Aspen Institute Arts Program Hosts Actor Alan Alda

November 5, 2013

Erica Sheftman is projects manager of the Aspen Institute Arts Program, where she manages a series of projects connecting artists, policymakers, and communities around critical issues at the intersection of the arts, education, healthcare, urban development, and diplomacy.

The Institute’s Arts Program Director Damian Woetzel sits in conversation with actor and advocate Alan Alda.

“I think that good writing, or a good theatrical experience, ought to be an immersive experience that helps you go through what it’s like to be a human in a tough spot with other humans,” said actor and advocate Alan Alda in a recent conversation with Aspen Institute Arts Program Director Damian Woetzel at New York’s Asia Society and Museum. “If I were going to do a story about war — well, I did do a story about war — I didn’t hope to convince anyone of anything. I only wanted the audience to go through the experience of feeling what it’s like to be in that relationship with somebody where you cause their death. How does the audience feel, identifying with that character?” 

Throughout the evening, Alda addressed the politics — or rather anti-politics — of some of his greatest roles, including that of Dr. Hawkeye Pierce on the beloved hit series “M*A*S*H.” The show debuted in 1972 as a comedy about a mobile surgical unit in Korea, but was soon seen by many as a forum for discussion and commentary on the concurrent Vietnam War, and war in general. 

Despite Alda’s “antipathy to propaganda,” the actor admitted that his work on screen — as Hawkeye, in particular — remains relevant to this day. He referenced the current drones debate while recalling filming a scene for one of the final episodes of “M*A*S*H,” in which a child is killed accidentally by his mother in an attempt to quiet him and avoid capture.

“That’s one of the powerful images of war… It’s happening now — the children who are accidentally killed in surgical strikes that don’t even seem to be worth mentioning,” Alda said.

Woetzel cited Alda’s great commitment to creating identifiable characters as the ideal for all art: “the transference of empathy.”

The discussion, entitled “All We Have Is Now” (inspired by a memorable Alda quote paraphrasing Marcus Aurelius) — was part of a continuing Arts Program series celebrating organizations, programs, and artists committed to the practice of “citizen artistry,” or social engagement beyond traditional performance. Woetzel deemed Alda — who actively champions numerous causes, including women’s rights, and has received the National Science Board’s Public Service Award for his work in the realm of science — “a true citizen artist.”

Highlights from Alda’s career on screen were rolled: from a scene in Woody Allen’sCrimes and Misdemeanors,” in which Alda’s character proclaimed that comedy was an equation of “tragedy plus time,” to a segment from the memorable Live Presidential Debate from Season 7 of “The West Wing.” Displaying his renowned razor-sharp wit and unmistakable charm, Alda discussed his interaction with his characters, many of which were enmeshed with the politics and civic dialogue of their time. He drew the link for the audience between his experiences as an actor and how they inspired him to take action in other fields.

The actor also explained his motivation for founding the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. “I didn’t understand the jargon. It’s important as far as the scientists are concerned,” he said of his efforts to integrate communications coursework into the university’s science curriculum and improve the ability of budding scientists to convey their discoveries in accessible and productive ways. “The public, and Congress has to fund them, or they can’t do their work. In order to collaborate with other scientists, other scientists have to understand it. And that’s just so that science can happen.

“But from my own personal point of view, I want to be able to understand this, because this is maybe the most glorious human achievement. To be divorced from it, to have it be done by priests in white coats, and for me to not understand enough to get something out of it, is a waste. Science is the poetry of the universe… and it’s a human activity, done by people who have passion, envy, desire — all the human attributes that we have. I want to see that I’m like them and they’re like me, and I want to latch on to what they’re doing.”

Through his work with the World Science Festival and as part of his job hosting the PBS Series “Scientific American Frontiers,” Alda has on numerous occasions called on scientists to develop engaging and artistic ways to explain their work. Woetzel — who noted that he felt similarly about art — pressed Alda on his efforts to meld his work in the arts and science in increasingly impactful ways. Alda agreed: “We teach students to improvise, the same way we would teach actors. Not to make the scientists actors, but to bring out the real them, to get them to relate to who they’re talking to, so that there’s a real one-to-one relationship with the people they are communicating with.”

To illustrate his point, Alda challenged Woetzel, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, to walk steadily across the stage of the Asia Society’s Lila Acheson Auditorium with an overflowing glass of water. To see how Woetzel did, go to the 35-minute mark of the video above.

The panel closed with 15 minutes of questions from the audience and a touching moment from the last scene of “M*A*S*H,” shot in 1983 and watched by 77 percent of the television viewing audience, which remains the most watched finale of any television series. 

“It feels like it happened to someone else,” Alda said, “…and fortunately he lets me live in his house.”