Why we make art

Another First Stage Young Company student - and graduating senior shares his thoughts on art, and the many moments that made his experience at First Stage exceptional.

Maxwell Zupke in Our Town, 2015
Hi, I’m Maxwell Zupke, and I’ll be studying English, creative writing, and lifelong poverty at the University of California-Los Angeles. This is only my second year in the Young Company, but I’ve been at First Stage in some capacity for over ten years.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why we make art, specifically theater, why it’s important to us. There are a lot of popular reasons – because it’s entertaining, because it teaches us morals or lessons, because it’s a historical or cultural mirror – and they’re all somewhat true but I think there are flaws and exceptions to each of those arguments.

But the most irresistible argument is that great art becomes immortal –our ideas, our feelings can live on beyond our own short lives. But I’m not sure that’s the case, either. There’s a line the stage manager says in Our Town: “Babylon once had two million people in it, and all we know about ‘em is the names of the kings and some copies of wheat contracts.” We like to say that Shakespeare is immortal; Hamlet may die in act five but he’ll live forever. The truth is that Hamlet has a much longer life than any of us – he was born hundreds of years ago and he’ll likely – hopefully – outlive us all by a good deal more, but there was a day when he was born onstage and there will be a day when he dies onstage as well.

In the end, all theater is – like life – just a series of moments that somehow form a human experience, some of which we take on in memory and which we pass on ourselves so that they might live a little longer; moments of discovery, of conflict, of bliss, of melancholy, of magic, of mystery. So I thank you for the moments – onstage and off – I’ve spent with you, with the understanding that most everything worth expressing has either already been said in small words here and there or else is, in fact, unsayable.

So thank you to Noa Rubnitz for always asking questions – even if half of them make no sense, to Josie Trettin for your sly glances across the room, to Max Wilson for your bemused ingenuity, to Mary Elsa Henrichs for your impressive combination of grace and fierce intelligence, to Caroline Fossum for sharing the anxiety of a first Company Class and a last Young Company show, to Hannah Engel for your emotional honesty and your contagious nervous excitement, to Max Pink for gently correcting my cockney (many times), to Lexie Peterson for the warmth and love in your backstage hugs, to Katherine Pollnow for your calm and your resilience in the face of small children and other seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and to Conlan Ledwith for your gleeful abandon in everything – especially things which have never before been treated with gleeful abandon. Thank you to Henry Lynch for your ease and good humor and for acting as a point of semi-reliable mental and emotional stability through the years. God knows we all need it. Thank you to Ben Braun for our late night movie rants and for our close encounters with death of the automobile kind. Thank you to Erin Bentley for your loyalty and for your ability to always make me laugh. Thank you to Alison Pogorelc for our forays into theater of questionable quality and for our Saturday afternoon coffee sessions.

And thank you to my mom, for convincing me – when it became apparent that soccer was not my thing – to try a theater class. Thank you to Marcy Kearns for showing me the sheer joy of continual, ceaseless discovery. Your bald, unmitigated enthusiasm for just about everything is a source of infinite inspiration. And to Matt Daniels for showing me how to build a character and a world from the text up, and for including me in the creative process like I’d never been before. You made all of us feel as though it was not only our town, but our play. And of course, thank you to John Maclay for teaching me to love Shakespeare, to wrestle like a kung fu master, and to be stingy with my cookies.

At First Stage I’ve played a king and a street urchin, a drunken priest and an arrogant wrestler, a count with a cheating fiancée and a boy with a mouse infestation, an embattled circus ringmaster and a probably underpaid stage manager. But by far the roles I’ve cherished most have been student and friend – and I hope to continue playing them for a long time. Thank you, my friends, for all these wonderful moments.

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