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Nathan Thomas

October 2012

My brother handed me a glass.  "Mr. Keyturn says for a percussionist, you really don't have a sense of rhythm."

(My older brother and I were in the same high school band – he in the brass section, and I banged away on a huge bass drum during marching season.)

Dr. Bristow mentioned to me, "Sometimes you don't really move well on stage." 

(I was a tenderfoot undergraduate at the time.)

Those two comments have largely motivated large portions of my working life.  I come from the Heartland.  Or Fly Over Country – depending on who is hoping to get elected to what office. 

And I'm a Protestant.  And, even though we are willing to stand strong on Sundays and confirm Justification By Grace, we have a sneaking suspicion that as God's Elect our Sinful Nature may cause us to be voted out of that High Office.  So Midwesterners work hard in a way that belies our belief in Grace. And we work to be nice.  This generally doesn't make us better people, it just makes us insufferable.

So instead of being offended by the criticisms above (I was a little hurt), I was motivated to learn about how I could learn rhythm and how I could learn to move better.  And that started me on a path to Russia, to Boston, to my dissertation, and to the work that I do with novice actors and musicians.

What motivates you?

This is a bizarre question that gets bizarre-er by the day.

As you read this the USA is in the downhill (literally and metaphorical) leg of the quadrennial presidential contest.  Some folks have cast their votes already.  And one of the bones of contention is what motivates people.

Mr. Romney has made the contention in an "off the record" speech (how can a presidential candidate think they're ever off the record anywhere at any time?) that a sizable minority of Americans are motivated by their feeling of victimhood and the desire to feed at the massive teat of "guv'ment" to support Mr. Obama.  We'll leave it to others to describe in entertaining detail Mr. Romney's blatant hypocrisy. 

Mr. Romney argues that raising the capital gains tax or income tax of the wealthiest Americans by a few percentages points will motivate those folks to invest less and work less hard.

As the liberals in the crowd start laughing at this notion and start talking about how the wealthy folks won't miss another 3% off the top, let's turn to American Education.

While raising taxes on the wealthy will impede investment (and, thus, economic growth), we've achieved the Accepted Wisdom that "throwing money" at education will not solve our education problems.  And that means we need to "tame" the evil unions that those teachers belong to.  Those evil teachers who obviously didn't teach me to write English good.

We need to attract the brightest and best to the teaching profession. But we're not to use money or the promise of job stability to attract the brightest and best.  The brightest and best will be motivated over the length of their career by something else.  We don't what that something else is – but it does appear to be something other than the negative motivational force of raising taxes on millionaires. So, I guess we can conclude millionaires are only motivated by money and our best and brightest teachers never are.

There scientific studies (I know they're scientific – computers were utilized in their production) that indicate that people really aren't motivated in their jobs by their salaries.  No, these folks are motivated by the desire to be productive people at what they do.  These studies tend to be pulled out at times when people want a raise.

Motivation is a funny thing for an actor.  Directors keep yelling at us that we need some.  We jump through mental games.  We study Stanislavsky and his descendents, hoping to understand this crazy thing.  How many thousands of acting classes and scene study classes and rehearsal rooms have echoed with the query, "Uhmmmm. .  . . what is your objective here?"

We want there to be an easy answer to that question.  We want to understand something about human nature in such a way that we can forthrightly say, "The motivation for this act is x." But look at history.  Look at your own human heart.

We can talk about Maslow.  We can talk about Freud.  We can talk about Marx.  We can talk about Hegelian forces working through societies and cultures and countries over time.  And they're great explanations.  Some of it rings true.

But some of it doesn't.  For every explanation of what motivates us as human beings, there's always a little bit that remains veiled.  Part of human nature is the great mystery of what motivates us to act – and to act as we do. It doesn't stop us from guessing and working at it.  But I wonder if we'll ever get to the pure distillation of human motivation.

And I'll wax fervently about something I want to talk about, and my wife will lightly put a hand on my knee and smile and say, "Sometimes Nathan gets a little excited."

And that motivates me to shut up.

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©2012 Nathan Thomas
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

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October 2012

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