Alma Mater, nurturing mother, is the honorific for a school that held a student in her undivided attention and care, where the student learned the skills that provide a way to proceed in life as an adult: to support herself, to contribute to society, to leave something behind of lasting value. The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre was my first Alma Mater. She taught me how to act reliably, she helped me find my voice. I have two other Alma Maters: Empire State College of SUNY, who helped me complete a Bachelor’s Degree as a self-supporting grown up, and Columbia University who challenged and educated me in the most comprehensive and competitive field of filmmaking. I loved these schools and my experience in them. Empire State College pursued me immediately to give back, with letters and phone calls. And I was very grateful indeed for all the future study her degree made possible, and for her accommodation to my career as an actress which interrupted my course work frequently with out of town assignments weeks at a time. ESC never gave up, she endlessly rescheduled, redefined, met with and encouraged me. She wanted me to succeed with all my goals. And when I decided I wanted to go to graduate school, ESC’s endorsement facilitated my entry into one of the best graduate film schools in the world. But I didn’t give back to Columbia University right away. They pursued me, but the tuition was so expensive that I had to sell my co-op to eliminate my debt. I felt Columbia got more than enough money from me. But then I started to teach. I started working in the service of an Alma Mater, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. UNCSA is a state school, with limited resources and a relatively reasonable tuition for gifted student artists. The legislature changed parties in 2010 and funding was cut severely, programs and facilities were curtailed. I was in charge of beginning an in house Acting for Camera line of courses, which needed equipment. My tax advisor suggested I make a donation to the school and earmark it to support the camera classes in the School of Drama. This was in the pre-Trump tax law era. I was able to take my donations off the top of my gross income in full. So instead of only paying Uncle Sam I was also supporting my own students. And I also started supporting Columbia’s, and Neighborhood Playhouse’s as well. I still give to all my Alma Maters - not as much, as now I’m retired on a fixed income, and we still can’t take gifts to education off the top of our taxable income. But If your mother needs a new set of clothes, or a medical procedure or a new washing machine, whatever, she must not go without. The camera courses in the School of Drama completely depended on my gifts/tax deductions to maintain the necessary equipment for the courses I taught. Plain and simple.
I recently directed a play at my first Alma Mater, the Neighborhood Playhouse. I hadn’t spent any real time in the classrooms and theatre there since I was a student in 1971. I was stunned to see how much it remained the same. Sure, the 1930s evocation is inspiring upon entry, but as an institution of higher learning if falls far short of the universities which have taken up the role of conservatory training these days. What they teach at the Playhouse is still the absolute real deal as far as acting training goes, but there is no added value to depriving actors of a state-of-the-art facility. Think of how much better prepared they would be when entering the profession if they have been playing with the all the tools, bells and whistles currently in use.
So,I’m addressing current alumni and graduates, the future alumni. Give back, now, with your first job, earmark a check to your mother to buy herself something. And keep on giving. Bread cast upon the waters comes back a thousandfold.
I see it with the students I taught at UNCSA. Graduates that I have taught have given back tens of thousands of dollars every year, and they keep on working, more and more. That’s how giving works. Ask your birth mother, if she’s still living, if the more she gives you the more gratified she is. My late mother assured me of that our whole life together. Begin today. You will benefit immediately, as will yours.
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