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Jason Butler Harner’s (BFA ’92) December 2018 Commencement Address

Headshot of Jason Butler Harner wearing a white shirt and blue suit jacket

Actor, writer and producer Jason Butler Harner (BFA ’92) delivered the 2018 VCUarts December Commencement address on December 8. Read what he had to say to the Class of 2018, or watch the video below.

Thank you for those kind words. Very generous of you. Thank you. Dean Brixey, Theatre VCU Chairwoman Ott, distinguished School of the Arts faculty, select Burning Man survivors (I see you Sculpture Department), supportive parents and families, chosen families and friends, and most importantly, graduates. Graduates. I feel like we should all say that word. Graduates of the class of 2018. Welcome. It is my profound honor to be here with you this afternoon. I commend you on this tremendous achievement of earning your degree and I thank you for allowing me to both share this milestone with you, as well as welcome you to the select community of VCUarts alumni. I, and this whole room, congratulate you on this December 8th, 2018 day.

I think we should all actually congratulate them. Yes, out loud. Voice is energy. Energy is power. Unity of voice, energy, and power opens the door to the possible. So, congratulations on 3. 1..2..3…congratulations!

Now I feel like it’s unbalanced. So, graduates, indulge me please, while you’re here in this moment, thinking of all the hard work you have done to be here, thinking of anyone who helped you: teacher, parent, mentor, whether they’re in your mind or in this room, think of all that and, on 3, I want you to say ‘thank you!’ 1..2..3, thank you!

Wonderful, perfect. We made room, in the room, for something more. Look at us creating. Communicating. Collaborating. Artists that we are. You know, it has been often said and sung and written that, “you can never go home again.” And I know what those creative voices mean “Home can never be the same,” but I also know that right now, it feels so full for me to be back at VCU, a home where I spent four years of my life, to be revisiting this vibrant school which has grown so much, gotten seen by so many more. It’s good to be back in the city of Richmond, rich in it’s history: nuanced, complex, requiring us to hold past and present in our heads at the same time as we do; with its future so much brighter today than yesterday.

Especially so as I stand here looking at you, and for me to be back in this very building in which I walked 30 years ago (how did that happen?). 30 years ago, I walked into “The Mosque” as it was called then, I was a late admission so I had to enroll in person for the required first year curriculum of a BFA acting major. I hadn’t planned on coming to VCU, no. April in my senior year arrived at T.C. Williams, rejection letters from half-assed applications were in this hand and the freshly opened, previously neglected, acceptance letter from TheatreVCU was in this hand. So, an opportunity was offered, a plan unfolded, I accepted and I had no idea at the time but a salvation was put into play.

It’s not hyperbole. My life was literally saved by the theatre. And therefore by this school, it’s teachers, and me daring to do it. Okay, cut to me in the ballroom downstairs, well, first cut to the montage of me living at MCV, taking that bus every day, just me and Larena Muhammed, freezing on that bus. We came in here and registered for our then required first-year courses which included art history. I was so curious, so excited, but also so insecure, so skeptical, so side-eyed, so sucked teeth before I knew sucked teeth about this art history requirement.

I was an acting major thank you very much, I had zero training, didn’t know what it was, and here today in the Altria Theatre on December 8th, 2018, I can tell you still what Giotto blue is, what Rubens achieved with candle light on flesh, and how I used the works of Lucian Freud, Franz Kline and Richard Serra as formative inspiration when I played Hamlet in Dallas in 2003. Thank you Sue Ann Messmer, formative VCU Art History teacher that you are.

BFA 1992. Thank you. I’m out. Confession of youth, when I graduated, I taped on my hat, “BFA – BFD.” So dumb. But not wrong. It is a “BFD.” So wrong line interpretation. So, you have an education now and, you don’t know. You don’t know exactly where you are going to be, what you are going to do. How you will pay off those loans. (It will be OK.) It may be understandably overwhelming but, “To be or not to be that is the question.” And I want you to be. I want you to live, to choose to live, to choose to be bigger than you think possible even now. It isn’t going to happen on its own. You’re going to have to do more than think, excel as you have done here, past a comfort zone. But I am standing here, with the flashlight, as someone who has pushed and struggled, sobbed and rejoiced in a life that continues to be so much bigger than I imagined when I sat in your seat staring at someone talking too long as I am now.

Trust me enough to say, it’s going to be hard, you’re going to have to work, but you have a foundation and it can be done. My money is on you. Your unique success can be achieved. And, “Success isn’t a pie. No one’s gonna steal your piece.” You have to decide on the pie and make it. And “80% of life is showing up, 20% is following up.” But you have a responsibility to yourself to make that pie. That’s what education offers—responsibility to self. And you have a responsibility to support each other in whatever life success pie your friends make. So, honor this time and each of your journeys by encouraging each other in this “Grande Bakery of Life.”

This week has been fascinating and I am so moved by you. I really am. 100%. Not least of all because it’s a December graduation, and that means some of you overachievers earned your degree in three and a half years and some of you did it a little longer, however you did it, that’s your success, even you 12th year seniors. You did it! Mazel Tov. Go Rams!

Genuinely though, you are right where you are supposed to be. You are. We all always are, truthfully. We have to learn to say it to ourselves throughout life. I am where I am supposed to be. In this moment. It took me too many years to say it. Ok, it took the time it took. I am where I am supposed to be. You know we say that because otherwise if we succumb to worry, to dread, it stunts, it wastes time. It’s a false endeavor. There is no solace. Worrying is a meditation. It’s a negative mediation. Why fill yourself with negative thinking when the positive one, however challenging to dare to do offers the better fruit, the better ride, the better head space, and frankly, is so much easier for the rest of us to be around?

So yes, I did my first play here and then many years, many plays and grad school at NYU later, I got my Equity card in a production of Macbeth in New York. With a bunch of fancy folks. Very sexy. Alec Baldwin, Angela Bassett. Liev Schreiber, then unknown actors like Zach Braff and Michael C. Hall. So there’s a lot of dudes in that play and we would all hang out, and I remember Alec and Liev, who were very kind to me and we’re still acquaintances now, but I remember them talking to Mike, who I knew from grad school, in a way that they just didn’t talk to me. As I said, we’re friends, they were fun, but they were prepping him for the success that they could see was coming for him. For whatever reason, his skill, his voice, his looks, maybe because he was a guy’s guy like them and so they knew what was coming, but I remember also it not feeling so great as I smiled on the sidelines, heart collapsing, breath tightening, playing the jester as I used to do then and don’t do now. And I remember thinking, as a teacher had said to both Mike and I, and now I say to you, “Tolerate Yourself.”

Tolerate yourself as you have learned to do when you are in the process of creating, when you have an idea or no idea, and you want to get there without having to live through here. Tolerate yourself on the journey. You’ll find something new on the way. I promise you, you will. Hold yourself accountable, yes, but tolerate yourself. I found resilience that time and empowerment. He wasn’t my story. “Comparison is the thief of joy,’”right? This time here, all your training, has helped you find your viewpoint, your voice, helped make it fuller, richer, emboldened it with knowledge and it will support you as you tolerate yourself, as you discover, do, make, be and speak your truth. Little by little, not big by big. So: clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.

In that same production was this guy Anil Kumar. We were all playing small roles, as you do, so he had this servant role that said something like “The king, my lord, is beyond the palace gate,” or something. And we are in tech, it’s slow, lotta smoke and mud, leather, fur, strobe lights, drums, and Anil made a choice, he signed his work, to enter kind of like a rabid squirrel. He was all “The king, my lord, is beyond the palace gate.” It was a lot given for a little ask. So much is happening around the servant, to y’know Macbeth, which is, as you can imagine, more important. So, there’s this pause. And, over the God mic, from the darkness, you hear George C. Wolfe, amazing director and iconic force, say “Anil, great choice. Don’t ever do it again.” And a pause. And then Anil started laughing. And George laughed. We all laughed. And space was made for a company to be more, for humor but also for a respect of failure—a respect for Anil’s endeavor. You have to respect failure, not be afraid of it. You have to leap. Failure offers information. Growth. Courage. Knowledge. Less time failing in that way, the next time, to then be able to do more. I also believe, as an artist with a degree, you have to encourage a creative space that values failure. Not asking questions, not risking offers complacency, offers stagnation, offers unhappiness, offers resentment. Re: feeling of things, dead can only lead to anger and depression. Value failure.

I’m asked all the time about VCU, why VCU? How VCU? And I think I’ve reached a cohesive observation. A VCUarts grad has a certain tenacity, a scrappiness, an ingenuity, a quirkiness to rise to the occasion and solve the challenge uniquely. We have that because, in addition to the quality of education, we are in Richmond, not New York City, time and space are
handled differently, and though we are, without a doubt, a great school, we aren’t an Ivy League school, and people like me who hadn’t planned but had talent and drive can be here with the opportunity given, the hand extended, to then choose to be more. Or not. We dare. In other words, things that may seem like qualifiers in one lens, are actually identifiers and builders in another. Choose your lens. And though there’s a little smoke and mirrors in all of what we do, getting to the true sense of confidence can be the real challenge for us. I’m not talking about the clichéd, outdated American Dream ideas like “Fake it til you make it.” Not the posturing, sweating yourself, faux swagger, but actually being confident. I do swagger sparingly, I do, but I’m after true confidence which requires knowledge of self and security of ego. Who am I? A question artists are not afraid to ask. And, as words are my raw materials, I know that confidence actually means “with faith.” So, my wish for you and my younger self is proceed with faith. Proceed with a faith in yourself. Build on that simple belief. Faith in your talents, your discipline, your drive, your ability to tolerate yourself, to grow, to apologize, your faith in the value of your time and the value of what we creative folks do. And what you and only you do.

Which, by the way, is the thing we up here and around you really want and need for you to be. We want you to be happy, to be engaged in your life and we need all these artistic, communicative skills of yours to especially do one of the things which they inherently do, encourage compassion. We need it. The arts have always been the gift of engagement with another. Of reflection. To be present in the same space with another person, we need that because this world, now, more than any time in a long while, needs compassion. We’re forgetting how. “Co-Passion.” Feeling with another, experiencing and encouraging humanity with another is what the world needs and we offer. So, I implore you to do some portion of your work in service to others. It is in service to something beyond ourselves that we continue the discovery of the self and also encourage compassion, humanity, discourse, which are the fruits of our very personal labor.

As you segue from student to professional, as you ponder the very personal challenge of balancing art and commerce, I offer one last thought (Thank goodness): be kind. It is important. You can be firm and be kind. You can have a point of view and be kind. You can trash a hotel room in slo-mo, throwing a mini-fridge through a window and be kind. It was season 1. So not a spoiler. Be kind. With a sense of humor. It just reflects better on you and allows you a sense of humility and joy. And respect for others. All of which I have right now. You are the dreamers and the makers. You can hold two opposing thoughts at the same time and create from them. Which benefits us all. The world awaits you. And you are ready for the world. I, for one, cannot wait to see what you do.

Thank you.

About Jason Butler Harner (BFA ’92)

Jason Butler Harner is an actor, writer and producer who began his training in the VCUarts Theatre department. Harner was born in a small town in New York, raised in Alexandria, Virginia, and now lives in New York City and Los Angeles.

He is the second member of his family to earn a bachelor’s degree and the first to earn a master’s degree, which he received from the Graduate Acting Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Harner has appeared in theaters across the U.S., on London’s West End, and frequently on and off-Broadway. He recently completed the Broadway premiere of Bernhardt/Hamlet in November. He has an Obie Award, two Drama Desk nominations, multiple city and festival awards, and a beloved Phoebe Award from the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Harner currently plays Agent Roy Petty in the Netflix hit Ozark, while his big screen appearances range from the Oscar-nominated Changeling to the indie hits The Family Fang and The Green. His early career includes turns in Dogwood Dell’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, Shadowcast Theatre’s groundbreaking Psycho Beach Party, and the role of Headless in the never-to-be seen-again Ripped: A Rock Mythical at the Hodges Theatre. More recently, Harner has appeared on Scandal, Ray Donovan, Homeland, Alcatraz, Blacklist and Law and Order.

Harner ties his ability to create a character and the success of his career back to the foundation he received at VCUarts at a pivotal moment in his life.