Part Five: Featured Alumnus Mark Olshaker

To mark the beginning of June and as a nod to our 2009 graduates, this week GW English News will feature a five part interview with alumnus Mark Olshaker. A 1972 graduate of the English Department, Olshaker has put his B.A. in English to good use as a writer, Emmy-winner, theatre-goer, and intellectual. His experiences and opinions have been the subject of this week’s blog posts. The fifth and final post in our series covers Olshaker’s recent activities in D.C. and final reflections on his time at GW. If you’ve missed any of our previous posts on featured alumnus Mark Olshaker, you can find them here:
Monday: Student Protests and Student Journalism
Tuesday: Author of True Crime
Wednesday: Success in Film & Theatre
Thursday: Lessons from a Professional Dilettante

Part Five: Current Activities & Final Reflections
“There are very few things that I haven’t done once, and I’m not sure how many things there are that I’ve done twice.” In 2007, Olshaker became Executive Director of the English-Speaking Union of the Nation’s Capital. “Part of our mandate is to create international understanding through English, so being in Washington we’ve taken that to mean that we should try to find out what other people around the world think of us. We’ve started a program with various embassies around town, where we’ve sent our members… to embassies to hear what the ambassador or high official says about their position relative to the United States and relative to the world.”

The English-Speaking Union also collaborates with the Shakespeare Theatre Company: the groups jointly sponsor a competition among high school students to highlight the best recitation of the bard’s work. “We like to think that that helps keep alive the writer who’s certainly the most reliable guide to the human condition and the greatest practitioner of the English speaking language that we’ve ever had.” Olshaker’s love for Shakespeare can be traced back to GW professor Milton Crane. After having cultivated that love over the years, says Olshaker, “I now comfortably work with both the Shakespeare Theatre and the Folger. I’m sure a lot of that came from my English majordom.”

In addition to working with the ESU, Olshaker is chairman of the Cosmos Club Foundation, the non-profit arm of the Cosmos Club. “We give out grants to graduate students in various fields, and also bring in notable speakers in literature, in the arts and humanities, and in the sciences. Again, in a way that’s been an extension of my writing career, because I’ve gotten to meet and encounter some very interesting people… Wole Soyinka, from Nigeria, who is the first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. A brilliant man, and I got to spent three or four days with him just because of my position.”

GW is another D.C. institution that has benefitted from Olshaker’s involvement. “I’ve emceed a couple of Hatchet events over the years at the National Press Club, and I’ve certainly kept in touch with a lot of my professors over the years and, as long as they were alive and healthy, continued relying on them for advice and wisdom.” He thinks it is important for faculty to reach out to alumni, who are not educators by trade, and let them know how they can be a part of the educational process. “They asked Red Auerbach––who’s probably the greatest professional basketball coach in history and was an undergraduate at GW––‘How come you haven’t had more to do with the GW athletic department?’ And he said, ‘Nobody asked me!’”

“Jeffrey Cohen has reached out and asked me to participate, as has Tara Wallace, and I’m happy to do it when they ask… The cliché is that the only time we as alumni hear from the university is when they want money… but the people I went to college with, a lot of them became very accomplished and very interesting people, and I think a lot of them would be willing to get involved on any number of levels if they were asked.”

This month, Olshaker will fly to London to see Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan in Waiting for Godot––a play that reminds him of his time at GW. “I’ve worked with both of them a couple of times, and the last play I was ever in was Waiting for Godot here at GW in the experimental theatre program. I was Vladimir, and I went on to nothing after that. The guy who played Estragon is named Lenny Wolpe… and he’s currently on Broadway in Wicked. He’s had a very long, good career in acting, so I guess he used the drama department in the same way I used the English department. I told Patrick I’m looking forward to seeing it; I’m anxious to see if he’s as good a Vladimir as I remember myself being many years ago in experimental theatre. He may even be better, most likely; if he’s not, there’s something wrong.”

While Olshaker’s fondness for Beckett’s play might not have waned over the years, his opinion of other works has not remained constant. “Part of liberal arts is being open-minded enough to know when your mind changes… When I was in school here, of the people that we read seriously, two that I could not abide were Henry James and Anton Chekhov. I just found them both hopelessly tedious. Today, forty years later, I still find Henry James remarkably tedious, whereas Anton Chekhov, the longer I’ve lived and the more family involvement I’ve had… I realize how profound and great a writer he is.”

Olshaker’s final recollection from his undergraduate experience should appeal to current English majors. “I managed to get through four years of English majoring here at GW without writing a paper with a single footnote. I just decided that wasn’t interesting to me, that’s not the way I was going, and I… just convinced each professor that what I had to say would be more interesting if it were my own opinion rather than somebody else’s. Looking back on it, it seems kind of a dubious proposition, but it sounded good at the time and I got away with it.”

“Not to be too flippant about this, but part of being in college is finding out what you can get away with, finding out what the shortcuts are, finding out how you do a body of work on your own terms, rather than just having the teacher tell you exactly what to do. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

Thank you for reading our five part series on Mark Olshaker. For more about distinguished alumnus Mark Olshaker, you can also view his profile at the Internet Movie Database and read a 1998 article about him in the Washington City Paper. Or, learn more about the projects and people Olshaker has worked with by following the hyperlinks I’ve provided throughout the series.

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