Final Bryan Series speaker, Alan Alda, amazes crowds


Alan Alda, actor, director, screenwriter and author, served as the final Brian Series speaker for the 2016-2017 academic year and spoke on Thursday, April 6, 2017 at the Greensboro Coliseum. // Photo courtesy of Julie Knight.

On April 6, actor and science advocate Alan Alda regaled the audience with stories from his life in a presentation entitled “Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself” at the Greensboro Coliseum.

The final speaker of the 2016-2017 Bryan Series, Alda’s lecture was a series of humorous anecdotes regarding how he decided to live life to the fullest following a dangerous operation.

“I was euphoric at being alive,” Alda said. “I woke up the next morning (and) I saw colors I’d never seen before. Sounds were more vivid. I saw people’s faces so clearly. It was like I was seeing the world for the first time, and I didn’t want that to end.”

To recapture that sense of euphoria, Alda went through his memories in order to discover who he really was and what made him feel alive.

A recurring theme throughout Alda’s speech was the importance of communication and improvisation in his life, an appreciation he developed while traveling with his parents, who performed at burlesque theaters across the nation.

“The best thing for me was to stand in the wings and watch the comics do their sketches,” Alda said. “In the wings, I watched them create an illusion for the audience. You can realize when they depart from the script and take off on a riff.”

Alda believes improvisation is important because it forces you to be in the moment and do things that scare you.

“Improv was a wonderful experience because you got used to uncertainty,” Alda said. “You got excited by being scared. You learn that if you’re coming up on stage and you have nothing to say, you just reach into the dark and pull out an answer. It sounds mysterious, but if you have the nerve to do it, it actually works.”

A memory that Alda cited as making him feel particularly alive was a near-disastrous performance of “Guys and Dolls,” in which Alda, who had just learned the role a day before opening night, accidentally touched a cockroach onstage.

“That cockroach was the greatest acting lesson I’ve ever had,” Alda said. “It was reality. I felt onstage for the first time. I was real. The leading lady was real. The cockroach was real. That feeling of presence and spontaneity was so exciting to me. I was beginning to realize what I wanted out of this life that was given to me.”

First-year Leo Gibson appreciated Alda’s engrossing and conversational format, which was different than other Bryan Series events he has attended.

“I feel like I could listen to him talk for hours,” Gibson said. “He wasn’t trying to persuade or motivate us. Alda’s speech was more, ‘I’m going to entertain you with my life story.’”

Alda also did a Q&A session on campus in which he went into further detail about his work bridging science and communication. From 1993 to 2005, Alda hosted PBS’s “Scientific American Frontiers,” in which he would interview scientists about new technologies and discoveries in science and medicine.

“I wanted to learn from the scientists,” Alda said. “I personally really wanted to understand what they had to say about their work. It was a conversation where I was trying to understand, and if I didn’t understand, I would badger them until I did.”

Furthermore, Alda is a founding member of Stony Brook University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, wherein he helps develop programs that aids scientists in learning how to become engaging communicators.

Alda considers the ability to be personable vital in communication, scientific or otherwise.

“We teach scientists to really be there, and then be exposed to who they really are,” Alda said. “I talked to this group of medical students and I told them, ‘I hope you’re going to become the type of doctor who thinks about the patient as a person, and not as an illness or a room number.”

Following Alda’s presentation, Associate Vice President for Alumni & Constituent Relations Ty Buckner revealed the final guest speakers for the Bryan Series’ 2017-2018 season; former Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden.

“I am so excited for Joe Biden,” Gibson said. “I will buy tickets in advance. I can’t wait to attend.”

First-year Anthony Carr found Alda to be an engaging and skilled speaker.

“(Alda) focused on the art of communication, which I think is really overlooked. It’s incredible how he talks,” Carr said. “He’s just so open and human.”