Marshall Scholar 5 Questions with Avery Willis Hoffman

Avery Willis Hoffman — Program Director, Park Avenue Armory

  1. How did your experience in the UK impact your life?

I am very fortunate that the UK has been a strong presence for much of my life, beginning with the long tales of academic exploration, afternoon teas, shopping on Savile Row, and local pub rituals spun by my father who was also a Marshall (SOAS, 1963) and became a History Professor at University of Birmingham in the UK, at UC Berkeley and for three decades at Princeton University; continuing through my experiences at the Westonbirt School in Gloucestershire (on an English Speaking Union scholarship) where I sat for A-levels and periodically escaped the all-girls environment to watch polo matches at Prince Charles’s nearby experimental farm; through my Junior year abroad at Stanford-in-Oxford when I studied Shakespeare in Stratford, Greek in Athens, and Latin in Rome; and continuing with my Marshall experience at Balliol College, Oxford. British intellectual curiosity, intense academic rigor, mannerisms and vocabulary have permeated my very existence. There is no doubt in my mind that my UK experiences have fueled my passion for the arts, theater and writing, and heavily influenced my driving philosophy of art as social and moral action.

2. How did becoming a Marshall Scholar help get you to where you are today?

The Marshall Scholarship afforded me many opportunities during my stay in the UK and beyond. Not only did I meet scholars and artists from across the world, many of whom have become lifelong friends, but it also gave me the chance to represent my country at the highest levels. Learning the art of diplomacy may seem unnecessary for someone in the arts, but this skill has served me well in my time as Special Projects Manager at the Clinton Global Initiative and as Global Outreach Director for Jehane Noujaim’s TED prize winning film project, Pangea Day. This global perspective and experience broadened my worldview as a theatre director and curator and informed both my international opera and theatre projects with famed director Peter Sellars and my current work as Program Director at the Park Avenue Armory.

3. What was your fondest memory of the UK? (or time as a Marshall)

The annual Thanksgiving Dinner at Goodenough House in Russell Square, London was for me the most defining moment of each year: a joyous gathering of Marshall Scholars across the years filled with stories of a multitude of adventures, academic and otherwise. In the era when as Americans we were constantly called upon to defend President George W. Bush, explain the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, these gatherings were critical to our well being, our solidarity building and information sharing, and our strong sense of American identity.

4. What do you think was the biggest difference between British and American cultures and how did your experience shape your views on the relationship between the US and UK?

We often joke that we are two countries divided by a common language. I found this in many ways to be the biggest difference. During my Marshall, I spent my days in the Bodleian Library studying Ancient Greek tragedies, painstakingly translating numerous texts, paying close attention to the nuances of language and the perils of the choice-making required to translate into English. At night, our pub at Holywell Manor, Balliol’s graduate centre, provided a different type of exploration and linguistic debate. English, American, Australian, Pakistani, Canadian, Indian, Caribbean students alike wrestled, in often hilarious ways, with communicating the joys or challenges of the day, or the latest football or cricket outcomes, or reactions to a political moment that had taken over the news. Language united and divided us, daily. And whenever I returned home, my mannerisms and vocabulary, which I spent years honing in an effort to be a better communicator, were foreign to my American friends and family, except perhaps my father who had retained many of his Britishisms over the years and always had a sly wink in his eye when I would say something like “meet you in the lift, don’t forget your brolley, it’s pissin’ out!”

5. What would you say to students who are thinking about applying for the Marshall Scholarship?

Carpe Diem. Seize the Day. In many ways a cliche, but as a lifelong classicist I can confidently say that it is a motto well worth examining and following. I have advised Stanford students for many years on scholarship prep and always say this first. The exercise of putting together an application, gathering recommendations and, if lucky, interviewing is extremely valuable in the long run as a way to self-evaluate, articulate one’s skills, experiences, and dreams, and find the delicate balance between confidence and self-promotion.

About the Armory

Part palace, part industrial shed, Park Avenue Armory fills a critical void in the cultural ecology of New York by enabling artists to create — and audiences to experience — unconventional work that cannot be mounted in traditional performance halls and museums. With its soaring 55,000-square-foot WADE THOMPSON DRILL HALL — reminiscent of 19th-century European train stations — and array of exuberant period rooms, the Armory offers a new platform for creativity across all art forms.

Having served as the former home of the Seventh Regiment, Park Avenue Armory has transformed into a groundbreaking cultural institution that blurs the boundaries between high art and pop culture. Since 2007, the Armory has organized a series of immersive performances and installations that have drawn critical acclaim and popular attention working independently or collaborating with other cultural institutions. Among the highlights of its first six years are: Aaron Young’s GREETING CARD, a 9,216-square-foot “action” painting created by the burned-out tire marks of 10 choreographed motorcycles; Bernd Zimmermann’s harrowing DIE SOLDATEN, in which the audience moved “through the music;” the unprecedented six-week residency of the ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY in their own theater rebuilt in the drill hall; a massive digital sound and video environment by RYOJI IKEDA; a sprawling, gauzy, multisensory labyrinth created by ERNESTO NETO; THE EVENT OF A THREAD, a site-specific installation by Ann Hamilton; the final performances of the MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY across three separate stages; and the New York Philharmonic performing Karlheinz Stockhausen’s sonic masterpiece GRUPPEN with three orchestras surrounding the audience.

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