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"Stuck Like a Dope with a Thing Called Hope": The NECESSITY of Actors and Theatre

Timothy Thompson draws inspiration from the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune, "A Cockeyed Optimist."

By North Carolina

A scene from the revival of <i>South Pacific</i> at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater
A scene from the revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater
(© Joan Marcus 2008)
In April 2012, the news source, The Daily Beast, released a revolting article entitled "The Thirteen Most Useless Majors: From Philosophy to Journalism," which then went on to showcase these areas categorized as such due to rate of employment, annual earnings of graduates, and projected growth rate (or lack thereof) of that professional field. The first three majors on this list, in this order, included "Fine Arts," "Drama and Theatre Arts," and "Film, Video, and Photographic Arts."

I am not one to like hearing that I have devoted three years to something considered "useless." I don't think the work my peers do is "useless." I don't care how expert the source is; acting, theater, and the study of such arts is not a waste of time. Subsequently, the article found its way to CNN and Facebook, which is how I discovered it. Since April, the article has remained lodged in the back of my mind, poisoning my thoughts, making me wonder if choosing to pursue acting in college was the best choice. Now that I am a senior in college about to embark upon a professional career, I feel the sting of these statistics even deeper.

To combat the rage and misgivings this article has made me feel, I discover solace within my art. This solace comes in the form of a silly little show tune, "A Cockeyed Optimist" written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the musical South Pacific. It was hearing this tune in a singing class demonstration that prompted me to research more about this celebrated, frequently-revived, post-WWII, Pulitzer-Prize-winning musical.

In context, the song is sung by the character Nellie Forbush, a US Navy nurse assigned to an island in the South Pacific, to the man she has fallen in love with. It is her belief that everything will be all right despite the other characters' shared uncertainty and fear of the war's outcome. Though hearing "the human race is falling on its face and hasn't very far to go," she rebuffs "ev'ry whippoorwill is sellin' me a bill, and tellin' me it just ain't so." Her spirit, though "immature and incurably green" and with its own flaws, refuses to be tainted by the bad news today is bringing. This hope, introduced early in the show as the third musical number, promises South Pacific will end happily despite the numerous conflicts that arise throughout the plot.

Obviously times have changed since these lyrics were first written, but the shared uncertainty and fear of the future remain prevalent even today. Sixty-some years later there is a war going on, though the nature and location are different. One need only turn on the television or internet to be overwhelmed by an onslaught of updates, photographs, and footage of the rising national debt, "failures" of elected leaders and government, the rising global recession, carnage at home and abroad, or lists of "useless" majors offered at places of higher learning.

With a surplus of nasty statistics, it's so easy to feel like a passenger on a sinking ship. To top it off, the professional actor path appears as one of the most unpredictable in terms of employment and stability. I say, in response, to this article and any doubts about pursuing a "useless" major, that my art provides a sense of purpose in a world that appears to offer more problems than solutions. Moreover, the theater has always offered inspiration, innovation, and hope. After all, it is my art that can readily supply a Nellie Forbush to alleviate doubts of a happy ending.

Steven Dietz states most eloquently in his author's note before The Nina Variations, "The stage is that place where second chances are granted. Where the tiny slights and cruel evasions which haunt our relations with others can be amended, rethought, overcome. The stage gives us one more chance to throw open the door and say what's in our hearts." People will forever watch actors, because actors live such second chances and can physically open that door when all seems hopeless.

The lyrics of "A Cockeyed Optimist" don't seem so silly, dated, or "useless" anymore, nor do the roles of an actor, the theater, or anyone pursuing it. Every day, I am incredibly thankful and honored that I get to partake in this community and continue a tradition of actors and artists providing spiritual nourishment in a world hungry for hope and optimism.

Tags: TMUSouth Pacific


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