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Comedian Reed Martin sends off Sonoma’s class of 2018

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Reed Martin

Reed Martin is a writer and performer with the renowned Reduced Shakespeare Company – a three-man comedy troupe that takes long, boring topics and turns them into short, sharp comedies. He earned a BA from UC Berkeley, an MFA in Acting from UC San Diego, and is a graduate of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Clown College. He has performed twice at the White House, as well as in Madison Square Garden, London’s West End, Off-Broadway in New York, and in forty-six states and eleven countries. Reed has written for National Public Radio, the BBC, TBS, the Washington Post, and Vogue Magazine. He has been seen on all the major television networks and has published nine scripts and three humorous non-fiction books. Raised in Sonoma Valley, Reed attended El Verano, Prestwood, and Altimira schools before graduating as co-valedictorian of the Sonoma Valley High Class of 1978. This was his speech to the class of 2018 at graduation on June 4.

Graduation is a time when big changes are afoot. Tonight is the 40th anniversary of my graduation from Sonoma Valley High School. And believe me, in 40 years a lot of things have changed.

When I went to Sonoma High way back in the ‘70s our country had little confidence in an unpopular and ineffectual President. The San Francisco 49ers had suffered through a number of bad seasons, but seemed like they were on the verge of turning things around. Locals complained that Sonoma was growing too quickly and had lost all its small town charm. And it’s hard to believe now, but in those days high school students called our beautiful town “Slow-noma” and complained that there was nothing to do here.

It is true that I was co-valedictorian of the class of 1978. But to be fair it was much easier to do well in school in those days. Take history class for example. Back then it was much, much easier to get an “A” in history because there was so much less of it to learn. In the 1970s, AP classes had a different name. They were called “college.” My wife Jane, who teaches English and drama now at Sonoma High, did not teach at the high school 40 years ago. In fact, she insists that she had not even been born then. When I went to Sonoma High, Chet Sharek was not the name of a plaza with a statue of a Dragon in the middle of it. He was our vice principal. Mike Delong was not the name of the school library. He was the beloved chairman of the English Department. And Dean Knight was not a science teacher. Well, actually he was. Mr. Knight was actually my science teacher for two years at Sonoma High. That’s true.

I’ve been asked to share some words of wisdom I’ve learned over the past 40 years, but as I thought about it I realized I don’t have any words of wisdom. I mean, come on. For goodness sake, I’m in show business – remember? What useful advice could I possibly offer other than to suggest you get a reality show and then run for president? Fortunately, though, I was raised by two wonderful parents – Don and Mary Martin – and taught by countless hardworking teachers here in the Valley who imparted some valuable lessons that have proven useful over the years. I remember sitting where you are on the night of my graduation and being afraid of what was ahead, afraid of the uncertainty of the outside world, wondering what I was going to do with my life. So I decided like so many students before me to take the safe route after high school. I went to Cal Berkeley and studied political science and dramatic arts. Then, as most of you will probably do, I took a term off and went to Professional Baseball Umpire School and spent a season as a professional minor league baseball umpire. After graduating from Cal, I got a master of fine arts from UC San Diego. And after living in New York City for a year, I made the safe and predictable choice of running away to Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey Clown College and then toured the country for two years as a clown and assistant ringmaster. In 1989, I left the circus and joined the Reduced Shakespeare Company.

Reed Martin

Reed Martin is a writer and performer with the renowned Reduced Shakespeare Company – a three-man comedy troupe that takes long, boring topics and turns them into short, sharp comedies. He earned a BA from UC Berkeley, an MFA in Acting from UC San Diego, and is a graduate of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Clown College. He has performed twice at the White House, as well as in Madison Square Garden, London’s West End, Off-Broadway in New York, and in forty-six states and eleven countries. Reed has written for National Public Radio, the BBC, TBS, the Washington Post, and Vogue Magazine. He has been seen on all the major television networks and has published nine scripts and three humorous non-fiction books. Raised in Sonoma Valley, Reed attended El Verano, Prestwood, and Altimira schools before graduating as co-valedictorian of the Sonoma Valley High Class of 1978. This was his speech to the class of 2018 at graduation on June 4.

OK, so maybe I didn’t take the safe route after all. I think that was the result of some advice my folks gave me when I was growing up. I felt awkward. I was worried about fitting in, about being normal. They told me to just be myself and not to worry about being “normal.” I believe their exact quote was: “Normal is boring.” They encouraged me to not always make the safe choice.

My parents also encouraged me to find a profession that I loved because I was going to be doing it for a very long time. They believed that if you do what you love and the money will follow. Or, as mythologist Joseph Campbell put it, “Follow your bliss.” For example, if your passion is kick-boxing, but you’ve been offered a full ride scholarship to Harvard to study bio-engineering – choose kick-boxing. Your parents will understand.

Life is about making choices. Just make them. Don’t be paralyzed by a fear of failure. You’re not always going to be right. So what? Thomas Edison made a thousand light bulbs that didn’t work before he made one that did. He didn’t consider them failures. They were lessons learned. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Whether they’ll admit it or not, everybody makes lots of mistakes. It’s far, far worse to allow yourself to be frozen by indecision, to go about life passively. Make choices. See how they go. Then change course. If you haven’t made some bad choices, then you haven’t made enough choices. Change is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. In fact, the only constant in life is change.

I make a major part of my living as a writer and I constantly use a piece of advice I got from a wonderful teacher I had at Sonoma High named Joel Cole who was our advisor when I was editor of the Dragon’s Tale newspaper. I’d be trying to figure the perfect angle for a story or the ideal opening sentence and as a result I wouldn’t have anything written down. He told me to forget about inspiration and just get started. And not to be married to my first draft because it was going to change. Hey, there’s that word again – change. Mr. Cole told me that once I had a rough first draft I could begin rewrites, which were far easier. And the longer I write, the more I am convinced of the wisdom of his words. Writing is rewriting. Life is like that. You rewrite as you go.

As a playwright I have a feeling of exhilaration and trepidation as I sit down to start writing a script. I turn on the laptop and stare at a blank screen knowing that performances have already been booked and that I’m going to be up on stage performing this show in less than a year and that I haven’t even started writing it yet. It’s intimidating. So rather than worrying about the end of the journey, I simply begin it. I write a word, then a sentence, then a paragraph, then a scene. And before I know it, I have 90 not particularly funny pages. But then I start to rewrite and cut this and tweak that and move this and condense that and 12 months later we have a play. It’s always the result of a little bit of inspiration and a lot of perspiration. Like most worthwhile things, writing is mostly about having the discipline to put in the time, day after day, month after month until you are finished.

For tonight’s graduates, your life ahead is an empty screen. Start writing.