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2023 Distinguished Alum, Josie Kearns '01

Friday, 16 Jun 2023

Head of School, Chris English: In 1980, former Headmaster, Joseph Becker began the tradition of honoring an alum with the Distinguished Alumni Award at graduation. As head of school, I find great joy in meeting alum and hearing their stories of Roycemore. I first met this year’s Distinguished Alumna, Josephine Kearns, earlier this year during a Griffin Greats video chat. We later met in person during a professional development day where Josie led a workshop focused on advancing our understanding of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging. Josephine Kearns is a theatre creative, gender consultant, and educator who tells stories of queer and transgender affirmation and joy.

As a theatre artist, Josie focuses primarily on the development of new work, including recently through the Perelman Center, Playwrights Horizons, and MCC in New York; regionally at the Alliance (GA), Seattle Rep, Kansas City Rep, Delaware Theatre Company, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Village Theatre (WA), East West Players (CA), Royal Manitoba Theatre, and more; as well as on multiple pre-Broadway development projects. She also co-curated the 2022 Breaking the Binary Theatre Festival in New York. She is the gender consultant for many national theatrical organizations, including the American Theatre Wing, the Broadway League, Concord Theatricals, and Actors Equity Association. Locally she is an Associate Artist at TimeLine Theatre in Lakeview, where she has worked on nearly 30 productions and is an educator for the League of Chicago Theatres. In 2020, American Theatre Magazine named her a 'person to watch.'

Beyond theatre, Josie's background includes working as a Gender Program Coordinator at Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, as a Research Specialist for TransFocus, and as an independent consultant. She has conducted over 200 gender inclusivity training for theatres, schools, hospitals, businesses, and nonprofits, including two Professional Development seminars for the Faculty at Roycemore School.  Please join me in welcoming Josephine Kearns, class of 2001, as the Distinguished Alumna and Class Speaker for 2023. 

Josie: Good afternoon. I’m so, so excited and honored to be here with you all today.

Twenty-two years and one (1) day ago, I graduated from Roycemore myself. And I was my class’s senior speaker. So first off, shout out to anyone who was here that day.

Now I was the type of young person who didn’t start writing my speech until two nights before graduation – and I only did it then because I’d arranged to meet with my drama teacher the next day to talk through it. So naturally I wrote about what was on my mind with graduation bearing down. The future. My speech was about dreams, and the importance of believing in yourself enough to chase them.

Now let me tell you about my drama teacher. Her name was Ms. Mueller, and she’d only taught at Roycemore for two years. At the time we didn’t have any drama classes available to us – only the twice-a-year school plays – so I’d done four shows with her, as an actor, lighting designer, and de facto stage manager. I’d loved theatre ever since my first show, in kindergarten (I had played a munchkin in The Wiz). So I had thrown myself into our productions of Give and Take, and Moonchildren, and Harvey, and Ms. Mueller had quickly become one of my favorite teachers.

Now, however, after her two years at the school, she was leaving along with me – in her case, to pursue a theatrical career she couldn’t have while teaching. Now I can’t say how much my speech spoke to her specifically, but I can say that while she was sitting in front of me reading it, I realized it was pretty much describing what she was in the middle of doing – trusting herself to take that leap and make her dreams happen.

After she read it we talked for a while, about our plans for the future, about graduation, about summer and theatre and college. We talked about her dreams of working in theatre and my still-unformed dreams – I’d decided to wait until I got to college before picking a major or a career. I don’t know how long we talked, though I can still picture exactly where we were sitting in the school library on Lincoln Ave. And then we hugged and promised to see each other the next day.

Twenty-four hours later I was in Room 3 getting my boutonniere and preparing to walk and Ms. Mueller briefly poked her head in. She handed me a card that I still have and a bookmark with a quote from Edgar Allen Poe – “Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.”

And though I couldn’t have told you the exact moment I realized it – from that day forward I always, just, knew. That I was going to do theatre. I declared my major in my first week of college. I’ve now worked on over 70 professional productions. I still have my original speech, too. So I pulled it out again this week, thinking it might be fun to use some part of it for today. (Side note: notice that twenty-two years later I’m now twice as mature – I wrote *this* speech *four* days ago.)

Reading through that speech, though, I couldn’t stop feeling like it was… incomplete. Like, yes – trusting yourself to chase your dreams is great and important, and inspirational! But it’s also not often that simple. So, with the benefit of hindsight and a bit more wisdom, I want to talk about dreams once again, and some things I wish I had known about them in 2001.

The first thing I wish I’d known was that following dreams is rarely straightforward or linear. I think some of this is the fault of how we talk about dreams. If I’m being honest, the version of my story that I just gave you is really the social media version. The truth is, I’ve quit theatre six times. At various other points in my adult life, I’ve considered myself fully entrenched in careers as a high school algebra teacher, as a community programs coordinator at a hospital, as an organic farmer, as a wedding planner, and as a director of education, among other things.

But then when I talk about it *that* way it sounds like, wow she was really swimming in circles, or stuck in neutral, or it took her a long time to figure out what she was doing. Right? BUT NOW SHE KNOWS. And the truth here is that none of that is actually accurate either.

For one thing, I still don’t know what I’m doing, and I had a conversation earlier this week about quitting theatre for the seventh time. So there’s that. Please keep that between the couple hundred of us.

Because the thing about dreams is, they shift and change and grow over time. I don’t know why we don’t talk about them that way - *we* shift and change and grow over time, or at least we’re supposed to, so shouldn’t our dreams do the same along with us?

I’m trans, and part of the work I still do outside the theatre world is working as an EDI (Equity/Diversity/Inclusion) consultant with businesses and schools on gender inclusivity. And last week I was doing a training for a school district and a preschool teacher asked, “Well if kids come to us and say they’re trans, how do we know they won’t change their mind? How do we know that a kid who says she’s a girl today won’t say she’s a boy tomorrow?”

My first snarky response is always, how do you know that a kid who *isn’t* trans won’t change their mind tomorrow, because you can’t know that either. But the broader point is this: let’s say this three-year-old, tells us they’re one person today and then tells us they’re someone else tomorrow. WHO CARES! We are all shifting and changing and growing all the time, three-year-olds included, and to say that at any given moment we have to have any given thing about ourselves completely and permanently figured out is absurd. Maybe we should just be the people we are today, and let the people around us be the people they are today, and that might not change tomorrow, but it also might, and maybe that should all just be okay.

It’s similar to dreams. You probably have lots of them – I hope you do – and some of them probably conflict with each other, and some of them are probably really different from the dreams you had last year or yesterday or when you were three. And they might change again tomorrow! But for me to stand up here and say, “Chase your dreams,” doesn’t necessarily help with navigating any of that. (Actually, does anybody have the same dreams they had when they were three? Cause that’d be really cool.)

There is one person who can navigate those changes, and that’s you. What it really comes down to – is trusting yourself to know what’s best and being willing to go with it. I trusted myself every time I quit theatre and every time I went back to theatre, and that journey was wild and some of those leaps were really scary and felt really stupid and also if I hadn’t made every single one of those decisions the way I did I wouldn’t be up here talking today. So just know: it will be wild and scary and stupid and also the absolute best thing you can do is trust your instincts, close your eyes, and leap.

So that’s one thing I wish I’d known – that’s the ‘what’ of your dreams. A second thing I wish I’d known is one I’m ashamed I wasn’t thinking more about in 2001, which is social responsibility, and how our dreams impact not just ourselves but the people and the world around us.

This is an area where I don’t think I need to preach to you – the young people I know from your generation can run laps around most of us ‘90s kids, and as you grow and begin to take over, our world is going to be so, so much better for it.

But I do think there’s one thing I’ve learned in that arena that’s worth mentioning.

Theatre is a funny place when it comes to social responsibility. On the one hand, we’ve got big-budget commercial musicals that are mostly there to rack up the bucks. On another hand, we’ve got things like educational theatre, which is there mostly for the performers to learn and enjoy themselves and share the joy of that participation with the audience. On another hand, there is theatre, where it sometimes feels like the performers are just there to show off what great artists they are. And then there’s theatre that views its primary focus as one of social responsibility – telling stories with an agenda for change.

Now obviously there’s overlap among these categories, and all of them strive to be engaging and entertaining in their own ways. But for years, I believed that the only theatre that was truly valid was theatre that directly fought for something – that showcased the inequities in the world and pushed its audiences to do something about them. I’ll call it ‘activist theatre.’

There’s a deep importance to activist theatre, just as there’s a deep importance to activist work in all arenas. But there’s a trap that I think can be easy to fall into, or at least it was for me, in believing that activist work is the only type of work that makes a difference in the world, and everything else is frivolous or somehow selfish.

There’s a quote from civil rights leader Howard Thurman that you’ve probably heard before: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” The first time I heard this quote I was deep in my ‘activist-theatre’ phase, and I kind of heard this quote as letting people off the hook – as though it were saying ‘oh, don’t worry, you don’t have to fight for a just world, just do what makes you happy!’

But I think its intent, and what I’m trying to get across now, is actually exactly the opposite – it’s that all work should be activist work. We can’t just go around doing direct action all the time and wallowing in pain and anger. We need to sometimes! But if we do it all the time it becomes exhausting and demoralizing and overwhelming and we end up burning out and hurting all the other facets of our lives. Instead what we should be doing is looking at our dreams, at those things that make us come alive, and asking, “how can I be using this to also make the world a better place?”

I have a good friend who’s a director who likes to say that “how we create is just as important as what we create.” His point is that whatever we’re doing, we need to ensure we’re doing it thoughtfully, and equitably, or it won’t matter that we’ve done it at all. And this, I think, is what matters when we’re dreaming – that we trust ourselves to dream not only of what we want to accomplish, but how, and that we ensure those things are in harmony with both the world we dream about and the one we live in now.

Now there’s one final thing I wish I had known about dreams when I graduated. Which is that as much as it matters what our dreams are and how we go about chasing them, something that matters maybe even more, maybe even most of all, is who we’re doing those things with.

I’ve worked on a LOT of projects – every show I sign onto is essentially another new short-term job with another new group of people. And what’s funny is that if you ask me which were my favorites? Where I was most able to make an impact? Where my work felt most important? The answers often have much more to do with the people involved than they do with the specifics of the work we were doing.

There’s also this assumption, I think, that chasing dreams is something we do solo. As if everyone who loves us isn’t invested and a part of our dreams, too, and as if we aren’t along for the ride with everyone we love in turn. Every one of us will love and be loved by so many people in our lives, and some of those people will come and go, just as our dreams will. There will come a day when you have to give up on one dream to support another one, even if it’s someone else’s. But that’s okay too.

At the end of the day, there’s beauty and meaning to be found in all sorts of places. There are thousands of different versions of your life that involve you doing deeply impactful work that makes you and the people you love very happy. Trust yourself. Trust the people you love. And go out there and make the most of it. There’s only us.

Congratulations, graduates. I can’t wait to hear about all that you do next.

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