. Ugh. I said: “I’ve lost my contact. I don’t know what to do.” and she said: “Oh. Can you try?” I said: “Well I…I can’t see, really.” Could be important. And so she said: “Well listen, you can take the make-up test, it’s going to be significantly harder, and you will likely not pass it. But, I’m just going to tell you that’s your option.” I said: “Okay. Thank you very much.” So I thought: “What am I going to do? I’m going to take the make-up test. That’s just the way it is.” So I came two days later and I sat down to the test, and something came over me, which is called: Who cares? Because: I’m gonna flunk. There are no expectations here.

Darlins, I had the time of my life.

I didn’t recognize any of the questions. Oh, oh, wait for that one! You know you’ve studied, but then they want you to extrapolate. So, you know this because I taught it to you, but do you know what I haven’t taught you yet? It’s that kind of a thing. No pressure. So I sat there, and I thought: “Well, come on now. You know a little bit of chemistry. You studied a little bit here, let’s see what we can do.” And I said: “Well, if this is true, I suppose that’s true, and if that’s true, why wouldn’t it lead to this?” So that’s how I did the test. Handed it in, ready to take chemistry all over again. It’s a big F coming my way. She called me in two days later and said: “I need to ask you a few questions.” I mean, what? I flunked. She said: “How did you get these answers? They are correct.” You know, subtext: Where is the cheat-sheet? And she said, can you talk me through these answers, please. And I said: “Sure, um, well. If this is true, then I figured that’s true, and if that’s true why wouldn’t this be true? If that theorem holds up, let’s see what happens.” I went through every problem that way, and she said: “Okay. That is a circuitous route, but it is accurate, and you have an A.”

What is the point, my loves; what is my point? Somewhere in me, I had the goods. I had what I needed. What you have, my loves, is enough. But I didn’t let that beautiful gift, and they’re coming at you all the time, those gifts, by the way. The universe is very, very generous. Instead, I buckled down. I said: “Nope. I’m studying harder. I’m going to stay away. I’m going to come back on vacations. I’m not going to be home. I’m going to be home two days: “Hi mom, dad, siblings!” This began my long relationship with what became my closest companion; my anxiety and stress, and it took me many, many, many years to let go. The ones who loved chemistry and pre-med and all their subjects, they didn’t stress. They were happy students in college. They did things; they had fun because they loved chemistry. They studied, but they weren’t me in a corner all the time. The only thing that brought joy was the plays I would do at the school. My organic chemistry teacher said in my sophomore year: “What’s going on here. You’re doing well; you don’t even know it. You’re not happy. That’s not the way it works. Just because you committed to something when you came in at eighteen years old doesn’t mean it that is your path.” Okay. Took that in. Didn’t pay attention, but took it in.

Senior year, my roommate, beautiful Marybeth Walley, her brother drowned and she was heartbroken, and the two of us connected in grief. And the truth about life; what is important and what is not important were right here and close to us. And we worked our way through when she looked at me one night she said: “Do you want to be a doctor?” I said: “No, not especially.” She said: “Don’t you want to be an actor?” I said: “Yes I do.” She said: “What are you waiting for?” The next week I went and auditioned for an acting conservatory. I got in and I thought: “Now life begins again.”

But guess what my loves: If you want to be an actor you have to know yourself. You have to be comfortable with yourself. You have to accept your failures. I don’t care what field you’re in by the way, but I can speak to being an actor. You have to drop the armor. Drop it every day, a little bit at a time. But I approached it like chemistry and physics. I read the text five times, I knew all about the history of every single character. “I want to know this, I want to know what the character…” It doesn’t work that way. Acting is a relationship; it’s like a friendship, gentle, respectful. You tell me about you, and I’ll tell you about me, and let’s together find out who we are. Very important. I was entirely trapped by my own fear.

Okay, let’s jump ahead; first Broadway play. I’m on the way, a wreck. I said a little prayer to my father, I said: “Dad, give me something to help me through this first night.” Broadway’s kind of a big deal. I’ll just toss that out. And I got to the stage, and I’m not kidding you, it was like a kind of shelf appeared between me and the audience. All fear, dissipated. Gone. And what I realized is that we are all connected. Your parents, your faculty, your friends, you are all connected. There is no reason for fear. I mean that. Jump ahead to another Broadway play, in which I had terrible stage anxiety, and that comes from, by the way, suppressing anxiety; suppressing depression. And one day I had absolutely nothing to give. Nothing. And I thought: “I’m desperate.” And I laid down and started to meditate. Desperation for twenty minutes a day and suddenly, the present moment began to appear. There’d be times I was walking down the street and suddenly become present and think: “What’s happening here, is this an amusement park?” Darlings, I am not pushing meditation, I am pushing the present moment because anything can be accomplished in the present moment. Life is very, very fast for you all. Slow it down. Do your best to slow it down.

Okay, so what’s the point of all of this? What am I saying here? It took me many years to realize that I had abandoned my essential self; which is to say my heart and soul. I had relied entirely on my mind. That’s a very tricky thing to do. Trust me. It’s not a good compass. Whether you believe in god, or a higher power or the universe. Whatever we came from is bigger than ourselves. And we all come into this world with gifts that we are meant to use. We come in with a guidance system that is truly your own. But you must listen. You must listen. It’s yours. It’s been given to you as a gift; pay attention.

Alright, you know what I think your job is? It’s to find your love story, however long it takes you. And by love story, I mean the love you have for the work that you will do. We are all here to use those gifts. There are no strings attached. Keep your love story alive. Nurture it. Treasure it. Take many trips out of your head and into your heart and soul, because that is where freedom lives. That is where lack of judgment lives. That is where love and hope thrive; very good compass, those. Do not let go of your connection to yourselves. Do not allow anxiety and stress to rule the day for you. Life is not meant to suffocate you. Life is not about walking the plank. Trust yourselves, listen to your guidance system. It comes from within, and you will all find your way. I hope some of this makes sense to you. It’s a very exciting day.

Alright. Now. You choose your perspective on life, just so you know. It’s not things happening to you, they are things happening for you. Everything that happens, you choose how you’re gonna respond. I remember when I was in Los Angeles and had lost tons of weight and I was bone thin. Starving and bone thin, and I thought: “You know what? I’m gonna get a million jobs. I’m in Hollywood, slim, got the hair done, we’re looking good.” I could not get a job. And I would come home after each and every audition that I did not get, and I would wail, literally. And one day in the middle of a wail, I just went: “What are you doing?” My husband said: “Uh oh, she’s gone.” I said: “What are you doing? Why are you choosing this as a reaction? These disappointments don’t mean a darn thing. Your roles that are meant for you are coming. Stop it! You have two kids! Your husband’s still here, he could leave! Life is good, baby! Don’t go down that lane.” I never cried again about an audition. I don’t mean don’t feel disappointment. Feel it. Gotta feel it to heal it. I hate that but it happens to be true. And then I said to myself I’m going to change things. Know what I’m gonna do? I’m going to go into the audition in the future and I’m going to realize that I have the role in that room. I’m the one doing it, it’s mine. So it took away that wanting dynamic. This goes across to all fields, by the way. Your interviews next year, the friends you’re going to make, whatever’s going to happen, you have it in the present moment. It’s very powerful because you’re in there and you’re comfortable. You’re not arrogant, none of that. And I would say a little something before I went in and I would say: “Please show me” (again, to the universe, to god or whomever you look to) and I would say: “Could you tell me something special about this character that I don’t know anything about yet. Just a little sign, would you?” A little game between me and the universe. And without exception, a little something would come; a speech pattern, a little twitch, and I thought: “Oh my goodness. The help is coming from everywhere.” Listen babes. It’s there. It’s there for you all.

Okay. Now. Stay humble. What does humble mean? I looked in the dictionary. It took me ten minutes because I forgot how dictionaries work…H-U. You know. “It’s marked by modesty in behavior, attitude and spirit. Not arrogant or prideful.” I’ll tell you something, the best actors in the world are the humblest because they know the way into the human spirit is humility. I’ve worked with a ton of arrogant actors. I don’t know what goes on there. I don’t know where that ego came from. Part of me wants to say: “Babe, I know your parents didn’t raise you this way, so where is this coming from?” But they never get to the core of the character, because they’re stuck on themselves. Jesus Christ was humble, Gandhi was humble, Martin Luther King was, the Buddha, Einstein, humble. Go there. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place to live.

Honey, you already know all this, so please forgive me. I’m speaking as a parent. Use your manners. I don’t know where they went, but they went somewhere. You have them, I can feel it. Please and thank you; looking in the eye of someone when someone is speaking. Look at them even if you’re bored senseless. Now I’m looking at you all. That used to work in acting school. Anytime we’d be bored, no chance. Out the door. You’re here, you’re present, you’re going to pay attention. Do that. I know you can do it. Give an older person your seat, or anyone who looks tired. “Oh! May I offer you my seat?” “I’m fine, thank you, how are you?” Full sentences. Beautiful. You know, look people in the eye, we talked about that right? You’re going to try to say goodbye to these faculty members and I wish you luck on that one because it’s brutal. Look them in the eye and let the tears flow, because. Because.

Yes, this kindness. Show it. Look for an opportunity for it everywhere you go. Keep your eye and your ears peeled for that. There are so many who are suffering. It’s just a little thing, but do it every day, and when you’re in school next year and you see a classmate who is struggling and they’re trying to hide it because they want to man-up and get through it, take them aside. “I understand. It’s okay. Don’t worry. Everything will be okay.” If you guys are in trouble in college and you get scared and you feel anxious, and you feel depressed and you feel overwhelmed, which could happen, reach out. Ask for help. Don’t wait. I waited. That’s not your friend. Life is safe.

Be on time, darlings, you know? Not just for the respect of others, for self-respect. You know what I’m saying? You’ll get in the habit of that, I imagine you already do it already.

Stay grateful for every single day, and for all that happens in that given day. The good, the painful, the joys, the triumphs, the despair. All of it. Be grateful, because it is all part of the journey. (I’m looking at my little sweet one here, where’d you go? Sorry, I shouldn’t do that on her graduation day. Terrible.)

Let the world know, in no uncertain terms, that you have arrived. And you are ready, and you are willing and you are on for the adventure. When I got to New York I didn’t have an agent, in fact, no one was interested. And I said: “Okay.” And I would go in front of the Broadway houses, this is the truth, and I didn’t care who saw me and I put my arms right out like this (puts arms out). And I would say right to the theater: “ Hello! I’m happy to be here. Thanking for having me. I will be there soon, and I’m not going to be in the audience. I’m going to be on your stage, and I thank you for that. Thank you very much.” And I would go around to the houses. I didn’t know what else to do. Announce your arrival to the world. No arrogance; awareness of the gifts you’ve been given, and you’re going to get the job done. Every class you take, just as simple. I’m here. No other minute’s going to be like this one. Okay, when I didn’t have work, which was often, and I would start to lose hope, I’d go straight into the bedroom and I’d do every monologue that I knew. And I would look into the mirror and say: “ I’m an actress, and that’s the way it’s going to go. I don’t know how long it’s going to take, I will keep the faith and I’m never giving up because that is my love story.” Don’t be afraid if you haven’t found it, to shift. Important. Find within yourselves the unshakable faith that all will work out. Nurture it. Not false, but the truth about you.

Celebrate the small victories, my loves. You pass a quiz you thought you were going to fail, hallelujah. It’s not your course grade at the end, who cares. Every little triumph, celebrate it and be grateful for it. If I got a tiny role I would skip around. Didn’t matter to me, two lines, Uh! Someone said yes! Someone said: “I agree with you, that is your passion!” Celebrate them. They will sustain you. You know, life is long, by the way. It’s heartbreakingly short, and you dance on this earth for a short while, but life is long. Take many breaths. It’s not a race.

Oh, you know what? You know what you have in abundance? You have guts. That comes with youth, but the way. You have guts and you have a fierce, fierce spirit of I can and I will. Don’t you? You have that, don’t you loves? You know you can do it. Take advantage of that because it diminishes over time. When I look back and someone says to me: “Do you want to do it all again?” Are you kidding me? Oh youth. Heck youth. Youth is hard, you know what I’m saying? Where you’re going is a challenge, but you got what it takes to do it, loves. Locate that inside.

Now alright, I’m sorry my daughter hates when I speak of this but I’m going to say it anyway. Don’t use the word “like” five times in a sentence. I mean, for the love of god, don’t do it! And sentences don’t go up at the end. It’s not a question. There’s a period. Know what I’m saying? And there are consonants. Yes! I don’t mean you have to be an actor, but I have coached people who’ve graduated from college, and they’re smart and they’re going on to this organization and that organization and I’m thinking: “Babe, you don’t know how to talk! I have to block out what I’m hearing from you because your pitch is too high, and you’re saying “like” every third word.” I’ve literally taken some aside and said: “Darlin’ just look at a little voice and speech class.” How you speak is very significant. So, are you hearing me on that one? Please now. Very good. I’m going to hunt you down if I hear you’re doing it.

Oh, this is a tricky one, too. You’ve got to put down those phones. I’m not joking. I’m really serious, loves. I feel for you because you don’t know what it was like not to have a phone. We couldn’t find the phone in my house, and I was usually restricted from using it because I had skipped fifty-two classes. Do you know what I’m saying? Phone. Darlings the reasons you have to put it down is because the answers come in the silence. The deepest answers and the secrets that are meant for you, and you alone, come in the silence; in the quiet. You will not find them on your phone. You will not find them on your computer. You will find it only in the quiet moments when you’re not fidgeting trying to do something else. Stay in nature. Nature’s a very good source. Slow it down. I don’t know what to say about social media, I really don’t. Be careful, please. It can mess with your mind. I’m not on it, and first of all, I don’t understand it. But when I first heard phrases like “like me on Facebook” I thought is this a joke? What do you mean “like me”? What’s the matter with you? Who raised you? Guys, I don’t know what’s going on there, but easy. Okay? I don’t want to bore you, but easy on that.

Our country has lost its way. The world has lost its way. You must have a point of view about the world in which you live. Do not turn a blind eye. You are responsible too. Stay alert, stay aware, choose your position and fight for it in every legal way possible. Don’t be one of the quiet ones that says: “Somebody else will do it for me.” We are in trouble, and you will feel the effects of this as your lives move on. We can do this, but we have to do it together. Please. And you must, at all costs, vote. It is your duty.

Okay, we’re coming to the end of this. I’m going to say something about alcohol and weed and all of that. I can’t tell you the stories my daughter tells me about college, and the amount of, forgive me, vomiting and unbelievable drunkenness. Guys, you know what? Stay home and have a beverage if you want to, or two. Talk to your parents; whatever you’re doing. Take care of yourselves. Don’t go overboard, there’s no point to it. Moderate. I don’t know what to say about weed. Don’t get in the habit of stepping away from life; escaping. Saying: “I don’t want to feel that. Can’t wait for that beverage.” Stay with it. Feel what you’re living with. Occasionally, but please moderate. Take care of yourselves. Very important.

I told you that I graduated forty-five years ago. What I didn’t tell you is that this is the first time I have been back, and there is a very important reason for that. I remember it very well, graduation. We chose our pretty white dresses. Couldn’t believe it. We weren’t gonna wear these schmattas, you know what I’m saying? (Turning to the head of school) No offense; lovely. We were going to pick our own dress! And in our day we wore long white dresses, and the white rose, and the men were in their nice suits. And, I’ll try to get through this, when I tried to say goodbye to the faculty, I couldn’t get through it. My father had died in March, and everything was coming to an end here. And the Assistant Dean, I think, I don’t know that that’s her title, said: “I know, I know.” And she thought I was speaking about my father, which I was in part. But also, I knew that I was leaving a place that was sacred to me. And I have always been afraid to come back, because I always felt that my truest self I left somewhere here. But I’m back today, and I have claimed myself. And I am so deeply grateful to you, and so honored to be here on this day with you. Thank you for having me.

I’m going to read a poem in closing. Take in what you can. It’s called “Wild Geese” and it’s by Mary Oliver.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.