Michael Bobbitt delivering keynote address at Dean commencement

On Saturday, May 18th, 2024, Michael J. Bobbitt delivered the keynote address at Dean College’s 158th Commencement Ceremony, where he told the new graduates that “the world is waiting for your creativity, your passion and your leadership. What you are given today—what you have worked hard for—is something only a few people have access to. Do great things with it.” 

President Kenneth Elmore also presented Bobbitt with an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts at the ceremony in recognition of his distinguished career and activism.

Bobbitt currently serves as the Executive Director of the Mass Cultural Council, and in this capacity is the highest-ranking public official in Massachusetts state government focused on arts and culture. Governor Maura Healey recently appointed Bobbitt to serve on both the Governor’s Advisory Council on Black Empowerment and the newly established Massachusetts Cultural Policy Development Advisory Council.

But, beyond these achievements, Bobbitt is also a published playwright, an accomplished director and choreographer. He has received numerous awards for his contributions to the arts, including being invested into the College of Fellows of the American Theatre – one of the highest honors bestowed upon American theatre professionals – and a Kennedy Center Gold Medallion in recognition of his commitment to the arts and educational theatre.

We sat down with Bobbitt to learn more about his journey and the lessons he has learned along the way to help encourage the Class of 2024.

Q:  What inspired you to pursue a career in theatre and the arts? 

A:  I don’t know if there was one particular thing that inspired me because I think the arts can be more of a calling. I remember very vividly the first play that I was a part of, in first grade. There was a moment when the audience laughed during my performance and something inside of me clicked. In first grade, I didn’t know there was a career path I could pursue in the arts, but I did know that it was definitely something to which I was drawn. My favorite parts of school were going to art and music classes. So I kept doing it through elementary school, middle school, and high school. The trumpet was actually the thing at which I excelled and I was accepted into the National Symphony Orchestra’s Youth Fellowship Program at the Kennedy Center in DC. That experience exposed me to the world of what the arts could provide. My dream was to be a professional musician like Wynton Marsalis, so I gave it my all until midway through college. And then I pivoted and found my passion for dance and theatre. The idea of it being a job I could have, like we think of a job, didn't didn't quite click for me. Because it was this thing that I loved to do and I wasn't thinking about how to make money from it. I just wanted to do it. So again, that’s why I refer to it as a calling, because I don't know if I ever thought about it as a career or a job. Now, I know that it absolutely is a career.

Q:  Can you share any memorable experiences or productions that have had a significant impact on you?

A:  One memory was touring with the national tour of “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” It was one of the hardest things I've ever done because my job was the male swing and understudy and I covered 12 parts in the show—four dancers, five singers and three principal roles. When I wasn’t filling in for those roles, I learned so much about the big picture of putting on a production. I think that was the first experience where my brain stopped thinking so much as an actor, and began noticing how the show was put together and all the work of the designers, directors, and actors as a whole. Being in that show and seeing it from so many points of view expanded my love of theatre—from just wanting to be on the stage as an actor to wanting to explore other aspects like writing, directing, and choreographing.  

The second memorable experience for me was adapting a book written by Bob Marley’s daughter, Cedella Marley, into a new children’s musical called, “Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds,” which incorporated Bob’s songs. It was so much fun. I got to dig into Jamaican culture and lore, listen to Bob's songs, and create a whole new modern fairy tale. The piece sold out at the D.C. theatre where it premiered in 2013, and then it transferred to off-Broadway at the New Victory Theater in 2014. From there, it went on to a national tour and is now licensed by Concord Theatricals. The musical is currently licensed all over the country. I love seeing so many different types of people come to that show, people I wouldn’t normally see attending a musical. One day I remember looking out at the audience and seeing a lot of fathers with locks, who were cuddling up with their daughters, enjoying the show. It was a profound moment where I thought, ‘Yeah, theatre really is for everyone.’ 

Q:  As a playwright, director, choreographer, educator and leader, you have a diverse skill set. Are there any that you find most fulfilling and why?

A:  The job I have now is extremely fulfilling. When you're in a theatre production, you're only affecting those who see it. I've been in positions where I can affect anywhere from five to 15,000 people with one show. When I was artistic director, I could affect maybe up to 100,000 people during any given year. But, in this position as Executive Director of the Mass Cultural Council, I can affect millions of people, not only through the support that a state arts agency can give to artists and arts organizations, but also reaching all of the people who are enjoying arts, culture, and the humanities in Massachusetts. Now that we're focusing on cultural policy, creative economy, and a whole Commonwealth approach to the arts, the number of people that we can affect is boundless, and I know that the work we're doing is also having a national effect. It's just so fulfilling in a way that I never could have imagined. 

Q:  In your experience, how does theatre contribute to social change and community development?

A:  First, people like to gather and there's nothing like the arts to help bring people together. Theatre is a 4,000-year-old art form and the reason why it doesn't ever fade away is because it is a place where people can gather, enjoy each other, and connect. I don’t think there is anything like the arts which can help people feel a sense of belonging. I want everyone to see themselves and their cultures reflected in art. So to me, it's an essential health and human service and part of my dream and goal is to get everyone who lives, works, schools, and plays here in Massachusetts, to know that. As artists, we have this unique ability to put something in front of audiences that could change their minds about what they once thought or expose them to things and people to which they would never have had the opportunity before. So the arts are vitally important.

Q:  What advice would you give to aspiring playwrights, directors, or artists looking to make their mark in the theatre industry?

A:  First, respect the business, because this is as much of a business as it is a craft. Most of us are making the product to sell and to make a living. So our business acumen has to be on point and I encourage every person pursuing the arts to take some business classes. Second, become civically engaged. Art is quintessentially a social justice tool and we put the social justice aspect into our art, but we also need to talk about it in the public square. And so, I encourage all these young artists to understand how civics and politics work in your municipality, state, and in our country. Third, know your craft really well and know the rules so that you can break the rules and innovate. Fourth, create a life outside of the arts. The arts can be all-consuming. The healthiest people I know who are in the arts are those who are beautifully passionate about their jobs but they also have a life outside of their jobs. They have a family. They have friends outside of the industry, they have interests outside of the arts. I think that diversity of exposure is very beneficial for artists because they will bring that exposure and perspective back to their art. And my final piece of advice for young artists is to take care of yourselves. Develop a wellness practice early in your career, because if you can develop it now, you'll be healthier in the future.

Q:  What do you think are the best strategies to ensure equitable access to cultural resources and opportunities across diverse communities within Massachusetts, and beyond?

A:  Well, one of the reasons why the Mass Cultural Council exists as a state agency is that if there isn't public funding for the arts, then access to the arts is limited. Access would be relegated to corporations, foundations, and individual donors, and when that happens, then the diversity and access to  the arts could diminish. The more people can engage with their state leaders to make sure that the arts are publicly funded, the more this ensures accessibility to the arts. Oftentimes, arts organizations are designed with one demographic.  But, if we want to serve everyone, then our business models have to be designed by a diversity of demographics and leaders. Diversity is good for business. It's harder to flip and shift your targeted demographics afterwards, so it’s imperative that it be done from the beginning. If we believe that the arts should be for ALL, then when we build organizations we have to build them with ALL people in mind.

Q:  Do you have any advice for the graduating class of 2024?

A:  Live your best life! And don’t forget to find a self-care practice to help you deal with the bumps in the road. I would also urge you to embrace creativity as a hard skill, because I do believe it is going to be the wave of the future. I like to heed the words of some modern philosophers like Daniel Pink and Richard Florida who say that we're at the dawn of the creative age. We have invested in the technological age and the agricultural age and the information age. Now it's time to invest in the creative age, because that is what this world is going to need. So much of what is hurting us right now is polarization and we treat our opposers as if they are our mortal enemies. We need to start thinking of opposition as data and as an asset to help solve problems. Maybe it is a lack of creativity that keeps those polarized people at a standstill as opposed to finding solutions. So embrace creativity, practice creativity, and consume creativity, because it's only going to help you as a tool for the future.

Watch Bobbitt’s speech to Dean’s graduating class of 2024 below: