Tony-winning Broadway director Christopher Ashley had a strange childhood.
Ashley, son of the late SUNY Cortland philosophy professor Lawrence Ashley, attended the former Cortland Campus School during the 1970s, when the school “was one giant avant garde experiment,” he told graduating seniors at Saturday afternoon’s commencement.
More than 1,600 undergraduate degrees were conferred Saturday in three ceremonies, as well as 201 master’s degrees and 22 certificates of advanced study. The morning graduation ceremony featured a speech from paralympian Ann Cody, and the evening ceremony one by political science professor Henry Steck.
One of the experiments Ashley was part of, he said, involved one-way mirrors in classrooms, on the other side of which was “an observation room where other teachers and teachers in training could observe the class.”
Those mirrored walls had a weird effect on the students, and especially on young Ashley, who felt like he was constantly under observation. As a result, he always did his best to give his unseen audience a convincing performance of studious behavior.
But just before he graduated, he told his father he’d miss the teachers who’d been watching from behind the glass.
“And my dad said, ‘What are you talking about? The funding for that department got slashed, and there hasn’t been anyone inside those observation rooms for the last year.’”
This is when Ashley realized he “had been performing for an audience of no one.”
It also made him ask himself, “Who am I when no one is watching?”
Ashley spent the next few decades exploring the overlap between performance and identity as a director of both stage and screen. Performing for no one helped him learn to cope with failure, he said. And that was a good thing, because failure beset him early and often in his career, but it never knocked him down for good.
He encouraged the graduates to learn from their failures and tolerate failures of others.
“I think that there is maybe too much brashness and belief in ourselves out there in America right now,” he said. Instead, he asked graduating students “to care of each other, to be kind and generous, and to tolerate failure.”
Sophie Umansky, president of the Student Government Association, also found strength in failure, she said. Early in her time at SUNY Cortland, she nearly dropped out after bombing on a class presentation. But she stuck with it, she said, and managed to turn her academic career around.
“Our time at Cortland was not always easy,” Umansky said. “But what reward has ever come from anything easy?”
The Saturday afternoon graduation ceremony also saw a semi-surprise visit from Sen. Chuck Schumer, who received a modest amount of booing as he made his way to the podium.
Schumer related his experience working for the campaign of Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 Democratic primaries, when he saw the power of grassroots organizing to influence events. While McCarthy didn’t win the nomination, he gained enough support to knock incumbent President Lyndon Johnson out of race.
“A ragtag group of students and assorted nobodies had changed the course of the world,” Schumer said. That moment was so inspiring for Schumer that he decided to devote his life to politics. He suggested the graduates find a similar passion in order to “dedicate your lives to making the world a better place.”