fbpx Michael Cerveris ’79 | Phillips Exeter Academy

Michael Cerveris

Year of Graduation: 
1979
Michael Cerveris ’79

"It’s that small lighted place in the darkness where I feel most at home to this day."

Editor’s note: Below are excerpts of the keynote address delivered by actor Michael Cerveris ’79 at the grand opening of the Goel Center.

“As I walked to the campus yesterday, I had an extraordinarily vivid memory of my parents’ car pulling away with my little brother in the back seat, feeling like the only things I knew in the world had just disappeared down Front Street. My family has always been very close, and it was especially difficult for my father, from an Italian family, to conceive of leaving his child two long days’ drive away from home. But as teachers themselves, he and my mother made the sacrifice, because they felt my education was more important than their hearts’ ease.

“I, however, was not at all sure. This place, I don’t need to tell any of you, is intense. I felt like a fish in the Gobi Desert I was so far out of water. Here I was, this relatively long-haired kid from West Virginia, learning to tie a tie (something I’d never had need to learn), and further, learning to do it while running late to class. I didn’t have the thickest accent, but I didn’t sound like most of my classmates. More importantly, I struggled to catch up to thinking like them. Everyone seemed to know where they were going and what they were doing. Classes moved so quickly, everyone was talking about grades and colleges. I felt like the slow kid everyplace I went. And I was as miserable as I thought humanly possible.

“And then came the auditions for the first play of the year.

“It was Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. And I can still remember climbing the carpeted steps in the Fisher Theater and walking onto the darkened stage, lit (at least in my memory) by a ghost light and maybe a small, dim spotlight. Standing there on the bare stage, I did my monologue, and suddenly, for the first time since I’d arrived, I knew where I was. On that bare stage, I felt like I was standing on solid ground again. I wasn’t the most skilled actor there, not by any means, but I knew how this world worked. I knew how to challenge myself here, what the rules were and what was expected of me. And I knew it mattered to me to be there.

In the end, I won the not-especially-coveted role of Angelo the goldsmith. And while his five plot-advancing lines of dialogue were hardly an auspicious start, they gave me something that affected the course of my time at Exeter, and consequently, the rest of my life. That small part on that humble stage gave me a home, a tentative foothold in this dizzying place. From it, I slowly learned to keep pace (more or less) with my peers. I figured out how to survive and eventually thrive here, and I ended up leaving with, I still believe, the finest education one can have. That sense of realizing my home on that empty stage is one that has accompanied me from basement studio theaters in the East Village to Lincoln Center and Broadway. It was very much a part of what I tried to express in a somewhat rambling acceptance speech for my second Tony Award a few years ago. It’s that small lighted place in the darkness where I feel most at home to this day. Not for the light it shines on me, but for the space it makes for us to push against the darkness around us.”

Watch the full keynote: