At Lied Center, Alan Alda discusses the importance of clear communication and ‘the night that changed my life’
photo by: Mike Yoder
Alan Alda was at an observatory atop a mountain in Chile 16 years ago when what started as a tickle in his gut turned into an intense pain.
“I want to tell you about the night that changed my life,” Alda, 83, told a sold-out audience Monday night at the Lied Center, as he began the story.
He was transported from the observatory to a small village, where a physician informed him that some of his intestine had gone bad, and that he would need to cut out the bad part, and sew the two ends back together.
“I said, ‘Oh, you’re going to do an end-to-end anastomosis,'” Alda said. “He said, ‘How do you know that?’
“I said, ‘Oh, I did many of them on M.A.S.H.'”
Alda is an actor, writer and director, best known for his portrayal of Hawkeye Pierce on the television series “M.A.S.H.”, which followed a team of doctors at a mobile army surgical hospital unit in South Korea during the Korean War.
Besides the fact that the physician saved his life, Alda explained that the reason this night changed him was because he learned about the importance of clear communication.
“(The physician) crystallized something that I was beginning to understand about communication,” Alda said. “He spoke in the plainest terms. He didn’t dumb it down … He said it so that I could get it.
“I was the one that spoke in the funny language, trying to get a laugh out of the doctor on the death bed.”
Alda has a passion for science, and he is a founding member of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which develops programs that help scientists communicate with the public.
On Monday night, he discussed the importance of teaching people how to communicate their expertise in language those unfamiliar with the subject can understand, especially as it relates to science.
Throughout his lecture, Alda practiced what he preached. He stood in the center of the stage, noting that a lectern buries the speaker. The two times he invited audience members on stage, he introduced himself, as if they didn’t know the name of the man whose lecture they chose to attend.
“I’m Alan,” he said, shaking the participants’ hands. The audience cackled.
photo by: Mike Yoder
Clear communication necessitates full engagement with the other person, he noted.
At his Center for Communicating Science, the first thing his participants do is improvisation. It’s to get them accustomed to relating to other people. Then, the participants receive help tailoring the message they want to relay to their audience and are trained for media interviews. Alda said he gives the money he receives for lectures to the center.
Alda said his experiences acting prepared him to work with scientists.
“I realized all my experience in acting on stage was making me get ready for this moment when I am trying to understand the scientist,” he said.
Throughout his career, Alda has won seven Emmys, six Golden Globes, three Directors Guild of America awards for directing and the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award for career achievement and humanitarian accomplishment. He was nominated for three Tonys.
Alda is the only actor on “M.A.S.H.” whose character appeared in all 256 episodes. Besides acting, Alda also wrote and directed some episodes, including the series finale, a two-hour feature film titled, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.” More than 100 million people tuned into the episode, making it the most-watched episode of television to date. According to a 1983 story from United Press International (UPI), 1 million New Yorkers used their toilets at the end of the program, sending 6.7 million gallons of water into the city’s sewers. UPI coined the episode a “royal flush.”
Prior to acting in the series, Alda had firsthand experience in war — he joined the Army Reserve after college and completed a six-month tour in Korea.
Alda grew up in the Bronx, N.Y. He survived polio as a child, a topic he discusses in his memoir, “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed (And Other Things I’ve Learned),” which is one of three books he has written. He also wrote a play, “Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie,” which nods to his passion for science. In 2006, he was the recipient of the National Science Board Public Service Award.
Alda is currently a visiting professor in the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University.
Before he walked off stage Monday night, he turned to the sign language interpreter on stage to his right.
“By the way, nice to meet you,” he said.
Alda’s lecture was presented by the University of Kansas’ Hall Center for the Humanities.