“What’s Old Is New Again,” with Nathan Hedman ’95
Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, and today we sat down with Professor Nathan Hedman, SPU class of ’95. He has served as a joint appointment to the Departments of English and Theatre at High Point University, where he teaches courses at the intersection of performance and literature. He now serves as director of their honors program as well. Dr. Hedman recently returned from advising a group of students studying abroad in Prague. Nathan, thank you so much for joining us today.
Nathan Hedman: Amanda, this is fun. I’m excited. Let’s do this!
Amanda: (laughs) I should mention that Nathan and I were both in the University Players in the Theatre Department at SPU together, so we had a lot of chances to work together and do some traveling theatre together. And anyone who has done a traveling theatre show, this is a bond like being on, I don’t know, a football team, something. You have been through the wars together, is what it is, I think.
Nathan: Yeah, I mean, I would liken it to a war situation where there’s a band of brothers scenario, harrowing tales of mishap, but then also, of course, as anyone who’s been in theatre knows, working on any production in general is a friend-for-life kind of maker. So yeah.
Nathan: But we did it more than one year. How many years did we … Was it more than one?
Amanda: You did it more years than I did, but we also did a lot of plays together, just within the theatre department.
Nathan: Yes, that’s right.
Amanda: And then afterwards, we did a few plays together after school, as well.
Nathan: Oh, that’s true. We did, yeah.
Amanda: This is so interesting for other people to listen to. (laughs)
Nathan: I know, they love this stuff.
Amanda: Our just finding our memories.
Nathan: Let’s regale ourselves with tales of old.
Amanda: Well, let’s jump into something in your introduction that is always fascinating to me. It’s that word “intersection.” When you say that you teach at the intersection of performance and literature, what does that mean to you?
Nathan: Well, in a plain way, it means that if you’re ever reading plays, like Shakespeare’s King Lear or something, it used to be the case that a good English faculty member would think, “Well, the meaning is here in this text, so we just have to mine it for its themes and characterization and plot points, and then we’ll have the meaning.” But there’s a very few experts of Shakespeare, even, today, who would say that the meaning is in the text. They would be much more inclined to say, “Actually, we don’t even know which text is the real Lear.” Because we know that Shakespeare was iterating it all the time and handing it out and then, “Oh, that didn’t work. I’m going to rewrite that one because that one stunk.”
And so we have iterations of all his texts, and we know that for most of his career, he never imagined that they would ever get published. So it looks to be the case that the meaning is located in the event, of its performance, not in the actual text. So thus we have borne whole theatre scholarship, which is, like, in order for us to know the text, we have to know who’s there and how much they’re paying for a ticket and what are they eating while the show is going on? Which, by the way, we learned not too long ago that they were eating apricots and maybe oysters. Could you imagine how gross that would be?
Amanda: Eww, the smell.
Nathan: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, so they excavated a theatre space and there were all these apricot pits and oyster shells. Think of it like peanuts at a baseball game. Of course, that’s just a minor fact, but when you accumulate thousands of facts, you start to get a sense of what it looks like for this text to be performed, and that’s where the main thing is. It’s hard work for a historian to do it, but when it’s done well it’s super exciting because you get a sense like, “Oh, you mean they were just like people,” and having experiences with a play that was about the text, but was not delimited to it. So that’s maybe a basic way that that intersection takes place.
But there are other ways, too. I can think of one. I teach a class called “The Story of Cool,” and this is my attempt to try to narrate into being how “being cool” became a thing. Because we don’t really have an account of it before the 18th century. People could be ladies and gentlemen. They could be noble. They could be exhibiting the virtues. But being cool, like standoffish, self-marginalizing figures that don’t want to be a part of the crowd, this is a newish thing.
“I teach a class called ‘The Story of Cool,’ and this is my attempt to try to narrate into being how ‘being cool’ became a thing. Because we don’t really have an account of it before the 18th century. People could be ladies and gentlemen. They could be noble. They could be exhibiting the virtues. But being cool, like standoffish, self-marginalizing figures that don’t want to be a part of the crowd, this is a newish thing.”
So when I teach this class, we look at texts, like 18th-century Romantic poetry you can imagine would be in there, but all the way up to a lot of good 21st-century literature, but we’re also looking at how did blue jeans become a thing? And why white t-shirts? And how come if you wore glasses in the 18th century, like sunglasses, it signaled you had a stigmatism and it was a medical condition, but if you put sunglasses on in the late 19th century or early 20th century, you’re suddenly cool? Every kid knows this. You put sunglasses on, “Oh, you’re a cool guy.” So this becomes a kind of performance, which is at, I feel like, the intersection of a bunch of material artifacts kind of woven together and trying to respond to a felt need that people have, in this case to be cool. Why is that, and what does it look like to perform cool? That’s obviously not dramatic texts, but you can see how it quickly pivots into ways that we perform texts all the time, and they’re fulfilling a really important need for us.
Amanda: I think it’s interesting that we talk about Shakespeare and all forms of classical music, Beethoven, Mozart, and it becomes this stuffy, high-class … You may love it, but then maybe you listen to NPR. You don’t listen to the Top 40. It’s sectioned off that way. When those things were around, they were the Top Gun. They were the Barbie Movie, right? It was the new, hip thing. Mozart was thought of as way too much of a rebel, and here it becomes classic over time, just like in the ’50s. we listen to ’50s music now and it seems so tame, and a lot of church people back in the day would say, “That is the sound of Satan. How dare you listen to ‘Jitterbug’?”
Nathan: Yeah, scandalized.
Amanda: I do think it is fascinating how we just evolve. It always has to be new, and then we’re afraid of what’s new once we hit a certain age.
Nathan: Yeah, I think that’s right. Certain art forms get taken up into the cause of XYZ and, in this case Shakespeare has gone through many permutations over the generations. It means this or if you … High water mark for Shakespeare would be you’ve got to wear your mink stole when you go to watch the play. That would have been hilarious to people who, in 1605, would go see a production. (laughs)
I went to a production, actually, at the Globe. I took a group of students. I went to a couple. And it wasn’t really until I got — I knew this to be the case as a fact, that a lot of it was lowbrow and the groundlings filled the floor and they paid a penny to get in there, so Shakespeare’s got a lot of lowbrow, naughty jokes, and people apparently ate it up.
I was at a production of As You Like It, I think. There’s a wrestling match in there and I remember thinking, “What a weird idea. Why would you put a wrestling match between two guys that are going to settle some minor conflict?” And it happened, these guys took their shirts off and first of all, they looked amazing. And then second of all, I looked over here and there’s a bunch of private school girls that were … There was a giant pillar in their way and they were trying to get around the pillar to get a clear view, and I thought immediately, I looked over there, and they were screaming and stuff. I thought, “Shakespeare, you wag. I know exactly what you’re doing. Of course you’re going to put an awesome wrestling match in the middle of your play.”
Amanda: You’re like, “Let’s see, how can I get these shirts off?”
Nathan: Exactly. (laughs) It totally put the pin in the, you know, you’ve got to get your game on to enjoy Shakespeare. Which doesn’t take anything away from, of course, the profundity of the ending of As You Like It or any other play. It’s the depth and the height that he’s so good at reaching for that makes those plays so singularly powerful, even today, I think. So when I teach Shakespeare today, it is a struggle, but I think half the struggle is, “I hate Shakespeare and everything he represents.” I go, “Actually, I think you hate everything he represents. I don’t think you will hate him. Let’s give him a chance.” And, you know, usually by the end of a play or two they’re like, “Yeah, this is actually pretty funny.”
Amanda: It’s not usually taught that way in high school, which I think is part of the problem, right? You came into your college where you’re really ready to explore this. You come in with, possibly, already this sort of hate for this peanut butter that you have to wade through and not a clear picture of it.
Nathan: Yeah, I show a map from the period. It’s a panoramic map of London, and it’s beautiful, incidentally. The theatres are labeled, and we can see The Globe, which is one of his theatres that he worked in, as you know. But we also know it’s mislabeled because it has two gables, not one. This is theatre history nerd stuff. It’s mislabeled as The Bear Garden because, I don’t know if you know. You must know this, but bear baiting was a thing. They would put a manacle around a bear’s neck in the middle of the theatre and then put the stake in the ground and so he’d be frozen there, and they would sic dogs on the bear, and people would bet on the dogs or the bear and make money. It was like dog fighting today or whatever. It’s horrific, right? Obviously.
Nathan: But it was all one. Once you crossed the London Bridge to Southwark, you were going to go to a bar. And oftentimes they didn’t know. “Are we going to go see Hamlet or are we going to The Bear Garden?” It’s all one. It’s cheap entertainment. Now, of course I’m not saying that they’re the same experience. I think one of them is morally terrible and should not have happened. But no one made that distinction. They either thought all that down there was terrible or all of that down there is great, but they didn’t make distinctions. Can you imagine a scenario where, “Oh, we’ll either go to a football game or watch Hamlet. Whatever’s happening, we’ll just, that’s what we’ll go see.” I mean, that would be a shocker.
Amanda: Well, isn’t that a little bit like, I feel like we’ve kind of come almost full circle, because your Instagram feed, granted, there’s algorithms and we’re trying to feed you more of what you want, but you really sit down, you open your phone, and what comes to you comes to you. And it might be cat videos. It might be a comedian, right? And some of the things you’re going to like, some of the things you aren’t. But it’s almost like we’ve come full circle to, “Just give me entertainment. That’s all I want. I just want it there when I want it, and maybe some of it I won’t like. But I want as much as I can get when I want it.”
Nathan: Yeah, that’s right. That sounds right to me. And actually, the old Puritans, they hated that stuff mainly because they saw it as a distraction. They were the only people – this is a sort of ironic move that my students are sort of appalled to discover, is that the only people that were really complaining about the bear baiting were the Puritans, who happened to also be complaining about Shakespeare. (laughs) Do you know what I mean?
Amanda: Yes. It’s all crude. It’s all beneath us.
Nathan: It’s just a giant waste of time. It would be like putting a theatre in your city is like building a casino. Like, “Here come all the flies to the poop.” Because they don’t take the world seriously or whatever. And of course, as a Christian, I cannot endorse that position wholesale, but I do think that it’s not clean back in the day where we know where the heroes are and where the bad guys are, because their sensibility is just different than ours.
Amanda: Right, and I think now that the world, it’s really moving faster, right? Like, the speed of change and technology is moving faster and faster, so it feels like, say, a generation gap. Instead of it being from grandparents to children, it’s almost like 10 years at a time things are so different you almost can’t compare, right?
Nathan: Yeah, that’s right, yeah.
Amanda: And I think we do that all the time. We go, “I can’t believe my grandpa used that word.” Well, when he was my age, the word he’s using was the right word to use. It was the correct, polite word to use. And that changes so fast.
Nathan: And there may not even have been other options.
Amanda: Yeah, right, exactly. And I think obviously there’s all sorts of prejudices baked in or by choice.
Nathan: Of course. Of course.
Amanda: But I think we need to give anyone who lived anywhere before us, give them a minute of thought that they were not handed the same tools that you were handed, right?
Nathan: Yeah, that’s right. You know, there’s a pedagogical, it’s also a theological method of applying essentially The Golden Rule, which is do unto others as you would have, right? So a hundred years from now, how would you want your legacy to be interpreted? Would you want it to be treated with the criteria that happens to be in vogue a hundred years from now or would you want the same charity given to you that you would give to someone who lived a hundred years ago? It’s the same for reading, actually. I think reading things, especially things we disagree with, can be a form of love, because the person you’re reading, they’re saying things that you can’t abide. Or you’re watching a program or listening to a podcast and you cannot bear the position that the person’s taking. This is an opportunity, actually, for love. And I don’t think most people see it (laughs) as an opportunity for that. They see it as an opportunity for something else, which is usually demarcating, drawing sides, getting angry, maybe even experimenting with some sweet hatred.
“I think reading things, especially things we disagree with, can be a form of love, because the person you’re reading, they’re saying things that you can’t abide. Or you’re watching a program or listening to a podcast and you cannot bear the position that the person’s taking. This is an opportunity, actually, for love.”
Nathan: And I think all of that is nonsense. I mean, for the Christian we should be actively invested in loving our neighbor, whether the neighbor is dead and long gone or just our actual neighbor whose position we can’t abide. These are all opportunities to love.
Amanda: I totally agree, and I think so often, something that helps me get over that, when the revulsion just …. They use vocabulary, they’re advocating for things that you’re like, “That’s crazy. How can anyone with a soul or a brain,” right? We have these reactions. But think for a minute about what is their ultimate goal? And if their ultimate goal is to keep our children safe, we have the same goal. We just have a completely different idea of how to get there. And I think that, to me, helps delineate, like, “This is an evil person” versus, “I highly disagree with their method of getting to our mutual goal.”
Nathan: Yeah. I think that’s right. I want to agree, but also slightly disagree on this point. So it would be something like if you use Christ on the cross as a really interesting moment where the goal is pretty clearly to have him killed because he’s causing problems. There’s something deeply just simply unjust about that, the whole thing. And no one, I think, would disagree. But the way that Jesus articulates forgiveness is just that they don’t quite know what they’re doing. So there’s still a level of ignorance that is important for him when he’s issuing forgiveness to the people who are actually killing him. It feels like a kind of both/and. Their endpoint is not a good one, but they actually also don’t know what —
Amanda: But their endpoint isn’t a – sorry, I’m going to just jump in and argue with you here.
Nathan: Yeah, go ahead.
Amanda: I would say of course the actual endpoint is wrong, right?
Amanda: Is abhorrent, like I said. But my assumption is, just like we do with Shakespeare and everybody else. My assumption, if I went back in time and talked to those Roman soldiers or whoever, their goal was to stabilize their society. Their goal was to stamp out this heretic that was going to lead people astray. So even though they were 100% wrong and their actions were abhorrent, I’ve been wrong too. I’ve been wrong about things that I was extremely passionate about because the end goal was right. So I think we can kind of … To me, it helps me let some people off that hook.
Amanda: Not excusing their actions in any way, shape, or form.
Nathan: Of course, yeah.
Amanda: But it keeps me from building up that bitterness in my heart, especially when it’s loved ones. Because it’s one thing to talk about Roman soldiers that are long dead and gone, right?
Nathan: Yeah, yeah.
Amanda: But I’m talking about someone at my church that comes up to me and says something as if we agree and I’m like, “I want to smack you right now.” To say, “Actually, we have the same goal. We are passionate about the same goal.” They just, in my mind, are extremely misguided about how to get there. And it helps me let them off the hook in that relationship.
Nathan: I think that’s right, and I think you’re right to mention, earlier when you mentioned the theatre as a place where we get to practice this, because when you take on a role, especially the role of someone who is doing bad things, which is almost every play has a couple of key folks that are doing things that you can’t endorse.
Amanda: And those are the most fun to play, usually.
Nathan: Always the most fun, yeah. But you end up kind of playing their solicitor, their lawyer. Like, “Let me give you a case, or a situation in which someone like this would act like that.” And so you can’t judge the character you’re playing. Your job is to play them in such a way that they seem plausible and their motivations seem reasonable, and in a similar circumstance, in a certain such time and place, you, too, may find yourself in such a spot as that. So yeah, I think that’s fair and right.
Amanda: Let me reference a fellow professor and mentor of ours, George Scranton, who was recently on the podcast. If you haven’t listened to that episode, I highly recommend it. But he talks about, really, his entire life and practice within his family, within his teaching, even within his pastoring church, that all story is intertwined in faith and all faith is intertwined in story, that you cannot separate those two things. You can’t tell a story without making a comment on faith, and you can’t have faith without investing in a story. And that seems kind of black and white and oversimplified, and yet the more I talk to him and the more you unpack it, I would say that is 100% true. So here we are a lifetime away from college, and now you teach this all the time. Would you agree with that statement now?
Nathan: Yeah. I would. But then I would suddenly and immediately defer all the good reasons to my great professor George Scranton, who would have very awesome and no doubt does have very awesome things to say about why that’s the case. I can totally see him saying that, and I can totally see, I mean, that’s his life, right? He’s lived it. And it’s a beautiful thing that he’s done for all of us.
I’ll endorse it by way of an anecdote. I now run this honors program, and one of the favorite things that the students tell me that I do is during midterms, when, especially as freshmen when they’re super stressed out …. They all live in the same dorm. I come to their dorm and they’re all ready at 9:30 in their pajamas and I take them somewhere on campus and there is cookies and milk and I read them children’s stories. And they love it so much. Talk about high concept, low execution. I just told you all that happens. There’s nothing more to it. And yeah, I might sing them a little kids’ song once in a while or something. But what’s so funny is I read these very simple children’s stories and the moment you do some version of “Once upon a time,” I mean, everyone is all in.
Amanda: You just go, “Aah.”
Nathan: “Aah,” yeah.
Amanda: Because I get it. I understand this. This makes sense to me.
Nathan: Yeah. And they’re already kind of in a fetal position because they’re so freaked out about their midterms, so it’s just like going back to the womb and listening to a story from mom or dad. So you start the story and it’s 10 pages long, but everyone relaxes into the fact that there’s going to be a shape to this thing. I know there’s going to be an endpoint, which will cast its light back on everything I’ve experienced so far. There might be a point in some kind of theme way, but maybe not. There’s going to be probably a dramatic conflict in some way. So there’s a bunch of very understandable received conventions like, “Oh my gosh, my kingdom for just a story,” because it feels so good to sort of just sink into one. All of that, and I’m sure George would say this smarter than I would, is a kind of net for them to sort of catch all their hopes and it is a kind of faith. There will be meaning. There will be a point.
Even writers, famously, who actively try to reject meaning-making in their stories, to my end, they’re not entirely successful because they never say …. They’re not actually conveying the sense that there is no meaning. It’s always in quotes, like, “Life is meaningless.” Well, it’s too late because you’ve already told us something that you think meaning is. Or that life is. Do you see what I mean? When you’re representing these things, you can never escape the frame that in here is meaning. Even if you want to rail against that fact, it’s still framed that way. Sorry. You don’t get to walk out of here and shrug your shoulders and nothing happened. Something happened, and it was that story, and it conveys meaning. And I think that’s why we love it so much.
What I mean by “meaning,” of course, is not like a …. Like Aesop’s fables convey meaning, and the meaning of those is usually the little point at the end. But I’m just talking about stories in general. The shape and contour and dramatic climax and the resolution, all that stuff, it feels — because it is — meaningful. To want to engage in that quite naturally, I think, is a kind of gesture of faith, for sure.
Amanda: The only way we ever make true change in our lives is when we change the story we’re telling ourselves, right? When we change the narrative. That’s the only time we ever make real change. And so when I hear anybody talk about meaninglessness, all the way back to Ecclesiastes, it’s not that life is meaningless, it’s that we’re putting meaning into too many of these little things in front of us, and if we would ignore these little meaningless things and keep our eyes on the bigger journey — the quest, if you’re a Hero’s Journey sort of person — then you can realize that I can get through these little things of now because I know there’s a transformation. There’s a climax. There’s a victory somewhere up ahead. So yeah, there’s something magical about story, and it’s why I think my whole life has been sort of built around telling stories, is because every time we tell a story that has a different outcome, a different idea, a different way the hero or heroine gets from point A to point B, we start to see that there’s more options for us. We start to see there’s more ways to get through our midterms or something much bigger than that.
Nathan: (laughs) Yeah, that’s right. What’s that quote? “I’ve lived a thousand lives and remain myself.” I mean, I think that’s what’s happening when we’re reading or witnessing stories.
Amanda: You might disagree with me on this, but I think one of the biggest changes that happens over those incredibly formative years of those typical college-age, 18 to 22, 24, one of the biggest changes is that you start to realize you are a part of something much bigger, that your little life doesn’t mean …. Everything’s not as important in the day-to-day and yet you can have meaning overall. One of my dad’s favorite quotes was, “I left home at 18 certain my father knew nothing. I returned home at 22 amazed at what he learned in four short years.” You start to realize that you maybe don’t have all the answers and then you can begin your quest for some new ones.
Nathan: Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean, it’s certainly no question it’s a transformative period. I have a version of that that’s similar, but maybe slightly different, which is that oftentimes when you go off to college, it’s where you start to run into people who have been doing it differently than you, and that becomes initially …. Well, oftentimes it can be repulsive at first, but you keep your manners and you would never say that. But over time, certain ways of being become more plausible to you. “Oh, I guess that is all ….” You know, it’s simple. Many of my students, and this is not unlike when we were at school, you’d go home with somebody else for a break or something, and they would have a weird breakfast. And you’re like, “Is this a thing? I guess this is how we’re eating in this house.” Simple things like that that suddenly, like, “Oh, wait a second.”
Amanda: I remember a family serving tacos with the hard taco shells, like come in a box, and I picked up my taco and started eating it. Everyone else at the table, and it was a pretty big family, squished it with their fork until it was crumbs and they ate it like a taco salad.
Amanda: I’m looking around like, “Is this a joke? Am I on Candid Camera? What is happening right now?”
Nathan: Yeah. I mean, it’s little things like that, but they accumulate into something bigger, like, “Oh, there’s another way of doing this thing. It’s not radically different, but it’s significantly different than what I’m doing.” And some of these become compelling, like, “Oh, hey, actually on this one point, my family really is weird. I thought this was the way to do it, but on this point, maybe we’re doing something kind of weird on our side of things.” College is great for that. It’s where you bump into others.
Amanda: So you’ve spent your career, really, with this age group, this time in life.
Amanda: Is it what we’re talking about? What is it about this age, this time that just fascinates you and has kept you all this time?
Nathan: Well, I suppose … I actually have never thought of this, so good job for an awesome question. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that it was really transformative for me and I loved it so much that maybe I never really fully wanted to leave. That’s probably true enough. Though I was in graduate school for such a long time, and a lot of that I was not with undergrads, so it’s not like I was just hanging out with undergrads all this time, but I came back around, of course, when I started teaching. Gosh, my favorite thing is to be in a room with students who are just earnestly trying to make sense of stuff, and trying to guide them through that in a way that’s charitable. Maybe I’m not letting them off the hook because there’s always easy answers, but that doesn’t work quite in this circumstance. What about this position? What about that position? Making them wonder, maybe for a long time, but, What does this guy think? Because he’s doing way too good of a job defending positions that are contradictory. How can he do that? So showing that there are a variety of positions and they’re not all one big happy family. There’s different ways to do these things. And then once in a while, sure, I’ll profess. I’ll say, “You know, you’ve still got to make decisions. You’re living a life. You’ve got to choose. You can’t just play the clever sophist who can argue any position. That’s no good either. But you have to move through that position to get to another one.” Walking with students in that process, man, I love it.
And then there’s the other one, too, which is, like, “I knew I wanted to be a doctor. I took Organic Chemistry. I hate it. I hate myself. What am I doing? Oh my gosh, my parents will be so disappointed.” I mean, I’m the guy for that. I’m like, “Yeah, let’s do this. Let’s walk through this. I know you’re crying. I’m seeing tears.” It’s the first time I ever saw tears, you know in the cartoons when the tears go out like this?
Amanda: Like spurt out of the person? (laughs)
Nathan: Yeah. I’d never seen that until I started teaching, and then (laughs) I was like, “Oh, that’s actually a real thing. Tears actually shoot.”
Amanda: “Oh, that’s real.”
Nathan: I did not make that comment in the moment. Very tactful. I did not make that remark. So some of it’s tough because big things are changing, and some of it’s just lovely, but it’s all good. It’s a great time to just …. I want to be that person in their life that they can trust and is thought to be helpful and encouraging. Yeah, I like that.
And maybe lastly, to not be sloppy about things. To really … It’s too easy to kind of, in a sort of undisciplined way, reject positions that I don’t hold, to blow this paper off because “What’s it going to do for me anyway?” To not take seriously a play that I saw because some guy made me watch it. You know, there’s a certain amount of rigor required to being a human being, and I try to motivate in a way, certainly more carrot than stick but, like, “Hey, let’s be human beings together and really take all of this seriously as opposed to just hitting the marks and getting on with it.” Obviously, for many who go to college, it’s like 13th grade. “I gotta do this. I don’t know why I’m here.” So motivating those kids, but also first-gen kids have a different set of concerns. Religious kids, Christian kids, non-Christian kids, all of it. I love them all.
“You know, there’s a certain amount of rigor required to being a human being, and I try to motivate in a way, certainly more carrot than stick but, like, ‘Hey, let’s be human beings together and really take all of this seriously as opposed to just hitting the marks and getting on with it.’ Obviously, for many who go to college, it’s like 13th grade. ‘I gotta do this. I don’t know why I’m here.’ So motivating those kids, but also first-gen kids have a different set of concerns. Religious kids, Christian kids, non-Christian kids, all of it. I love them all.”
Amanda: I remember that I was in AP English in high school and we had to read Hamlet, and it was one of those where we were supposed to have read the whole thing before we come to class to discuss it. And the teacher said, “First reactions, anybody?” And I know exactly who it is, so I won’t say the name. You know who you are. He raised his hand and he said, “I mean, I guess it was okay but it’s supposed to be, like, the best play ever but it’s so full of clichés.” And everybody … There was a pause and then just an eruption of laughter. And it’s not like we were mean kids, but it was just the funniest thing. And he’s looking around going, “What? What? I don’t understand.”
Nathan: Yeah, couldn’t imagine.
Amanda: Our teacher very, very sweetly said, “Well, honey, they weren’t clichés until Shakespeare wrote them. This is where the clichés came from.” And so I think sometimes we don’t realize what is the starting point of the person in the seat. Some people are coming there ready to just tear open all of their beliefs and reexamine all of who they are. And then there’s somebody else not realizing that, yeah, Shakespeare’s the one that said that the first time.
Nathan: Yeah, that’s right.
Amanda: And so it’s got to be hard to hold space for everything in between.
Nathan: Yeah. Everyone’s working through stuff. It’s a good thing to remember. In my best days, I’ll pray for my students when I’m driving into class, and it helps me focus on what I think they might be working through, because I can kind of tell … Most students don’t think this, really. There’s a lot happening on the face when you’re talking to them. And I can think, “Oh, those three people are bored and those three disagree,” and whatever. So your point is a good one. It’s an astute one, which is there might be a drift in a class that students are generally enjoying it or hating it or whatever, but everyone’s also, they’re on their own story here and I’m coming in, this guy with a beard, for three seconds to say something and then they go on. (laughs) So everyone’s got a story, you know what I mean? They’re on to something else.
Amanda: Do you ever entertain the thought that you are the George Scranton for these students?
Nathan: Oh (laughs) I wish.
Amanda: You said man with a beard, and I was like, “Oh my gosh. Look. You are to them …” Probably age-wise, I’d have to do math, but we’re probably the age now that he was when we were students.
Nathan: Yeah. Totally. I don’t have the beautiful white mane on the top of my head that he had, nor nearly the amount of idiosyncratic facial gestures.
Nathan: I wish I had the catalog that he had. Nor the rings. There are many things that separate us. But, um, yeah, I mean, I would count it lucky if someone thought that I was coming into their life at a particular moment and said the next thing they needed to hear. I think that’s the main thing. I mean, or gave them the next thing they needed to read. It’s not just whatever I say. In fact, it’s usually not what I say. But it’s move them along to their next space. That’s a beautiful thing. It’s a lovely vocation. I heartily endorse it.
Amanda: So let me ask you a really hard question to round us out here.
Amanda: What’s next? Will you do this until retirement or is there a phase three for you?
Nathan: I love it and could do it until I die. So that’s baseline. But April, class of blah-be-de-blah, can’t remember …
Amanda: April is your wife.
Nathan: Is my wife and we fantasize about any number of endings to this story we’re telling. Vintners growing wine grapes somewhere. Opening up a shelter. Having a beer garden and selling hot dogs. I mean, it’s literally all over.
Amanda: Yeah, you’re one way and then up and then back. Is the shelter for people or for animals? Just out of curiosity.
Nathan: People, for single moms that are trying to pull things off. My wife has a heart for that. And so do I. I mean, that’s lovely. But I actually think we’re going to land in some kind of zone where we create a hospitable experience where people feel warm and welcomed and they experience something that’s surprising and delightful. That could be an inn. It could be a conference center. It could be a reception center of some kind. Obviously this is a vague story, but we do love welcoming people into our house. We love cooking for them. In this sense, it’s very George Scranton, right? You can just hear George oozing out of my pores. He was the master at this, inviting people into his big, beautiful house and serving us little cheesecakes and whatever else. But wanting to create for people an experience of feeling both welcomed and then experiencing something beautiful and different. That’s got to be straight up theatre, doesn’t it?
Amanda: Well, I think that’s what we’ve been talking about the whole time is this idea of story and between your classroom and your house and what we’ve learned and where we’ve come from that almost some of the best things we can do in life is to bring people into a new story where they say, “Wait a minute, this is real.” Like going to somebody else’s house for breakfast, like you can eat bacon and eggs for breakfast. It doesn’t have to be dry cereal. It’s like you can be loved. You can give love. And if all you can do is show people a minute of that, that may be just enough for them to tell themselves a new story.
Nathan: That’s right. That’s right. That’s really good, Amanda. You’re very bright. Have we talked about this?
Amanda: (laughs) I didn’t pay him to say that.
Nathan: Inviting people into a better story that you’re trying to tell, better, different, more beautiful, interesting, curious, all that stuff. That’s the task, I think, before us. And then to not get dragged into certain pervasive cultural stories, which are always tired and cliché and divisive. I think it takes a lot of energy to resist that.
Amanda: Right, and they’re going to go away, like we talked about full circle.
Nathan: Yeah. They’ll change. Check in in another hundred years. It’ll be something else.
Amanda: They’re going to change, yeah, exactly, so why not invest in something eternal? Well, Nathan, this has been just so fun for me to reconnect with you after all this time.
Nathan: Amanda, yay!
Amanda: But I have to ask you our famous last question that we ask all our guests. So hold onto your seat.
Nathan: What is it?
Amanda: Here we go.
Amanda: If you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing differently tomorrow that would make the world a better place, what would you have all of us do?
Nathan: I do have an answer for that. I would commend them to listen again, even to those that they have long stopped listening to. Just listen again. Be patient. That’s it. I think that would be a beautiful thing, and I think it would, like a warm blanket, create a kind of new scenario on the ground for actual action.
Amanda: Yeah, and there’s something very simple, obviously, in what you said, but it relates to, I would say, your entire career. Why are we still reading Shakespeare? Because so many people have found nuggets of truth and joy that we’re going to read it again and we’re going to see what we see. Mark Twain, even something as, forgive me if I say silly, as the musical Annie, we’re still putting it on day after day after day after day. So what is it as a culture that we’re still trying to learn?
Nathan: Yeah, that’s right.
Amanda: We’re trying to listen one more time.
Nathan: Yeah, you have to listen again, yeah. That sounds right.
Nathan: You’re smart. Have we talked about this? I can’t even remember. I have a very short memory.
Amanda: Okay, well, yeah, you have to come on the show again now if you’re going to keep calling me smart.
Nathan: (laughs) Okay. As long as I sprinkle it with compliments. I’m all about it. I’ll do it. That’s fine.
Amanda: All right. Well, thank you so much, Nathan, and hopefully you will come back and join us again someday.
Nathan: Love it. Thanks, Amanda, for your time. Thanks for doing this.